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Weeaboo Wednesday: What the Manga of a Country Says About it; or, I make crude generalizations about subtle cultures deserving of respect; hopefully people will get really angry and drive more traffic to this site

June 18, 2009

i know it's thursday. but i was writing for like three hours and then wordpress destroyed my post. i do not fucking joke.

It is, of course, totally wrong for me to talk about a country’s manga, since only one country can claim to have manga, and that country would be Glorious Nippon. Comics in that style written and distributed in China are called manhua; in Korea, they are known as manhwa.

Today’s column will feature sweeping and poorly justified generalizations based on the offensively unscientific sample of the manhwa section of onemanga.com.

It may strike some of you as strange that this post focuses on Korea, especially in light of the fact that word weeaboo (as used here) stems from a forum filter on the portmanteau “wapanese”. On the internet, “weeaboo” is a pejorative term to describe a white person who think they’re Japanese– people who post wanted ads on Craigslist for kawaii pinku bento boxes, own wall scrolls, or push their glasses up the bridge of their noses while going, “Ummmm actually it’s pronounced ‘mahn-ga’.” The reason why I am going beyond the jurisdiction of this column as its title would suggest is that while Kyle is definitely a weeaboo (white, thinks he’s Japanese, owns wall scrolls), I am not (Korean, thinks she’s white, does not own wall scrolls).

Kyle Smith, Comic-Con 2009

Kyle Smith, Comic-Con 2009

I do know a decent amount about shoujo anime and manga, but does this make me a weeaboo? No, this just makes me really susceptible to lame shit. Just like I own over twenty Star Wars novels, just like I spent finals week two semesters ago watching hundreds of hours of The West Wing, just like that time last winter break when I spontaneously spent an entire night watching Hugh Grant movies back to back, just like that time the winter break before that when I watched the full 16 hours of the acclaimed BBC drama Life on Mars in a span of 48 hours while writing a final paper. When I get on a roll, I really get on a roll. It just happens that I’ve been on a roll with anime and manga for about three years.

oh man is that the new chapter of Princess Resurrection?

oh man is that the new chapter of Princess Resurrection?

So why not write a post about Japanese shoujo manga? Well, it’s a much much larger field than shoujo manhwa. (Or at least, the number of shoujo manga I’ve read exceeds the number of sunjeong manhwa I’ve read by an exponential amount). It would require me to sit down, think really hard, and then do a lot of intense categorization. On the other hand, I could just spout a poorly advised opinion that reflects embarrassingly on my hopelessly broken relationship with my parents, whose calls I have been ignoring for the past four days because they keep calling while I’m playing World of Warcraft.

But anyways.

Manhwa.

From left to right: Red Lion, Hot Blooded Woman, H2O, Goong, Cutie Boy, It's Love

From left to right: Red Lion, Hot Blooded Woman, H2O, Goong, Cutie Boy, It's Love

I will freely admit that the above manhwa are a pretty poor sample of the overall genre. First of all, of the six, two (Cutie Boy and Hot Blooded Woman) are written by the same author. Secondly, they’re all targeted towards a female audience– they’re what the Japanese would call shoujo. (In Korean, I think it’s sunjeong).

Like their Japanese counterparts, these manhwa feature a female lead, from whose singular perspective (most of) the narrative takes place. This girl, despite her shortcomings (or lack thereof, like in the mindbogglingly boring It’s Love), is pursued by multiple male characters, who, having pretty much the same faces (just different haircuts, glasses), are distinguished by hilaaariously disparate personalities/backgrounds.

love interests from it's love

love interests from It's Love (left to right): the overachiever, the pretty boy, the gangster

In It’s Love, Sera is pursued by her three adopted brothers (almost-incest is a surprisingly frequent theme in Korean media). One is a violent fighter, another is a nerd (not necessarily pejorative in Korean culture), and the last is an idol (think Miley Cyrus; an idol is a pop star/model who pretty much doesn’t do anything, but gets kyaaaaaa‘d at anyways). In H2O, unpopular, bullied Munga is pursued by the popular, white knight school president, as well as the motorcycle-riding, debaucherous delinquent.

H2O characters; from left to right: white knight, Japanese model, main character, delinquent motorcycle punk

H2O characters (from left to right): white knight, Japanese model, main character, delinquent motorcycle punk. Yes, he is really hitting that girl in the head. Yes, his hand is drawn bigger than her head.

While a lot of these manhwa draw an obvious and crude line between the nice guy(s) and the bad boy, some of them are a little more subtle about it. For instance, in Red Lion, Eisul, a former jjang (the school “captain,” or gang leader; usually the top fighter… learn this word) transfers to a new high school, only to be pursued by a rich and bratty school bully, a reticent motorcycle punk turned model, and the beautiful school playboy. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Eisul favors the motorcycle punk / model– interestingly enough, despite his current occupation, he is also the best fighter among the three, given his background.

Red Lion (left to right): Eisul, Sejong, Yumin, Se-jin

Red Lion (left to right): Eisul, Sejong, Yumin, Seng-in

So why am I making a big deal out of this?

Because in each of these manhwa, the girl always falls for the violent guy.

Red Lion is a good example of a manhwa that doesn’t quite depend on a blatant dichotomy of nice guys and bad boys, but I wouldn’t say that independence from this dichotomy is necessarily a good thing. Red Lion passes as a feminist manhwa of sorts, but taking that approach isn’t the only way to get out of that tired old romantic dualism. Other manhwa escape this overused trope in any entirely different way.

These are the manhwa whose romantic interests consist entirely of violent men. And when I say violent, I really mean violent. Not the cartoonish shounen violence that might come to the mind of a gaijin like yourself, where characters spend entire episodes powering up for the next attack. The violence that authors like Hwang Mi Ri (Cutie Boy and Hot Blooded Woman) intend to portray is nitty-gritty, bloody, and very serious.

Yoo Min (left), title character of Cutie Boy

Yoo Min (right), title character of Cutie Boy

It’s tempting to classify these guys as the Korean equivalents of the American macho guy. But being macho means having a hyper masculine self-image that you refuse to compromise. It’s not self-image that drives these characters. Rather, they have tremendous skill in fighting while totally lacking conscience. These boys would think nothing of murder, maiming, and rape. In fact, all three acts are repeatedly attempted in Hot Blooded Woman, which on the surface is just a soap opera about a not-so-attractive girl who goes into a coma and wakes up in an attractive girl’s body.

Hot Blooded Woman (left to right): Sin Uoo, Ha Ji (in her real body), and Han Seo

Hot Blooded Woman (left to right): Sin Uoo, Ha Ji (in her real body), and Han Seo

When I say that the cast of male characters in Hot Blooded Woman is populated solely by violent guys, I don’t mean that there aren’t any nonviolent boys in the series. Rather, a man who can’t fight, or doesn’t fight, automatically fades away into a nonentity. For example, Hwang Mi Ri starts off trying to create a triangle between Ha Ji (a jjang in her old body), Sin Uoo (the jjang at the school of her host body), and Te Hu (a jjang at another school, a gentleman who doesn’t hit women). She abandons this approach after she finds herself incapable of creating any convincing feelings between Ha Ji and Te Hu. It might be understandable for a passionate fighter such as Ha Ji to fail to connect with a guy who doesn’t fight. But it’s not that Te Hu doesn’t fight, or even won’t fight– he won’t fight her.

Hwang scraps this triangle and builds a new one that consists of Ha Ji, Sin Uoo, and Han Seo (Ha Ji’s subjjang, an unhinged psychopath who hails from a mafia family). In this new triangle, it’s tempting to now cast Sin Uoo as the nice guy, especially since he comes from a nicer background than Han Seo (Sin Uoo is the well-bred son of a CEO). But then again, Ha Ji falls for Sin Uoo after he beats her into a bloody pulp.

blood splatters and everything

blood splatters and everything

...

"He is kicking me so hard. I feel as if my internal organs are being messed up."

<3

"His chin line... it's awesome. Was he that handsome? His nose is pretty, his nostrils also. His lips are sexy... and his shoulders are very wild looking from below."

“Okay,” you might say. “So Sin Uoo is a terrible person.”

Well, look, you’re actually perfectly justified in wanting to cast Sin Uoo as the good guy. Han Seo is that much worse than Sin Uoo. While Ha Ji is in Aram’s body, he manages to

  • attempt to rape Ha Ji four times. (I was going to say three and then I remembered another time).
  • basically waterboard Ha Ji for refusing to take off her clothes. Except waterboarding is simulated drowning, and instead he actually pushes her into water and keeps her under for minutes at a time. So this would be actual drowning.
  • tie Ha Ji to the back of his motorcycle and drag her around.
  • trick Ha Ji into a situation where she is going to get raped by a fuckton of guys, just to test whether she is really Ha Ji.
  • pretty much kill her.
420 get drowned e-ver-y day

420 enhanced interrogation techniques e-ver-y day

The above events all occur while Ha Ji is in Aram’s body, so maybe you can excuse his behavior. (No, not really. And he does figure out that Aram is really Ha Ji towards the end of that story arc). After Ha Ji wakes up in her actual body, having forgotten her adventures as Aram, he

  • throws her off the roof of a three story building.
  • breaks her arm, then brutally beats her while she can’t defend herself.
  • fights her on numerous other occasions, all with the intention of hurting her badly.
y u hurt my feelings ? :( *throws off roof*

y u hurt my feelings ? :( *throws off roof*

But then, come to think of it, there’s a stretch of time, after Ha Ji returns to her body, where Sin Uoo is convinced that Ha Ji was involved in the death of his beloved Aram (…who was really Ha Ji ). During this time, Sin Uoo

  • organizes a scenario where she is supposed to get drugged and gangbanged. She escapes, but succumbs to the drug just as Sin Uoo finds her, who then explicitly threatens to rape and beat her.
  • leads her into a trap where his hired men beat the shit out of her until the police interrupt this scene.
  • leads her into another trap where the same thing happens until he realizes that she must be the same person as Aram, because she looks so much like Aram did when she got hit by that semi.
he hits her because he likes her

he hits her because he likes her

Despite these boys clearly being absolutely immoral monsters, they are both portrayed with overflowing sympathy. After all, Sin Uoo is Ha Ji’s one true destined love (no, really, destined). And as unhinged as Han Seo may be, his love for Ha Ji is unquestionable. At first his violent actions are fueled by his guilt over the motorcycle accident that sends Ha Ji into the coma. After he realizes Aram is really Ha Ji, any violence he perpetrates is motivated by his insane jealousy of Sin Uoo. Of course, this violence goes a little too far… Han Seo is ultimately responsible for the death of Aram’s body while Ha Ji is in it. When this happens, he goes into pitiable convulsions. A little later, a guilt-stricken Han Seo rants at Ha Ji’s comatose body, only to be surprised by her waking up with no memory of the last few months– ergo, no memory of Han Seo killing her. The two then have a tear-inducingly sweet reunion.

Okay, so maybe Hot Blooded Woman is an extreme case. Let’s bracket that and look at these other manhwa.

actually one of the less offensively crazy shoujo manhwa i've read; on the other hand, one of the male characters is an aspiring starcraft pro who achieves his dreams for the sake of the girl he loves

actually one of the less offensively crazy shoujo manhwa i've read; on the other hand, one of the male characters is an aspiring starcraft pro who achieves his dreams for the sake of the girl he loves

H2O

Female Lead: Munga (an unfortunate romanization), the pathetic, downtrodden, unpopular vice rep.

Love Interests:

Eechan: white knight, student body president– smart, motivated, weak to women’s tears

Taek Gang: motorcycle punk, school delinquent, thief, chucks a brick through Munga’s window when she breaks up with him.

Ends up with: Taek Gang.

Buuuut?: H2O does have more than one couple, and the male halves of the other two couples aren’t violent. There’s Hanako (a Japanese model) and Na Hong Soo (the Starcraft guy), and then there’s Eechan and the sexy school nurse. The Hanako/Hong Soo pairing may be disturbing on account of the fact that Hanako is Japanese, whereas Munga is Korean. So Japanese girls get nice guys, and Korean girls get the bloody psychopaths? On the other hand, the school nurse is Korean– but her relationship with Eechan figures least in the series. This couple is definitely more of a “Oh shit, who should I put Eechan with” sort of pairing. Not to mention, Munga is indisputably the female lead here. The series is often told from different perspectives, but the main one is Munga’s. Hanako, the more attractive one, does end up on the cover (left), but H2O begins and ends in Munga’s voice. And guess what? Munga picks the violent guy.

what a fucking boring manhwa

what a fucking boring manhwa

It’s Love (Sarang i ya)

Female Lead: Sera, a sweet orphan adopted into a rich family who only has sons

Love Interests:

Ram: eldest brother- fighter, bully, verbal abuser

Hui-Rim: second brother- smart, intelligent, overachieving, calculating

Han-Seam: youngest brother- pretty boy, a little bratty, the nicest one to Sera

Ends up with: After a romantic date with the generous sugar daddy-esque Hui-Rim, and a secret but also romantic relationship with young celebrity Han-Seam, Sera ends up realizing that the punch-happy Ram is the brother she’s in love with.

NEXT.

yeah, that Hwang Mi Ri

yeah, that Hwang Mi Ri

Cutie Boy

Female Lead: Han-ah, a naive girl manipulated into being the puppet jjang of her all girls high school.

Love Interests:

Yoo Min: one of the most feared jjangs in Seoul.

Mi Yoo: the other most feared jjang in Seoul.

Ends up with: Is there a difference between the two? Yes, there is. One of them is so insanely possessive of Han-ah, that in one chapter, his jealousy drives him to repeatedly punch the stone wall right next to Han-ah’s head until he sees bone. That is the one she falls for.

i actually really like this one, but it's probably one of the worst written ones

i actually really like this one, but it's probably one of the worst written ones


Goong

Female Lead: Chae Gyeong, an ordinary, fairly stupid, weak-willed, but charming (?) girl who suddenly finds out she is going into an arranged marriage with the crown prince. Note: this manhwa takes places in an alternate universe Korea, where the royal family somehow survives the mass slaughter that came with the Japanese occupation, and also manages to stay in place despite strongly democratic feelings after World War II and liberation from the Japanese.

Love Interests:

Shin: cold, proud, not very nice to Chae Gyeong

Yul: cousin to the crown prince- warm, friendly, much more likable than Shin

Ends up with: Okay, well, look. Most of the manhwa consists of Chae Gyeong and Shin’s married life. The two slowly get to know and like each other after the initial ceremony. Unlike the rest of these manhwa, the series hasn’t come to completion yet. At this juncture, Chae Gyeong and Shin have been forced to divorce under the pressures of ambiguous and badly written palace intrigue, but the two are obviously still in love with each other.

Buuut?: There are a lot of buts; I can’t even conclusively state that Shin is the “violent” guy. Yes, of the two, he commits 100% of the violent acts in the series– but then again, there is exactly one violent act, and that’s Shin slapping Yul for disappearing with Chae Gyeong to drink beer together in the middle of the night.

But there’s something really puzzling about Chae Gyeong picking Shin over Yul (even going as far as to not even see Yul as a competitor with Shin). Shin is horrible to her. His coldness towards her (which persists despite his growing feelings for her as the series progresses) in combination with royal family drama is responsible for pretty much destroying her health beyond recovery. Chae Gyeong deteriorates so far that most of the series has her ill in one fashion or another. This sort of thing is infuriatingly boring to read, but other than that, it’s so bizarre that she just doesn’t like Yul at all. Yul is equally good-looking, is also a royal, and is actually nice to Chae Gyeong. He also expresses his feelings for her. IMO that’s why she picks Shin over him– because I guess feelings are unmanly.

at least I FINISHED reading It's Love, this one was too fucking lame for me (owner of multiple Star Wars novels); I just skipped to the end

at least I FINISHED reading It's Love, this one was too fucking lame for me (owner of multiple Star Wars novels); I just skipped to the end

Red Lion

Female Lead: Bada Hanul Fresh Like the Morning Mist Eisul Kim, a female top fighter who used to go by the name of “Red Lion.” Backstory: She resolves to stop all the inter-school violence on the streets, and succeeds by defeating everyone. After having succeeded, she transfers to a different school.

Love Interests:

Sejong: technically jjang of her new school. Not actually a top fighter; he has this kind of influence because of his rich and powerful family.

Seng-in: a pretty playboy.

Yumin: used to be part of a motorcycle gang. Then his friend died, so he quit that. Eventually he became a model. The most competent fighter of the three.

Ends up with: Yumin.

Buuuut?: I list Red Lion last because it’s the most interesting insofar as gender relations and the role of violence goes. Although Red Lion is horrifically tedious and poorly written, it fascinates me because the role that violence takes in the other manhwa is actually inversed in this one. Sure, Yumin is the best fighter, and he’s the one she ends up with, but this story is not quite a shoujo. In shoujo, the girl is either a blatant Mary Sue or a lovably silly dork.  Eisul is too unattractive to be a proper Mary Sue, but on the other hand, she is just too cool to be described as the latter option. Just as Ranma 1/2 doesn’t count as a shoujo (despite being a romcom) because the male love interests are too silly, Red Lion is hard to categorize because its male characters are so lame compared to Eisul.

But where I would be comfortable with calling Ranma 1/2 a romantic shounen, I still don’t know how to categorize Red Lion. The target audience is just as ambiguous as Eisul is androgynous-looking. Yumin (male model? ex-motorcycle punk?) is clearly meant to bait female readers, but on the other hand, the real kyaaaaaaaa material here is Eisul. Eisul is pretty much the female version of the guy that the shoujo main character wants to get with. The entire series is premised on her being the alpha male of the whole city.

life on the mean streets of Seoul was nasty, brutish, and short

life on the mean streets of Seoul was nasty, brutish, and short

She’s got morals, which is a refreshing change from Hwang Mi Ri’s manhwa, but they aren’t what’s meant to be truly attractive about her. Eisul attracts boys because she is a top fighter.

So that in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory

So that in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory

The same principle goes for Ha Ji. She’s beautiful in Aram’s body, but the boys that matter (the criteria of mattering are also largely contingent on their capacity of inflicting violence) are attracted to her because she, too, can inflict violence at an extraordinary level. Sin Uoo and Han Seo are supposed to have the best faces in the series, and they aren’t won by Aram’s face. Sin Uoo, who despises Aram as Aram, falls in love with her only when Ha Ji takes over her body and begins to train it to fight. Han Seo already likes Ha Ji at the start of the series, when she is still in her actual body and not too attractive to begin with. Although he plays around with a lot of girls, pumping and dumping as he pleases, he is definitely serious about the adorably clueless and unnaturally strong Ha Ji.

***

So in the end, I have to conclude that although male-on-female violence is prevalent in sunjeong manhwa, sexism isn’t a constant feature– rather, the strongest theme here is the worship of power (usually in the form of violence). Is it any wonder, then, that the least violent male love interest (while still getting the girl in the end) mentioned above is the crown prince of Korea, who wouldn’t need any violence to establish how powerful he is? Sunjeong manhwa makes a fetish out of Hobbesianism. When it’s not force that matters, it’s sovereignty.

the deep insights of manhwa

the deep insights of manhwa

Should we be surprised, then, that a country that could spawn Hwang Mi Ri could also spawn the likes of John Yoo and Marcus Epstein? Basically, what I am saying is, all Koreans are biologically fascists. We can’t help it.

And that is why I stabbed Kyle in the head with a metal fork that one time.

I’m sorry. I can’t help it.

squeeeeeeeee

kyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

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2 comments

  1. Is it odd that I enjoyed reading about a list of what not to read?
    Actually I’m not sure anymore. I think that article might have sparked a quest for truly hilarious summer reading.


  2. Haha, I caught a bunch of typos last night and was like, “Meh, I’ll correct them in the morning. No one’s going to read this before noon.”

    Fail.



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