It’s over. The English-language translation of Old Boy, the manga that served as the inspiration for one of the best movies of recent years, has run its course at last. That said, the book and movie diverged broadly enough that to talk about one in the context of the other seems almost unfair: they’re not the same thing, and aren’t intended to be. They’re different animals, and in many respects they accomplish different things. The manga is not the movie, and over its length it doesn’t quite have the same impact (what could?), but taken as a whole Old Boy the manga is still extremely impressive. It’s a series that I hold back on giving higher marks to if only because I suspect many people will find it frustrating, not enthralling.
At the end of Goto’s quest, he has found that his tormentor of ten years, “Dojima”—real name Kakinuma, fellow classmate in elementary school—has been running the whole shooting match behind the scenes in many different ways. He used hypnotism to suppress Goto’s memory of a crucial emotional event in their childhoods; he used hypnotism to get him and his newly-found girlfriend Eri to meet and fall in love; and now he’s banked his entire sense of self on the outcome of his game. If Kakinuma loses—if Goto can figure out what happened so long ago, despite the blocks erected in his path—then Kakinuma will take his own life.
What’s striking about the answer to the puzzle is how inconsequential it is. That’s exactly the idea, though. When asked to sing a certain song in front of the class (“Town of Flowers,” the mere sound of which evokes a post-hypnotically enforced phobic reaction in Goto), Kakinuma sang his heart out, and only Goto felt himself moved to tears by it. His adolescent heart went out to that ugly little ostracized kid, and Kakinuma has felt shame ever since—the shame of knowing that he is one way, that this other man is another way, so much more emotional and better than he, and that he will never be like that. It’s the little things in our hearts, invisible to others, that are sometimes most important. In the end Kakinuma realizes his great project is a failure: for all of his efforts, he was unable to take this man who shed tears so freely in front of him so long ago and turn him into a monster. Time to die. And then there’s a clever knot-in-the-stomach coda, something that would have made Hitchcock proud, where Goto wonders if Kakinuma’s game has ever really ended.
If you look back over the series as a whole, you can see how it was condensed and converted into the movie, and how many of its ideas were revamped. In the movie, Goto—or, rather, Dae-su Oh, as played so unforgettably by Min-sik Choi—is seen to be entirely a creature of the circumstances created by his tormentor, Woo-jin. He believes his experiences have changed him for the better in some way, but only because he doesn’t know the full extent of what has been done, or why. The girl, Mi-do, also has a completely different significance in the story: her very identity becomes part of the way Woo-jin achieves his revenge, and the way this is woven into the substance of the film is so masterful it’s downright fearsome. (Since I have seen the movie so many times, I prefer to look at the audience I’m with whenever we get to the scene with the photo album, because they almost always manifest the same reaction: a sea of dropped jaws.)
Most of the adaptation of the comic to the film was in the form of taking key pieces of the story and refitting them into the director’s new framework for it. The most memorable scene in the film, Dae-su facing off against a whole corridor full of assailants, was not in the comic at all: the closest thing we get to that is when Goto steps into a boxing ring to beat information out of someone. Ditto the horrific tooth-yanking sequence, which has given most of my friends nightmares (me included). But the dumplings, the “7 1/2 floor” hideaway, and many other topical details of the comic were preserved in some form.
The biggest differences between the comic and the movie, then, boil down to two things, aside from the radically reworked plot. The first is the larger theme: that of one man changing his world but unable to change himself, while the object of his obsession finds a way to do exactly that. The second is the nature of the secret: in the comic, it’s deliberately tiny and arbitrary, because what forms the hidden center of any of our lives is not something other people can come to know about. In the movie, the fact that the secret is revealed by someone who doesn’t realize its importance, that’s everything: what is important to you is trivial to others, and vice versa, and that is a large part of why I am I and you are you.
There’s a lot about Old Boy as a manga that has been frustrating. It takes a long time to make its case; it stacks the deck in ways that people may find ludicrous; it ultimately revolves around something that many people might feel isn’t worth the trouble to get there.
But taken as a whole, it’s honestly original, and it attempts to do something that few enough manga ever attempt at all. It’s about the process of getting to the truth, about the digging and not about the revealing. And in the end, it asks: How deep will you dig? How many stones will you overturn? What will you be happy with knowing and not knowing about yourself and your world? That’s something that applies as much for Kakinuma than Goto, if not more. Heady stuff for such a story, and I think we’re all a little richer for having it all in English at last.
Other Lives Of The Mind