Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Color of Earth--Review

When I first selected "The Color of Earth", one of the most popular manhwa (manga) in Korea's history, it was merely to have another graphic novel in my 52 countries challenge. I had no idea that it has been one of the most challenged books in library systems throughout the United States during the past several years; I really didn't know much about the book at all, except that it was the first part of a trilogy about a young Korean girl's coming of age in the pre-World War II countryside. I guess, after reading the book, that I've learned, inadvertently, a bit about my own country's culture, as nothing is more telling than what a society can find objectionable. I'm not so sure that I've learned that much about Korea, as this book is primarily about one thing:


OK, that's not true, strictly speaking. It's about waiting around for sex, thinking about sex, listening to adults having sex, lots of metaphors about flowers (women) waiting around for bees (men of course) blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I didn't start out with such a crabby attitude about this book. It's undeniably beautiful, particularly the panels where Kim Dong Hwa focuses on nature scenes (the very first ones are of insects--copulating it goes without saying); you can tell he's classically trained, with a thorough grounding in the techniques of the great Asian artists of the past:

I wasn't quite so certain about the comically drawn characters of the two peasant men, who basically hang around Ehwa's mother's little cafe in order to make Ehwa's mother's life miserable (and to make what can be termed either wise close-to-the-earth observations, or crude sexual innuendo, depending on the reader's point of view) or the way Ehwa and her mother herself were depicted, with wildly exaggerated expressions--distorted mouths, scrunched up eyes, etc. I guess it was the author's intent to juxtapose these two very different techniques to create an artistic tension. I do know that it didn't always work for me. Often I felt as if I were viewing a series of Hiroshige panels in which a bunch of characters from a third rate Japanese manga (badly translated for an English-speaking audience) had been casually plopped.

I nevertheless enjoyed the beginning of the book so much that I thought about buying the next two parts of the manhwa. The ink slashes of rain against the trees, the exquisitely detailed kimchee pots piled up against the porch of the old wooden house,, the precise depictions of Buddhist temples with their endless rows of clay tiles--are masterful.  I  loved how Ehwa's mother (who doesn't appear to be given a name)  toils on as a young widow in one of the few ways that a respectable woman of that time can manage, without becoming embittered. I appreciated that the author was sort-of making a feminist stand in showing women enduring the often boorish behaviors of the prevailing culture.

Gradually, however, I started feeling uneasy about the book. Not about the sugary, too-obvious metaphors about bees and flowers, and about women's ultimate passivity in Korean society, which ring true for that time and place. Not about the two-dimensional depictions of everyone but Ehwa and her mother. It's because there's nothing about this book that isn't about sex. Is there a sense of wonder in the (non-copulating) natural world, is there the anticipation of a harvest-moon viewing, is there the depiction of the endless back-breaking work that running a tiny restaurant would entail? Is there a conversation that Ehwa has with her mother (or anyone else) that isn't about her body, her mother's body, or men's bodies? Not a one. Granted, life in any isolated agricultural society would be by modern standards pretty dull, but the author takes things a bit too far, and his preoccupation with Ehwa's coming-of-age in only the most obvious ways, reduces the characters to the most basest of elements. Even the little monk, whom Ehwa has a thwarted relationship with, doesn't seem to have a moment to spare for spiritual matters. I started feeling the walls closing in; it made me thank God for the Internet.

There's another problem, too. I've never been to Korea, but I've lived in Japan, and though I don't know if their societies are similar in this way, but in Japan the Lolita-complex is quite prevalent--much stronger than in western societies--and knowing that "The Color of Earth" has been as popular with men as with women in Korea has made me feel a bit squirmy. Granted, an author can't be entirely responsible for the audience's reception of his work, but I think that Kim is being a little disingenuous when he claims that this manhwa is merely an homage to his mother. There's far too many images of Ehwa and her mother cuddling in the bath, far too many conversations that Ehwa has with her mother about her lover, a Korean Fuller-Brush salesman, in a way that makes me think that Kim was all too aware of the titillating interest of his male audience. (Oh, I'm just trying to learn about how women feel--honest!). The sexual education that Ehwa's mother gives her daughter is uneven, and frankly feels like manipulation in order to engender the most drama. First, Ehwa isn't told anything about menstruating (thus giving the author the opportunity for several interesting close-ups panels) and then her mother is all-too helpful, telling her daughter all about her persimmon seed (another close-up drawing here) and how a man will find it for her. Hhmnn. The final interaction, for me, which was instrumental in my decision not to continue with the series, is when Ehwa's mother throws her arms around her daughter and inadvertently touches her breasts. "Why, they're bigger than mine!" she coos. It felt more than a bit prurient. Ugh.

Would I feel this way if a woman had drawn this graphic novel? Probably not, but I don't think a woman would have written this novel it quite this way. I grew tired of Kim's endless musing on the complexities of women, of how they were like tiger lilies, like gourd flowers, like camellias. I grew tired of the entire book.Although undeniably technically accomplished, I think that Kim's sex was a novelty factor, and had much to do with the popularity of this manhwa. I know that this book has been popular with mother-daughter book groups; perhaps a brisk session with "Our Bodies, Our Selves" would serve such reading groups better. Both cloying and claustrophobic, "The Color of Water" turned out to be a real disappointment to me; so much so that I felt that I had to choose an additional book for Korea.

The Color of Eath Lauren Na, translator


                     (an extra half star for the beauty of the drawings)


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