2021년 2월 28일 일요일

THE THRONE (2015)- A Family Tragedy in the Early Modern Korean Court

THE THRONE. (SADO 사도 思悼)  South Korea, 2015.  2 hours 5 minutes.  A Showbox-Mediaplex Production.  Director: Lee Jun-ik. Screenplay: Cho Chul-hyun, Oh Seung-hyun, Lee Song-won.  Cinematography: Kim Tae-gyeong.  Music: Bang Jun-seok.

CAST: Song Kang-ho (Yeongjo), Yu Ah-in (Crown Prince Sado), Moon Geun-young (Lady Hong Hyegyoung), Kim Hae-sook (Dowager Queen Inwon), Pak Won-sang (Hong Bong-han, Sado's fathe-in-law), Jin Ji-hee (Princess Hwahwan), Park So-dam (Lady Moon).




When Lee Jun-ik, an acknowledged hitmaker with the innovative historical comedy Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield (2003) and its sequel Battlefield Heroes (2010) as well as historical dramas The King and the Clown (2005) and Blades of Blood (2010) under his belt, had announced that he will make a dramatization of one of the most disturbing and tragic episodes of the Joseon dynasty history, King Yeongjo’s (reign date 1724-1776) execution/murder of his own son, Crown Prince Sado, in a utterly confounding and cruel method of shutting him in a rice chest until the latter died from dehydration and exhaustion, my honest reaction was apprehension.  While few could doubt Lee’s ability to put together superbly entertaining set-pieces— both spectacular and dramatic— and to extract vibrant performances from the newcomers as well as the industry veterans, the attitude he has shown in terms of approaching Korean history had been disappointingly “presentist,” all the more frustrating because his artistic visions anchored in the defense of the performing artists against the movers and shakers of the “big wheel” history had shown great potentials for challenging and destabilizing the monarch- and national-hero-centered historical narratives fed to the Korean public.  

Blades of Blood, for instance, makes a wholly unnecessary revision on the timeline of Hideyoshi’s invasion and Lee Mong-hak’s rebellion (1596), in order to seemingly maximize the incompetence and poor governance of King Seonjo (r.d. 1567-1608), missing a chance to delve into the massive socio-economic contradictions brewing under the surface of the Joseon political system exposed by the Japanese invasions. The King and the Clown does a better job of humanizing the “depraved king” Yeonsangun than many previous media treatments of him, yet it also misses a chance to bring to the foreground more than a few dramatically and even cinematically fascinating aspects of the deposed monarch’s life and the supporting characters surrounding him (to be sure, such a film would have looked a lot more like a Pier Paolo Pasolini film than a Ridley Scott one— possibly too bizarre and grotesque for public consumption, even though such bizarreness and grotesquery are unavoidable features of the existing historical documents regarding his life).











Moreover, the popular opinion in Korea toward Prince Sado had been greatly influenced by those pseudo-historians indulging in conspiracy theories disguised as innovative interpretations of Korean history and proffering them as sound alternatives to the ideas disseminated from within the “academia proper” (whom they often denounce as spiritual descendants of the “pro-Japanese collaborators”). One of the most popular among them, Lee Deok-il, argued in numerous occasions that Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong (Hanjungnok, 閑中錄 ) possess little value as a historical source, since it merely reflects the political position of Lady Hyegyeong’s own Hong family and the Soron faction among the yangban literati. This did not sit well with both historians and Korean literature scholars who had spent many years scrupulously examining the Memoirs as a credible source of historical information as well as a valuable work of early modern literature. Scholars such as Jeong Byeong-seol have critiqued in detail Lee’s lopsided interpretation (by some accounts, baseless denunciation) of the Memoirs and its author, yet Lee’s arguments have remained extremely popular among the South Korean reading public (Writers such as the now disgraced Yi In-hwa presented a similar anti-Lady Hyegyeong reading of Sado’s death in his novel Yeongwon-han jeguk [The Eternal Empire, 1993]).     

Given these circumstances, I was concerned that Lee Jun-ik would wholeheartedly embrace the proliferating conspiracy theories and portray Prince Sado as a very much sane, reformist hero destroyed by the scheming yangban hyenas, who had managed to delude the aging king Yeongjo into mistrusting his allegedly brilliant son. Thankfully, despite casting of Yoo Ah-in (The Burning), a young star (although he is not exactly a liberal icon, especially among certain feminists) in the role of Prince Sado, Lee does not go so far as to embrace this “radical” interpretation. He accepts at face value several key information derived from the Memoirs: that Prince Sado indeed beheaded his servants and committed other outrageous and violent acts: that the primary motivation of Yeongjo (played by Song Kang-ho, The Parasite) for executing his son was not political capitulation to the factional hegemony of certain yangban officials, but his own complex feelings toward the prince, no doubt including more than some measure of disappointment, righteous anger and hatred: and that the psychological trauma resulting from Yeongjo’s perhaps unfair treatment of Sado was at least one factor in ultimately turning the latter into a “madman.”    










The Throne employs a complex flashback structure to go back and forth between the gruesome death throes of Crown Prince Sado over six days and the happier days of his childhood, marriage, and the narrative of his gradual alienation from his father Yeongjo.  Many episodes of the film are indeed directly culled from the Memoirs, especially Yeongjo's interaction with his son and other family members.  In the climax of the film, the movie also quotes from Yeongjo's epitaph written for Prince Sado, uncovered by historians and publicized only in 1990s (although Sado's final response to Yeongjo's statements in the film is entirely fictional... and rather trite in my opinion).

The Throne is admirably well-made, anchored by a grizzled yet amazingly nuanced performance by Song Kang-ho as Yeongjo and an energetic but (for me) not quite an authentic one by Yoo Ah-in as Sado.  Crown Prince Sado, Prince Hwahwan and a couple of other characters are too “contemporized,” not just their dialogue but also their characterization, which is a chronic problem with Lee’s historical films (but certainly not a problem limited to his works).  One can question whether Sado would have expressed his anger and sadness toward his father in quite such dramatic ways, or through caustic statements Yoo rather stylistically spits out in the manner of a contemporary youth rebel. It is also clear that Lee’s directorial decision is to make Sado as played by Yoo a sympathetic figure without denying the historical reality of his horrendous acts. The director downplays Sado's disturbing qualities and tries underhandedly to make his anger and resentment understandable to the viewers. There are areas in which the narrative or character interactions are obviously meant to draw parallels to the social or political situations in contemporary Korea, but they mostly fall flat, as evidenced by, for instance, Lee’s portrayal of Prince Sado’s obsession with the military affairs. Sado indeed enjoyed military games as a youngster, but I doubt that this would have led to his concern with the equitable distribution of military duties as was shown in the film (the resentment resulting from the inequities involving who gets to go to the military and who does not, of course, has very much been an issue in contemporary South Korea). The Throne (or any other Korean sageuk, for that matter) does not really need this kind of the insertions of “contemporary relevance.” I also did not find Yeongjo’s “I did this to avoid you making a traitor” rationalization tacked on to the movie's ending particularly convincing, although Song Kang-ho's great performance makes the sequence emotionally work.

As Korean historical melodramas go, The Throne charts a prudent middle ground, rejecting the shallow presentism of Blades of Blood (or comic ironies of the Battlefield series) but also the potentially alienating historicism of such films as Jacques Rivette’s Jean la purcelle (1994). It is an emotionally powerful mainstream motion picture, and while its heightened melodrama does weaken its professed respect for its historical sources (and most notably consigns all female characters, including Lady Hyegyeong herself, to the hoary role of the tearfully emoting “stand-by maidens”), I would rank it above average in terms of its concern for historical truths (and certainly above Lee’s much-praised Anarchist from Colony [2017], most of the power of which is ironically derived from Choi Hee-seo’s performance as Kaneko Fumiko, unjustly put into a supportive position to the Korean anarchist Pak Yeol), if not a truly great historical film. 











Some brief comments on the English subtitles: The subs translate “Hojo panseo 判書" as “Defense Minister” but as those who have learned about six ministries in the history class should know, it is “Census Minister.” “Dangpa” is also translated as “segregation” at one point but it should be “factions” or “parties.” “Yo 堯 and Sun  ”which Yeongjo mentions while testing his grandson’s academic ability (later King Jeongjo) are mythical Chinese emperors Yao and Shun from the Chinese classics, mistranslated as “Yaw and Sun.”

Can It Be Used in Class?:

The Throne is an excellent example to be shown alongside Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong as a form of the digest version of the story of Prince Sado, but of course, it loses much of the intriguing details regarding interpersonal complexities of the court life and even the latter’s rich characterizations of the personages populating her narratives.  I think the film could claim an advantage in urging the students to counter-imagine the alternatives to the “familiar (familiarly melodramatic),” contemporaneous aspects of the film, including the characterizations of major figures such as Yeongjo, Crown Prince Sado, Lady Hyegyeong, and others, and thereby compel them to reach into the “strange and unfamiliar” territories of the actual Joseon dynasty history. We can ask the students: where do you believe the film becomes excessively melodramatic in relation to the accounts presented in the Memoirs? What aspects do you believe were “accurately” rendered or visualized, from the historical accounts given in the Memoirs?











From there, we could also explore the presentation of the Memoirs as a series of overlapping narratives, and as a form of confessional literary genre. If you were to launch into a radically different adaptation of the Memoirs for a motion picture, how would you, or how would you not, modify the characterizations of Yeongjo, Crown Prince Sado, Lady Hyegyeong and other personages? How would you address the subdued presence of female characters in the movie version? Would you have made it a lot darker, almost a horror film, about the madness of Prince Sado, in which Yeongjo’s action would have been morally understandable, if not entirely justified? Or into a political thriller about the inter-palace conflicts in which Crown Prince Sado and Yeongjo were actually schemers attempting to outmaneuver the other? There could be many other variations. Ultimately, if the students could learn a good lesson about the mysteries of human intentions and emotions from this tragic episode, including the impossibility of illuminating them to our complete satisfaction, that might be more worthwhile than them learning some factoids about the court politics of Joseon dynasty or about the powerful kings Yeongjo and (Prince Sado’s son) Jeongjo.

References:

Jahyun Kim Haboush, ed., and trans. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Prince of Eighteenth-Century Korea . Second Edition, with a new Foreword by Dorothy Ko (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Jeong Byeong-seol [Chŏng Pyŏ ng-sŏl], “Kil ireun yeoksa daejunghwa [The Popularization of History Which Lost Its Way],” Yeoksa Bipyeong, no. 94, Spring 2011.






2020년 12월 10일 목요일

HIROSHIMA (1953)- A Blu Ray Rediscovery is a Major Boon to Teachers of Modern Japanese History

HIROSHIMA.  Japan, 1953. A Japan Teacher’s Union Production in association with General Council of Trade Unions of Japan, Hiroshima City, Children of the Atomic Bomb Friends Society, Hiroshima Electric Railway, Fujita-Gumi. Aspect ratio 1.37.1. 1 hour 44 minutes. Director: Sekigawa Hideo. Screenwriter: Yagi Yasutarō. Producers: Itō Takerō, Kikuchi Takeo.  Based on a nonfiction book Children of the Atomic Bomb: Testament of the Boys and Girls of Hiroshima, compiled and edited by Osada Arata. Art Direction: Hirakawa Tōtetsu, Eguchi Junji.  Cinematography: Nakano Shun’ichirō, Urashima Susumu. Editor: Kōno Akikazu. Music: Ifukube Akira.  

CAST: Okada Eiji (Kitagawa), Tsukioka Yumeji (Yonehara), Yamada Isuzu (Oniwa Mine), Katō Yoshi (Endo Hideo), Tsukida Masaya (Endo Yukio), Machida Isako (Omine Michiko), Kanda Noboru (Senda), Kawarazaki Shizue (Endo Yoshiko), Shin Kinzō (Scientist), Susukida Kenji (Dr. Nishina Yoshio). 

   
















One of the major home video rediscoveries of 2020, Hiroshima is a nearly forgotten masterpiece likely to appeal to the English-speaking instructors looking for a thought-provoking, non-sensationalistic feature film to be used in a modern Japanese history class.  Made only seven years after the bombing and Japan’s unconditional surrender, Hiroshima is politically and historically aware but never stringently polemical. It is clearly critical of the possible racist motivation behind the use of thermonuclear device on Japanese civilian population (as opposed to Germans), the Cold War dynamics that threatened (at the time) to bring back wartime behaviors and ideas under the pretext of fighting Communism, and the callous ways in which Americans make gawking tourist spectacles out of the hellish experience through “black tours,” but it is equally angry at wartime Japanese authorities, their incompetence, fanaticism and inability to acknowledge a truth. 

The core of the film is a collection of first-hand testaments from children survivors of the atomic bombing published in 1951. This was compiled and edited by a noted scholar of education studies, Osada Arata, professor at Hiroshima University, long-time promoter of Pestalozzi’s educational philosophy in Japan and himself a victim of atomic bombing (hibakusha). Osada’s nonfiction book, despite the press code imposed by the Allied Powers Occupation authorities, became widely known and read. In 1952, one of the best-known transwar Japanese filmmakers, Shindō Kaneto, loosely adapted the book into Child of the Atomic Bomb (Genbaku no ko). However, the original participant in the project, Japan Teacher’s Union, decided that Shindō’s film “deviated too much” from the realities of the Hiroshima experience.  They eventually commissioned a separate film, with a new screenplay by Yagi Yasutarō (a controversial figure who had been a major player at the notorious Manchurian Motion Picture Association during wartime and yet after the war wrote pro-labor and “enlightenment” films for such directors as Yamamoto Satsuo and Imai Tadashi) and the directorial helm entrusted to Sekigawa Hideo, a wartime Toho veteran who turned independent post-war and subsequently made a series of socially conscious and/or labor-friendly films such as Mixed-Blood Children (1953) and Mad Banquet (1954) as well as documentaries such as The New Beijing (1957).




What is distinctive about Hiroshima is that the film, like Imamura Shohei’s Black Rain (1989) based on Ibuse Masuji’s novel, pays a great deal of attention to the lives and events surrounding the bombing itself. The film starts with a group of high school students listening to a radio broadcast that narrates what might have gone through the minds of American pilots flying Enola Gay.  Michiko, one of the bomb victims (the teacher, Kitagawa, identifies fully one third of his class as hibakusha ), faints, bleeding from her nose. Sekigawa and his production team anecdotally introduce other main personages in the first third, then moves back toward the fateful August day that unfolded a living hell for them— most of the adult cast members perishing in the inferno or succumbing to radiation-poisoned slow death in the aftermath— and forward again to describe in greater detail how the children, now teenagers, cope with their lives in the immediate postwar Japanese society.  

Unlike Shindō’s Children of the Atomic Bomb, Hiroshima does not focus on a particular individual, and instead chooses to present a set of interwoven narratives that convey a great sense of historical authenticity, due to extensive usage of archival footages as well as appearances of real-life Hiroshima victims as various characters (At one point, a man takes off his shirt and shows his now-healed burn scars throughout his arms and backside, clearly not a product of special effects make-up). There is an uncommon level of vividness and realism in the wartime details, displaying elementary school children taking part in all kinds of hard labor as “volunteers,” demolishing an old house, for instance. The same goes for the rubbles and dusty roads of incompletely reconstructed post-1945 Hiroshima, depictions of war orphans practicing how to shout “Hungry, Hungry!” to the US “Hellos (Harō-san),” and a boy dedicating a bar of Hershey chocolate and a pack of Lucky Strike to a mini-shrine built for his lost sister.  

Hiroshima is obviously not a big studio production (such as Toho-backed Gojira) yet production quality is high, almost astounding in its scale and detail. One gets a strong sense of Hiroshima as a robust, medium-sized city with tramcars, trucks and bicycles bustling up and down the streets. When the bomb hits, burn makeup and torn clothes on the victims appear frighteningly realistic. The sequence in which wounded schoolchildren, led by their teachers, huddle together in the river, surrounded by towering flames, singing schoolbook songs, only to one by one sink into the waters full of dead bodies already, is in particular emotionally devastating, but it is never distracted by inappropriate insertions of gallows humor or attention-calling avant-garde techniques that end up aestheticizing indescribable suffering. 



Likewise, absence of overwrought melodrama enhances the affective power of certain scenes, as in the elder Endō’s (Katō Yoshi) retrieval of his son and the latter’s schoolmate at a refuge shelter. The politeness, care and almost serene sorrow with which the two survivors exchange their information, thanks and farewell with one another, have the power to convince viewers like us that this particular encounter must have happened in real life.  Sekigawa’s direction is not minimalistic but unobtrusively effective, becoming lyrical and expressionist only when it needs to be: during the sequence in which Japanese scientists try to convey the off-scale nightmare that the Hiroshima bomb represents to a bunch of pig-headed military commanders, a scientist dejectedly looks up at a fluttering moth trapped behind a window.      

You can tell that some of the actors are amateurs: nonetheless, they seamlessly blend into the film, much in the way Italian non-actors do in the neorealist classics of De Sica and Rossellini.  The marquee names are occupied by the established stars such as Okada, Tsukioka and Yamada playing adult characters, but real protagonists of the film are teenage survivors, especially Michiko and Endo’s son Yukio. The latter’s character trajectory, although only one of the many threads woven into a tapestry that is Hiroshima, is for me the most interesting. Played by a darkly handsome young actor Tsukida Masaya, who apparently attempted to commit suicide in early 1960s and published a tell-all confessional of his misadventures in 1965, Yukio leads a gang of “Hungry” kids, flirts with juvenile delinquency and befriends a hibakusha girl, who attempts to discourage his half-hearted attempt at romance, already close to accepting her permanent pariah status as a living, disabled reminder of the apocalyptic war.  

The resolution of Yukio’s story involves a black-market sale of the skulls of Hiroshima victims as souvenirs that in fact might be the most shocking element of this film to the contemporary viewer’s sensibilities. I myself was greatly impressed by the way Sekigawa uses this seeming attack on the dignity of deceased victims to in fact let Yukio assume the role of a messenger bearing a warning against the return of wartime values and attitudes to postwar Japan.   






Hiroshima , despite the censorship problems it encountered upon its release, deftly avoids being dragged down by position speeches or attempts to clobber the viewers with infernal, blood-and-guts ordeals of the bomb victims. Seen today, it has the added value of contextualizing its depiction of the atomic bombings in the thoroughly believable, realistic depictions of wartime and immediate postwar life experiences, a boon to teachers of history who would rather not divorce the atomic bombings from their specific historical context and turn them into a subject of existential-philosophical inquiry, as I feel, for instance, Alain Renais’ Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) does (I by no means wish to claim that such a cinematic approach is wrong-headed or worthless: it just is not as helpful for a historian of modern Japan as an educational text).    

Can It Be Used in Class?: You bet your Hershey’s it can!  I would argue that it surpasses Gojira (1954) and Black Rain, two other major works of Japanese cinema dealing with the country’s nuclear trauma, in terms of its utility as a text to be explored for historical lessons, for the reasons I have cited above. It will make an excellent companion piece to the reading materials dealing with the Japanese life under the Pacific War, Japan’s unconditional surrender, and the immediate aftermath of the war under the Allied Occupation. 

There are mountainous volumes of critical studies of the literature and cultural expressions of the atomic bomb experiences in English language: the revised edition of Mick Broderick’s Hibakusha Cinema remains a useful reference work for motion pictures specifically dealing with atomic bombings. The film might be pared with Nakazawa Keiji’s Barefoot Gen series, which explores similar grounds of first-hand experiences of the trauma of the bombing.  




Arrow Academy’s Blu Ray presentation of this nearly forgotten Japanese film made sixty-seven years ago is as good as one could possibly expect. Except for the battered title sequence and occasional dips in quality whenever archival footage is inserted, the movie is extremely clean, with excellent contrast levels and enhanced clarity.  Monoaural soundtrack is also rendered fine: particularly impressive is Ifukube Akira’s beautiful and elegiac score, in parts majestically recalling music for Hollywood religious epics, but at other times unmistakably coming from the same composer responsible for musically illustrating the devastation wrought by Godzilla in his first cinematic appearance in 1954. 

The supplements include a 73-minute documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki Download (2011), directed by Takeda Shinpei, consisting of interviews with eighteen survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings residing in the North American Pacific coastal regions, Hiroshima, Cinema and Japan’s Nuclear Imagination , a video essay by critic Jasper Sharp, and an archival interview with the actress Tsukioka Yumeji, a fascinating talk that covers, among other topics, her postwar visit to Korea and being recognized by older female fans there and being apprenticed in a US studio in 1951-1952 contributing to her decision to participate in a “meaningful” project such as Hiroshima. The interview is unfortunately only available in murky SD quality.  

The package also comes with a 35-page booklet that includes a very informative historical essay by Mick Broderick focusing on the production and reception of Hiroshima, and another essay by Jasper Sharp discussing the directorial career of Sekigawa Hideo. Sharp’s piece draws key information about the circumstances surrounding Sekigawa’s departure from Toho from Hirano Kyoko’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, which an interested party should check out. 

Arrow Video’s release of Hiroshima, along with their recent releases of Uchida Tomu’s films, deserves much praise as a huge contribution to the enrichment of the roster of accessible classical-age Japanese cinema. It is highly recommended to all instructors of modern Japanese history in English language.    

References

Mick Broderick, ed. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film (Routledge, 2013, originally Routlege, Kegan & Paul, 1996). 

Hirano Kyoko, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (Smithsonian Books, 1994). 

Nakazawa Keiji, Barefoot Gen, 3 vols (Last Gasp, 2004-2005).

2020년 12월 5일 토요일

GOJIRA (GODZILLA, 1954)- The Serious Classic Monster Film Captures an Agonizing Moment in Modern Japanese History

GOJIRA. Japan, 1954. A Toho Company Production. Aspect ratio 1.37.1. 1 hour 38 minutes. Director: Honda Ishiro.  Screenwriters: Murata Takeo, Honda Ishiro.  Original story: Kayama Shigeru. Producers: Tanaka Tomoyuki.  Special Effects Supervision: Tsuburaya Eiji. Music: Ifukube Akira. 

CAST: Shimura Takashi (Dr. Yamane), Hirata Akihiko (Dr. Serizawa), Kawauchi Momoko (Yamane Emiko), Takarada Akira (Naval Salvage Officer Ogata Hideo), Sakai Sachio (Hagiwara the Reporter), Hayashi Miki (Chairman of the Diet Special Committee), Sugai Kin (Miss Ozawa, the Diet member)

















The veritable King of Monsters, Godzilla, who has survived more than sixty years of countless incarnations, pastiches and parodies and somehow maintained not only its elder statesman’s dignity but also relevance, is one of the best-known symbols of Japan in the contemporary popular cultural lexicography. The most recent effort to revive the radioactive-flame-breathing mutant dinosaur as a viable global franchise has had mixed results (FYI, I liked the first Godzilla [2014] directed by Gareth Edwards and was hugely disappointed by its 2019 sequel, which seemingly compressed the process of the jeuvenilization and trivialization the character had gone through in the hands of Toho from 1954 to 1976 into one single movie).  I would argue that the crude and thoughtless way in which Godzilla was decoupled from its original historical context— its symbolic meaning as a representation of nuclear destruction as well as its specific historical position in the reckoning of the trauma of Pacific War for the Japanese— at least played some roles in the failure of the sequel to generate the sublime frisson that the black and white original still inspires among many viewers (and the Edwards remake at least aspired to emulate).

In the 1954 original, Godzilla, here referred to as Gojira in deference to the original Japanese reading of the beastie’s name, replicating the narrative strategy used in the more astute monster films such as Them! (1954), does not show itself until approximately 20 minutes into the movie. The Japanese viewers at the time of release would have instantly recognized references to their wartime experiences, still quite fresh in memory (at one point, a character in a resigned voice complains, “Rats, we have to evacuate from the city again!”) as well as topical events. We see, for instance, a group of fishermen scooping off a bizarrely mutated school of dead fish, and commercial ships destroyed by an explosion of blazing light and heat from under the sea. These are unmistakable references to the real-life incident involving Fukuryu-maru (Lucky Dragon) No. 5, a Japanese fishing ship irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb experiment at Bikini Islands in 1954, creating an international scandal and anti-nuclear protests.

The somber, semi-documentary tone of the film is never really broken, as  Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (the head samurai from Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai) and other members of the investigation team painstakingly compiles the available evidence to deduce that the culprit is an overgrown prehistoric behemoth, possibly awakened and mutated by a nuclear detonation experiment.  Nicknamed Gojira after the legendary sea beast in a folk legend, the monster makes its first startling appearance menacing Dr. Yamane, his daughter Emiko and her stalwart and idealistic boyfriend Hideo straddling a hill.  Even though it is essentially a hand-manipulated puppet, there is not a shred of cartoonish anthropomorphism in the monster’s utterly inhuman roar (a truly innovative sound design, along with the booming thump referencing the creature’s stomping gait), and the terrific reaction shots of Shimura Takashi, Yamauchi Momoko and other actors, directed by Honda Ishiro, convince the viewers of the fantastic terror and awe of encountering such a beast for real. 
















This inhumanity of Gojira is highlighted in the film’s depiction of its deliberate, purposeful advancement into the Tokyo metropolis, one of the great sequences in the canons of Japanese fantastic cinema. D.P. Tamai Masao (Naruse Mikio’s favorite cinematographer, responsible for Late Chrysanthemum [1954] and Floating Clouds [1955], among other films) and special effects expert Tsuburaya Eiji deftly manipulate fragmented glimpses of the parts of Big G’s body—a tail seen from a high-rise window, a massive foot crushing a train— or of its silhouetted bulk looming high in the dark sky, creating an expressionist montage of an otherworldly terror, far beyond that of a mere gigantic animal rampaging through a pile of mock-up buildings. The sequence has a nightmarish quality that feels both authentic and fantastical, almost like a silent film footage of a real-life disaster, such as Hindenburg exploding into balls of fire.

Dr. Yamane opposes the government plan to destroy the monster, believing that its biological resilience has to be studied for the benefit of mankind.  However, Dr. Yamane's daughter Momoko and her boyfriend Ogata believe that the monster has to be destroyed.  Seeing the devastation of the city for herself, Momoko confesses to Ogata that she believes that there is one way to destroy Gojira.  She tells him that Dr. Serizawa, a genius chemist who had once been betrothed to her, invented a frightful agent called Oxygen Destroyer, which liquefies and annihilates all living beings in water.  Dr. Serizawa, perhaps the best-known role for the aristocratically handsome Toho regular Hirata Akihiko, is disabled, embodying the traumatic wounds of the war (and devotion to science, providing a linkage to the postwar national ideology as well) like the returning soldiers from the war. His agonizing dilemma, having invented a terrible weapon that could destroy Godzilla (i.e. supersede nuclear warheads in power) and yet reluctant to use it for fear of having it fall into the wrong hands (i.e. the contemporary national governments), provides the moral and intellectual linchpin for the film. 

















The ultimate destruction of Godzilla is thus never played for the exhilarating drama of human ingenuity and dedication triumphing over a threat to mankind. Instead, the somber, elegiac mood of the film reaches its crescendo as Dr. Serizawa buries the secrets of Oxygen Destroyer along with himself and the hideous, skeletal remains of Godzilla in the depth of the ocean. With Ifukube Akira’s sad, beautiful music playing in the background, he is mourned by his friends (the Yamanes and Hideo) and, symbolically, the postwar Japanese community who, as specified in the Peace Constitution, consciously chooses not to go into a potentially Apocalyptic war (i.e. militaristic “victory” against the “foreign” threats like Godzilla, although it could be potentially justified for the most stringently defined form of “defense”) despite having developed technological acumen to create weapons needed to conduct such a war.  The noisy and irritating presence of Americans (including a “Japanese-American” character, a borderline caricature) in Shin Godzilla (2017), an otherwise thoughtful and well-made feature, provides an interesting contrast to the absence of Americans in this version.  

Can It Be Used in Class?: Gojira has endured as one of the classic cinematic achievements of Japan, quite aside from the global popularity of its central monster in the subsequent decades. It is still one of the most useful motion pictures to stimulate student discussions and reflections on the history of twentieth-century Japan, especially since many of those familiar with the contemporary iterations of Godzilla might not be aware of the film’s serious, documentarian approach to depiction of traumas of the Pacific War and its stark, honest portrayal of the political and moral dilemmas faced by the immediate postwar Japan. Students can be made to reflect on many scenes and sequences that specifically draw comparison between Gojira and the Pacific War experience, especially B-29 air raids and nuclear bombings, some of which were retained and others eliminated in the process of re-editing that resulted in the Americanized version Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) with the American actor Raymond Burr inserted (rather cleverly, I must add) into the narrative, as if he is a first-hand witness to the unfolding of the plot in the original version. 

If Gojira is a parable about nuclear weapons, what is the position of the filmmakers?  Also what do you think about the positions of different characters (say, that of Dr. Serizawa versus that of Ogata)?  Finally, what can you tell about the Japanese society of 1950s that you were previously unaware, by watching this film?  The topics you might consider include: Position of women, democracy as it is conceived by the immediate postwar Japanese, good and bad aspects of technology, and absence or presence of “foreigners.” 
















As for supplementary readings in English language, I have used Igarashi Yoshikuni’s discussion of the early Showa-period Godzilla films along with the NHK series Kimi no na wa (What is Your Name?) and the stardom of the pro-wrestler Rikidozan in his Bodies of Memory (2000). Those who prefer a work more Godzilla-centric might choose William Tsutsui’s Godzilla on My Mind (2004). The latter provides a nice rundown of both Showa and Heisei-era Godzilla films (from 1954 to roughly late 1990s), distilling some constant motifs and themes throughout them, more important among them Japan’s ongoing anxiety regarding remilitarization and ambivalence regarding its position vis-à-vis hostile international environment.  One caveat I have about the book is Tsutsui’s interpretation of Kaneko Shusuke’s Godzilla, Mothra and King-Gidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001): he seems to attribute nationalistic intent to the film’s imagery of Godzilla, but my interpretation is quite different. 

Currently the best way to watch Gojira stateside is through the Blu Ray special edition restored by Criterion Collection in 2012. This edition was subsequently released as a part of Criterion’s complete Showa Godzilla collection in 2019. It comes with the US import version Godzilla: King of the Monsters, also restored and actually looking and sounding better than the original. The new commentary, historically informative and enthusiastic, is by David Kalat. It is chock full of archival and new video interviews with actors, technical staff, composer Ifukube Akira and the major critic Sato Tadao.  One interesting addition is Columbia University professor of Japanese history Greg Fflugfelder’s audio essay on the terrible fate that befell on Lucky Dragon No. 5, entitled “The Unluckiest Dragon.”  J. Hoberman contributes an essay in which he argues for Gojira as a successful case of humanizing, for all its ambivalent political meanings, the unthinkable, much in the line with Igarashi’s analysis.

References: 

Igarashi, Yoshikuni. Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).   

Tsutsui, William. Godzilla in My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).




2020년 11월 3일 화요일

A thorny but bright path- Message to my students and young friends on the eve of the 2020 US Presidential Election

Well, my friends, here we are, four years later. You can go back and read my old blog entry entitled “Preparing Myself for a Donald Trump Presidency.” This is the conclusion to that entry: “From November 8 [2016] on, whatever the result of the election is, all you arrogant white male Americans who condescendingly looked down on Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea and other nations and disparaged their ‘inability to grasp the essence of democracy’ or some such American Exceptionalist crap, stop bullshitting to my ears. American democracy is DISEASED. The young ones are probably up to the task of curing it but meanwhile, kindly stop telling me how ‘great’ American democracy is, while allowing the low-grade charlatan like Trump to become the head of its executive branch. There is nothing ‘great’ about the American system that allows this to happen.” 

This was uploaded a little past midnight of November 8, 2016, pretty much what I am doing right now in 2020, composing this blog entry about half an hour into the new day of November 3. If you are living anywhere in the world, and reading what I have written, you darn well know what has happened in the last four years, and no, I still derive no pleasure whatsoever from being able to say, “I told you so.” If anything, I fervently wish I could go back to that timeline in which Donald Trump had not only been defeated by Hilary Clinton, but in which he simply had not existed at all: not as a host of The Apprentice, not as a con artist businessman, not as anything. 

But the stone-cold reality is that the US (and the world, really) has been ravaged by the most incompetent, self-centered, unempathetic, dishonest, rampantly racist and chauvinist POTUS in modern (perhaps entire) US history. In addition to all racist and white-supremacist forces, behaviors and ideas he actively fostered, promoted and encouraged, all immigrant children and families he destroyed by putting them in dog cages, all foreign policy behavior that openly benefitted dictators and tyrants and alienated democratic allies, and all institutional fail-safes for environmental protection and conservation that he dismantled, he has literally treated the COVID-19 pandemic as if the latter was his ratings competitor. He publicly called CNN journalists who covered the coronavirus “dumb bastards” to the delight of his “supporters:” he seems to think that his mission as POTUS of the US is to ensure that his crazy antics and hatemongering gets more media coverage than COVID-19 deaths and destructions. 

The last time I checked, whatever the fucked-up country he is apparently the executive head of has recorded 236,473 deaths from the deadly virus. My old country, South Korea, has had 468 deaths, even though these two countries had first become aware of the pandemic almost at the same time. For those, including those false-equivalence experts in the “left,” who say “well, at least Trump has not killed civilians in a war with a foreign country,” what do you think these COVID deaths amount to? This guy waged a war against his own countrymen, and, not ironically, including a large chunk of his fans and supporters. Get out of your ideology bubbles, will you? 

I could go on and on about how this orange-colored maggot has damaged the institution of American presidency and torn apart the fabric of American society into shreds, much of which semi-permanently, so that “recovery,” even if possible, would take years on end. But why bother? I am not writing this piece in order to rant about him. 

In 2016, I wrote the entry to renew my resolve about surviving next four years under this man, without losing myself to despair. To my surprise, despite having witnessed so much suffering and agony in the intervening years, I have not lost myself to despair or even cynicism. In fact, the message I want to convey to my readers, primarily my students, mainly Americans but not necessarily only Americans, is that of optimism. I want to reassure you that whatever happens 24 hours from now (or perhaps for days on end until we know the final tally of the votes), things will not remain the same: it will not be the repeat of the same dreadful four years. 

Why am I so confident? Because while I was weathering through the last four years, I was reminded that this had all happened to me before. It had specifically happened when I was a young kid growing up in South Korea. South Korea had toiled under the military dictatorship of that shade-wearing serpent Park Chung-Hee for whopping seventeen years. And when Park was assassinated in 1979, an even coarser and crueler strongman took over in 1980 and ruled the country for several more years under his jackboots. No matter how you cut it, you, young ones in the US, could do so much more than we young South Koreans could then. 

Besides, the COVID-19 pandemic has truly upended the world. It has mercilessly exposed the fault lines of the so-called “developed” countries of Europe and the US. Some of the most horrifying and nightmarish stories related to the pandemic I have ever read so far are from Sweden, where the “herd immunity” experiment has spectacularly failed. Italy and France went though some horrific experiences.  Anti-Asian racism skyrocketed, even in Germany. The US government, under the leadership of a charlatan and a con artist, who knows nothing about nothing, has floundered and crashed around in its dealings with the pandemic. What’s that, the size of economy matters, hmm, like China and the US? Sure, unless that big-size economy is being “managed” by a bunch of incompetent idiots. When the coast is clearer, it would be obvious to all concerned that the relative advantages of so-called “developed nations” are just that: relative. 

And this is not a recipe for prolonged misery and despair. No, this is a recipe for optimism and hope. Let Donald Trump manipulate and cheat his way to Second Presidency if he wants to. What the past four years have shown is that men like him are utterly incapable of showing the world what the future holds, and to point toward that future, even if every atom of their being depended on doing so. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future, so will all the difficulties associated with it. But the miseries and pains it has brought us have also torn away some of the façades and veils that have hidden some hard truths from us. 

I will not lie to you and say it is going to be easy. Whatever happens tomorrow, you will have to learn to patiently work at rebuilding this country, face its now-exposed, ugly and festering truths, and address its centuries-old sins and hypocrisies, exploited by men like the current POTUS like the flies buzzing around a chunk of rotten meat. But even if the path is filled with thorns, it is going to be a clear path, with the bright light illuminating it. 

It really comes down to two choices, two ways of looking at the world at this moment: one of despair, believing the men like Orange Maggot will forever manipulate and fool us, and ultimately conceding them power to treat us as they like. We Are the Losers theory. Another one is that, even though they could momentarily and sometimes even for a considerable duration arrest our progress toward the future, they ultimately will end up as losers of history. They Are the Losers theory. And I implore you to choose the second one. 

Go out there and change the world: engage, discuss, agonize, educate yourself, and vote. Don’t say your action or thought doesn’t matter. Donald Trump does not matter. You do. 

Let me leave you with a quotation from a speech by a young man named Kim Nam-jun, with whom I can honestly say I am proud of being a citizen of the same country.  

"Maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me. I am who I am today, with all my faults. Tomorrow I might be a tiny bit wiser, and that’s me, too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I was, who I am, and who I hope to become." 

Look toward the future. It belongs to you, not to the Orange Loser.   




(Photo credit- Cooper Baumgartner/ UC Davis Humanities Institute) 

2020년 10월 12일 월요일

Discussion of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo and Its Film Adaptation with Ms. Jang Su Yeon

Continuing our exploration of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Ms. Jang Su Yeon and I have sat down to discuss the book’s reception, its continuing impact on South Korean feminist discourse, and the differences between it and its popular cinematic adaptation. The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in July 20, 2020 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Jang and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact Ms. Jang for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “J” indicates Ms. Jang Su Yeon

Q: Let’s start the discussion, shall we? I read your essay with great interest and I am sure it will be extremely helpful for [UC Davis] undergraduates who will be reading the novel. What do you think their response would be like, when they first laid their eyes on it? 

J: My initial thought was that this novel was more specifically attuned to the experiences of East Asian women, as in China, Korea and Japan, growing up in cultures with influences of Confucianism, for instance. However, since then I have come to think that the problems Ji-young were subject to are a lot more universal. When I had first read Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) in my undergraduate days, I remember resonating strongly with the examples the author discussed in her book, even though they were not based on South Korean society or experiences. So there definitely are experiences of women that apparently transcend cultural differences. 

Q: Well, the Amazon’s sales rank of the English translation of Born 1982, Kim Ji-young is currently [the July 20, 2020 figure] at No. 191 in the “Fiction and Satire” and No. 370 in “Mothers and Children Fiction” rankings. This is no mean feat. And in Amazon Japan, it is currently ranked at, Holy Mackerel, No. 1 in the “Asian Literature” list. 

J: Wow! 

Q: It is also ranked at No. 2 in the “Foreign Literature” category. What are the elements of the novel that would also “make sense” to the non-Korean readers, and what are those that the latter might consider more specific to the Korean situation? 

J: I think especially the sections in the novel where Ji-young encounters various hurdles and difficulties in the transition from school to workplace might have universal appeals. I don’t think Americans use the term like mamchung [see Su Yeon’s essay accompanying this discussion], isn’t that correct? 

Q: Not that I am aware. Actually, this segues into what I consider to be one of the problems I and my wife had with the film version. In the film version Ji-young’s husband struggles mightily with the issue of whether he should take a parental childcare leave from his job. And when he finally does, that is presented as if he had turned a big new leaf in his life. 















*Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi) tries to juggle childrearing and homemaking in a scene from the film version, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: I think the filmmakers tried hard to portray, Tae-hyun, the husband (played by the handsome star Gong Yu) in the sympathetic light. 

Q: But would the Korean men who had no consciousness about these issues change their mind by watching this single movie? 

J: I can understand that as a motion picture the filmmakers had to consider expanding their reaches beyond the readers of the source material. 

Q: Cho Nam-joo’s novel is distinctive from the majority of the novels written by male authors, in the sense that there is little physical description of its characters, especially female characters. You cannot develop an image in your brain about what Ji-young actually looks like, for example. So I can certainly see that this would have not been easy to adopt into a visual medium like a feature film. When a South Korean reader asks about a literary personage, “What kind of person is she?” the answer is really about the socially constituted image of that character-- What kind of dresses does she wear? Does she wear a lot of makeup? Does she drink a lot and talk like a construction worker (never mind that there actually are female construction workers, even in South Korea)? Does she wear her nails all black and matching black stiletto heels? -- these things are usually spelled out in great detail in literary works. 

J: I think that, precisely, is one of the strengths of the novel. Her “facelessness” in fact allows a wide range of women, not just South Korean women, to identify with Ji-young. I think the Japanese and American book covers capture this sense rather well. 

Q: My wife actually loved the novel’s ending, found it superbly chilling yet realistic. I was sympathetic to certain choices made by the filmmakers, such as giving voices to Ji-young’s mother, even if that plot development was a tad melodramatic, but the movie’s denouement was weaker than the novel’s, to say the least. 

J: My mother found the novel, not the movie, “boring,” because she thought that there was nothing that she did not know already. 

Q: That’s an interesting response. So all the hardships and frustrations she had experienced were retold in the novel, and for her, what’s the point of reading something that I would rather not relive through? (Laughter) 















*Ji-young and her "officemates." Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: Right, but at the same time, her mother, my grandmother, and in many ways, I, her daughter, have had so many experiences overlapping with those had by my mom, and the responses to this novel across these generations show how little has really changed. 

Q: It is interesting that the book inspired such a virulent backlash from some Korean men, to the point that a popular k-pop singer such as Irene of Red Velvet was subject to stupendous levels of vilification and personal attack, just for admitting to having read the book! 

J: I think if the book had dealt with an extreme case of physical or emotional abuse by men, it might not have inspired such a backlash. Then these angry men could safely set it aside as a treatment of an “unusual case” and easily deny that they are complicit in creating this kind of frustrating and oppressive experience for someone like Ji-young. Some female readers of the novel have reported to me the feeling of suffocation while reading it, so they had to take a breather or two in the middle just to keep going, even though nothing really violent or extreme takes place in the pages. I mean, none of the male behaviors described in the novel, including the truly scary episode of stalking and the disgusting incident of the company bathroom “molka (hidden cameras),” would be considered serious felonies in South Korea. And that recognition is plenty frightening for many Korean women. 


*Irene of Red Velvet, who got into a boatload of troubles by simply citing Kim Ji-young as a novel "she has read." Source: Huffingtonpost Korea.

Q: Isn’t all this vicious anger in a way copping to the fact that these angry men are well aware that their behaviors toward women are, you know, wrong? 

J: I agree. [Laughter] 

Q: As you have already hinted at, one of the unique features of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is that there is no division between “good men” and “bad men,” unfortunately a standard practice for many, perhaps the majority, of the allegedly “progressively pro-woman” works of literature or cinema, although things are changing. I think this is one of the reasons that so many Korean men get angry at the book. 

J: Right. As I have suggested in my essay, I really do not think it is possible to be a “good man” by remaining a “regular guy” in a rigged and exploitative system like the one described in the novel. So I must agree, yes, the men who have faithfully followed and never questioned the way things work between men and women in today’s South Korea are “bad.” They are all “bad,” unless they want to experience at least some levels of discomfort, if not outright persecution, through the acts of recognizing, criticizing and challenging the kind of mentalities and practices chronicled in the novel. 

Q: Another great thing about the novel is that it refuses to distinguish between “domestic” and “workplace” labor for women like Ji-young. One thing that the movie version did well was that Ji-young’s mother came to her defense, taking up a fight against some of her tormentors unlike in the novel. Yet, that section of the movie inadvertently illustrates that Ji-young’s husband, because he is a son, has many, many social and cultural resources he could mobilize, the least of which is the unwavering attention the family members give him whenever he demands it. So why do some young men of South Korea think that they are the ones who are persecuted and treated unequally? 

J: It is partly economical. South Korea has gone through a long phase of economic growth, but that phase is now pretty much over. The competition for jobs and comfortable lifestyles is much fiercer today than it was thirty years ago. 

Q: But if the anti-feminist men’s argument is that women are unfit to work, presumably compared to themselves, so they should stay at home and raise children, then why do they in the same breath put down those women who do exactly that, and call them “mom roaches” and otherwise denigrate them? 

J: Well, it is a schizophrenic behavior and attitude on their part. On the one hand, they hate capable women to be their competitors in the labor market and allegedly take away their jobs. But at the same time, at home, they act as if they are the victims of the cruel society, who work their butts off to “bring home the bacon,” and see their wives as freeloaders who should go out and make money for the household. Which they vilify other women for doing anyway.  

Q: [Deep sigh] “They are being illogical and self-contradictory” just isn’t going to be enough, I reckon. 















*Ji-young comforts her husband Tae-hyun. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.

J: This is why I think so many women today, and not just in South Korea, refuse to get married and have children. Not necessarily because of some ideological commitment or something like that. I remember confiding to one of my ex-boyfriends that I rather not have a child in a social environment like this. His response was “Oh no, we should have children.” From there we went through the whole cycle of all too familiar arguments step by step. I told him I would need to work outside home. He said but women must raise children, and men cannot take care of them properly. Okay, I will be a stay-home mom then. To this he said, oh no, my income would not be sufficient for us to have a decent lifestyle, so you should get a job too. All throughout this discussion, he had an absolute zero inkling of self-contradiction in his arguments. Absolutely none. 

Q: The novel is also unique in the sense that it refuses to blame “Confucian culture” or some such “traditional” boogieman for the plight of contemporary South Korean women. Cho Nam-joo does not drag in all the historical sufferings of Korean women with the clandestine purpose of demonstrating to her readers that, yes, it has been women’s fate to suffer like this from the time immemorial, boo hoo, and “ameliorate” their frustrations in a great cauldron of tears, the gimmick many popular Korean movies and novels still resort to. I anticipate such a question from an American undergraduate who has read this novel, “Professor, the Korean society’s treatment of her is the result of Confucian tradition, right?” or something to that effect. 

J: To be blunt, the “Korean” or “Asian” background of the novel is not that important. I believe it is the novel’s strength, and again one of the reasons for its cross-cultural appeal, that it precisely does not seek to pin its issues down to “Korean culture,” however it might be defined. I firmly believe that South Korea’s “women’s problems” today originate mainly from sociological and structural factors, not from some ill-defined cultural traits, not to say, of course, cultures and ideologies do not play a role at all. 

Q: Thank you so much, Su Yeon, this will be very helpful for the students! Good luck on your continued academic pursuit in the fields of sociology and women’s studies. 

J: I am so happy to help you out! I hope the [UC Davis] students find the novel (and the film adaptation) intriguing, disturbing and ultimately educational.

What is South Korea's Next Step for Gender Equality? Reading Kim Ji-young, Born 1982- Special Contribution by Jang Su Yeon

Ms. Jang has graduated from Ewha Womans College and recently completed MA program in Demography and Social Analysis at University of California, Irvine. Her MA thesis, “Gender and Marriage in Neoliberal Capitalism: A Case Study in South Korea,” won the Best Paper of the Year prize: she is currently preparing for a Ph. D. degree. 

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 depicts various aspects of discrimination and violence against women. This book goes over the life course of its main character, Kim Ji-young, in its each phase as she ages: as a daughter, a student, a worker, a wife, and a mother. In the early years of her life, her brother always was given a priority at home only because he was a boy. Then, when she went to school, boys were allowed to be rude to girls and do everything first, such as standing first at the food distribution line for school lunches. As she grew older, daughters of low-income families were pushed into factories so as to enable their brothers to be educated. Subsequently, female students were persuaded to choose “feminine” majors because they were expected to take care of the family once they marry. Companies, similarly, prefer male employees because women ought to put their family in front of their careers. A woman experiences a career break once she has a baby because the company does not provide any support for childcare. But at the same time, a stereotype persists that women who sacrificed their careers have made little contribution to society. The sad thing about this book is that my mother, born in 1962, and I, born in 1995, have had strikingly similar experiences with those Ji-young goes through in the book. In other words, the Korean society has not changed significantly in terms of its treatment of and expectation from women in the last three decades. Furthermore, we now know that women across different countries are resonating and feeling sympathy for Ji-young’s story.




























[Figure 1] Source: Lee, K. M., & Lee, H. (2019, October 14), "Bestseller ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ soars in global popularity," Korea.net (Retrieved from http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=178612)  Note: From top left clockwise are the book’s covers from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hungary, Thailand, China, and Spain.


Love and hate for Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 

The popularity of this book in South Korea and other nations shows that those frustrating experiences described in the book are almost omnipresent across divergent cultures and geographies. An English version of the novel is ranked at 12,000th among all books sold at Amazon.com: in Amazon Japan it is the ranked first among Asian literature publications (as of July 20, 2020). Why is this book so popular? How did this book win sympathy so widely? 

First, Kim Ji-young does not have a specific characteristic. This lack of particularistic features implies that the story told in the novel encompasses everyday lives of many, if not all, women. A lot of books convey the personality of the main character by describing how he or she looks like. This book does not do that. Even the book covers usually deletes the face of Kim Ji-young as Figure 1 illustrates. If Kim Ji-young was an exceptionally beautiful or conversely a “plain” woman, the stories in the book could only represent the life of that particular woman. Kim Ji-young’s anonymity in a way enables most women readers to identify with and feel sympathy for her.  

Also, extreme episodes do not occur in the book. Main characters of many books that criticize the discrimination against women experience exceptional tragedies. Kim Ji-young is never subject to any severe form of violence. The only overtly criminal incident in the book involves a male student who stalks and threatens physical harm to her teenage self. But in the end, she is okay. Her father and husband love her, and the other male characters also tend to act reasonably. However, as one reads through the book, the reader feels that something is wrong. The social environment subtly pushes Ji-young and other female characters toward the lives that they did not initially dream of living. For example, Ji-young and her sister both give up their career aspirations to become mothers. No tragedy was needed to change their minds. At the time they had made those decisions, they appeared to be the only and the best option available to them. The consequences are also “normal.” Their experiences as mothers are what we (South Koreans) can see all the time around us. Nonetheless, we can feel how those are choking the women. I think banality of Ji-young’s story really is a key to the power of this book. The book shows that most mundane experiences force women to sacrifice their lives for their brothers, husbands, and sons. 

As much as this book was loved by many readers, it was also subject to vilification and condemnation. Irene, a member of the famous k-pop girl group Red Velvet, was widely criticized by publicly mentioning that she had read the book. Why do some people blame her for reading the book? I believe it is because that the novel, in the critic’s minds, implies that all South Korean males, including the most exemplary and generous ones, are in fact perpetrators of injustice. The book does not have a villain who specifically aims to ruin Kim Ji-young and other women’s lives. Even the stalker and the male teacher who sexually harasses female students are not exceptionally wicked. Instead, some characters such as Ji-young’s father and husband seem to be good persons. However, they still end up contributing to Ji-young’s mental breakdown. 

In the denouement of the book, the psychiatrist, to whom the book’s contents were narrated, seems to feel sympathy for Ji-young. However, apparently without any further thought, he goes on to state horribly discriminatory things against married nurses, and he does not take any action to stop her intelligent wife from losing her career due to childrearing obligations. The lack of separation between good and bad male characters suggests that the everyday actions people take can contribute to the solidification of structural discrimination against women. The male readers may feel like they are blamed for their ordinary, everyday actions that they feel are not malicious or badly intended, which explains some of their negative reactions to the book. 


The cycle of discrimination inside and outside the home 

Among many episodes in the book, what especially caught my attention were the interconnections among Ji-young’s experience as a worker, as a wife and as a (potential) mother. Women are expected to leave the work once they marry, so they are paid less and their jobs are harder to hold down. At the same time, as a result of their low salary and job security, they are chosen as caregivers within the family. However, Korean society does not recognize her social contribution as a caregiver. Mothers are sometimes vilified as “mamchung (mother-roaches, “infesting” public places with their loud, uncontrollable children in tow, to follow the excellent English translation by Jamie Chang).” It was painful for them to give their career up, but many Koreans think that they are wasting their time at home. So, women’s experiences at home and work reinforce one another in a vicious cycle: women cannot find a good job because she will one day become a mother and leave the company, but at the same time, they would be the one to give up their career in the family once the time comes because the male partner is more likely to have a better job. 

I had to question how we can escape from this cycle. Some feminists today in South Korea argue that women should not marry and should not have a child under these circumstances. Can this be a solution? A low fertility rate is compelling the South Korean government to look for a way out of this cycle. Still, so far, they do not seem to understand the fundamental issues underlying the phenomenon. The government has been merely blaming women for the low fertility rate, rather than trying to understand why women choose not to have children. The real solution, I am afraid, is acknowledgement of structural discrimination against women that cannot be blamed on “bad behaviors” of certain men, and to find ways to dismantle it. The private and public sector should both change to deal with gender discrimination. First, companies should stop viewing women as temporary workers bound to quit their jobs once they marry and provide them with continuous opportunities to work even after marriage. Also, systemic support is needed to coordinate division of labor within the family and release working mothers and wives from the double burden. Equal shares in house chores and childrearing should be normalized culturally. Only when these two issues are properly addressed, in my view, the discrimination in the domestic as well as public sectors will stop reinforcing each other.