It was so much fun rewatching Gaksital. And surprisingly tense! Even knowing what was about to happen barely lessened the power of the cliff-hangers. And it made me appreciate how well-woven the story was. Character choices were well foreshadowed. So well, in fact, that there was almost a sense of inevitability to the paths chosen — tragic or heroic.
I watched this with my husband (first time for him) and he really, really enjoyed it. (We had much later nights due to Gaksital; you cannot watch just one episode.) Something that surprised me was he was able to predict the outcome of Kang-to’s and Mok-dan’s wedding. But it was more his method of prediction that surprised. (The wedding had doom written all over it, frankly.)
Throughout the show the husband commented on Shunji’s less than stellar shooting abilities. To quote him, “Shunji can’t shoot for shit.” He also said that, contrary to the popular saying that a well-prepared person brings a gun to a knife fight, Shunji should stick with the knife (or sword). Because while Shunji was generally useless with a gun — he was deadly with a sword. So when Shunji was preparing to crash Kang-to’s and Mok-dan’s wedding, and he unholstered his gun, the husband knew Mok-dan was dead. His reasoning? Shunji was going to aim for Kang-to (obviously) but since he can’t shoot, he was going to hit Mok-dan.
Which amused me — but also got me thinking. Because waaay back in the beginning, when Shunji first started hunting Gaksital (possibly even before he’d committed to the uniform — it’s in episode 11 when he was still kind of wavering) he actually successfully captured Kang-to. In the gardens of the gisaeng house, when Kang-to is escaping after killing the banker-dude, Shunji goes after him with his sword and fights him to a standstill — his sword at Kang-to’s neck. Kang-to was either captured or dead… until Koiso distracts Shunji with a wild gunshot.
I may well be reading too much into this (it’s a thing I do) — but it strikes me that putting his sword aside, the weapon he was good at and obviously respected, and picking up the police officer’s gun, Shunji was cutting off an important part of himself, weakening himself. Why? Perhaps it was yet another way he tried to keep a piece of himself pure? That he might be tainted by what the uniform, and his revenge-quest was making him do — but not his sword. If true, I don’t see this as a conscious or recognized choice on Shunji’s part — not like his obsession with Mok-dan. I think it was probably more his attempt to embrace every part of being a police officer — and police officers use guns. But the result was he hampered himself with a weapon he wasn’t very good with.
Another thought I had (all by myself this time), has to do with circles of caring. It was interesting how large or how small characters drew their circle — and how that changed over the course of the drama.
Mok-dan, unsurprisingly, didn’t change much at all. Her circle of caring was huge. She didn’t just care about her father, or even just her fellow circus members. She cared about the entire country of Korea. Which meant she was willing to risk everything (including her father) if it meant Korea’s freedom. And since Mok-dan was the drama’s ideal, you could tell how well a character was doing, morality-wise, by the size of their circle.
And, just as unsurprisingly given their character trajectory, Kang-to starts small but grows to be just as big as Mok-dan, Shunji starts large and shrinks. Though it’s interesting that Shunji’s large circle of caring is untested — it doesn’t really hurt him to be good to everyone around him no matter their nationality. (It’s also completely unsupported by his family.) And when his circle shrinks, it hurts him (his madness and frustration). But he keeps on pulling it tighter and tighter until there’s nothing left but him — at which point he kills himself.
Whereas Kang-to made a conscious choice to go small and care for only his brother and mother (doing whatever it took to earn money to care for them and hopefully cure his brother). It hurt him, too. You could see that especially when his circle began to grow and you could feel his character relaxing, even as his life became more and more dangerous.
Most interesting, to me, was Rie. Trauma made her draw her circle down tight as well (as it did for Kang-to and Shunji). She cared for herself, and herself alone, by tying herself to the most powerful man she knew, doing all she could to maintain both his power and his protection of her. It was through her interactions with Kang-to (and even Mok-dan, which I liked — unusual in a drama for a second lead female to gain conscious character growth through contact with the main female lead) that she started to question why people enlarged their circle.
But I think it was also through watching Shunji’s descent into madness that she started to realize there was a danger in keeping her circle too small. Certainly she reached a place where she cared enough for Kang-to to put herself in danger to protect him. And that (incredibly awesome, heartbreaking, but also uplifting) final scene with Katsuyama confirmed her growth by her selflessly letting him go.
In the end, I think Gaksital was a cleverly disguised morality tale, showing the strength of good (selflessness, fairness, etc.) over evil (greed, rage, etc.). The incredible fight scenes, careful storytelling, and well-fleshed characters made it a tale well told. I still found it got bogged down towards the end with too much talking and too little action. But the final episode brought us an action-filled, incredibly satisfying ending. Well worth the rewatch.