Bookstore shelves across the country are experiencing a boom in translated Korean comics, or manhwa, just as they’ve been enjoying a similar influx from their Japanese cousins for a long time now. And like Japanese manga, Korean manhwa has both a popular mainstream incarnation and a more adult variety. Buja’s Diary is unquestionably in the second category. It has the same restless, uneasy spirit that Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man did: this is about life in a raw, troubling and unvarnished vein. Unlike Push Man, though, Diary is more protestant and angry than grim and matter-of-fact. Even when the storytelling or results aren’t as consistent it’s still absorbing, and the title story is worth the price of the whole book.
Diary is broken into thirteen unrelated short pieces, all set in troubled post-WWII South Korea and depicting in different measures the difficulties of living well, or even sometimes living at all. The art is strongly reminiscent of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, not in the sense of its details of the environment but how the look on a face is precisely observed and recorded — and in stories that are as much about inner lives as outer ones, that’s crucial.
In “Old Man Kim’s Record”, a handwritten diary of a septuagenarian’s story of suffering and hardship passes into the hands of a junk scavenger who’s hauling away the rest of the trash of the dead man’s life. The whole thing doesn’t come completely together until the very last panel, where we see the scavenger dragging his load — just as the dead man carries his burdens — past a park bench occupied by several old men. Who knows what they, too, are carrying, the story seems to be saying; we are all carrying a silent burden, and the most we can do is pass what we have of that on to someone else before even that is silenced.
In “The Secret of the Old Leather Pouch,” the leather pouch of the title has been passed down from father to son in a family, symbolizing each generation’s struggles every time it changes hands. At the climax, the father of the current generation tears it out of his son’s hands and prepares to throw it into the ocean; the son, knowing full well what it symbolizes, screams “Don’t!” Is he a fool for being liberated from that kind of legacy of pain, or does he know better than his father to so impulsively shed the past?
Buja's mother contends with the total lack of resources
at hand to raise her daughter correctly, including the
inability to save face with her fellow mothers.
The very last story, from which the book gets its title, is both groundbreaking and heartbreaking. On one page, we see pages from a young girl’s picture diary, describing events in her life at home with her mother and younger brother; on the facing page, we see a textless and more stylized version of the same events, through the author’s eyes rather than the girl’s. The presentation is striking, and it perfectly embodies the story’s intentions. Despite their family’s poverty in the wake of her husband’s death, the girl’s mother struggles valiantly to keep food on the table and a roof over their head, but the deck is stacked against her for being both poor and honest. She has no money to curry favor with her daughter’s teachers, no money to bribe town officials so that she might run a snack stand — nothing at all, really, to the point where one meal consists of only rice and cold water.
Suja, the young girl, is teased at school because her name means “rich”, but what no one else can see is that she is indeed richer than the others around her for having the mother she does. She’s even gone so far as to unconsciously emulate her mother’s example — at one point she doesn’t tell her mother that she needs a dress uniform for a frivolous and pointless school function, from which she is summarily excluded. At the end of the story, we see all too clearly that as fine as it is in the abstract to be under the wing of someone of such uncompromising principles, it means almost nothing in a world that refuses to recognize that.
Cartoon art has had a long history of being a vehicle for political and social criticism. In the U.S., this is still visible if only in the form of one-panel political cartoons printed in daily papers. But in other countries — Europe, and now Asia — it’s long been used to point out gaping deficiencies in the social order, and almost all of the popular art produced in Korea that I’ve seen (especially its cinema) is shot through with biting social commentary. Seyeong is most bitter not merely at the fact that injustice exists, but that the good are all smothered a-borning as well. He shares a sentiment with another chronicler of man’s more embittered sides, George Orwell: “This was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.”