Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass: Swallowing Suffering For Every Meal

hisui_icon_4040_roundTwo little but very important notes before I begin talking about Grass. The first is this book was given to me as a review copy by Drawn and Quarterly. The second is that Grass is about about the life of a Korean comfort woman during WWII so this book is unmistakably about sexual violence. There is nothing visually graphic in the book. There is not even any nudity. But if you are disturbed by sexual violence you should tread into the book very carefully.

I have to apologize for not posting a main article on the blog since I finished my Otakon posts. A mixture of shakeups at work, my trying to restart my long-running D&D game, and some general ennui have been a bit of a roadblock. The other thing is I promised myself my next post would be a review of Grass. The thing is I could have easily done a simple review of the new Urusei Yatsura volumes. They are wacky books that are fun to write about with a mixture of nostalgia and whimsy. Grass, on the other hand, is a heavy and powerful story that requires a different amount of weight and consideration. Posts like this one are distinctly harder to write. They don’t flow as naturally from me but that sometimes makes them all the more valuable.

Of all the things I have written since Kate has decided to take a break this is the post I most feel her absence from the blog. I feel most of the posts on Reverse Thieves would have been better with her adding to them but this is the first where I actually feel something is lost without her presence. I will try my best without her but I fully acknowledge this post will not be what it could have been without her. In that respect, I ask your forgiveness and to bear with me.

Lee Ok-sun grew up in Korea surviving a world of backbreaking poverty. It was hardly idyllic but her hardscrabble life turns absolutely hellish when she is forced into becoming a comfort woman for the Japanese Army. But even after the war ends her life is inexorably scarred by her forced servitude as she is barraged by tragedy after tragedy. This is the story of a survivor and the artist who interviewed her.

If you have read any of my reviews in the past I usually start with the characters or the story before anything else and I usually end with talking about the art as it is not my forte. In this case, I thought that Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s style sets a very important tone which shapes the rest of the post. The characters in Grass are drawn very simply. They are expressive and evocative but overall they are minimalist. When there is a good amount of detail in the book it is for the backgrounds and scenery. This is important because this is a draining narrative filled with some true suffering and misery. The detailed background distinctly gives the story a sense of place and realism that is important to a historical story that tells of someone’s life. The character designs on the other hand strike a balance between being real enough that they invoke an emotional connection but are abstract enough to prevent the story from burning out the reader.

I feel if they were any more detailed the reader might be overwhelmed by the tragedy of the story and lessen its impact. It lets Grass ring true but palatable. It reminds me of Maus in that respect. There is a power and importance in choosing what is shown in detail and what is left to the imagination. That is an idea that permeates everything in the book.

But the story itself has some interesting aspects as it is 90% focused on Lee Ok-sun’s life story but there is a bit of a framing device of concerning the interactions of Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and Lee Ok-sun. This is important because it very much changes how this is to be read. This is clearly the story of Lee Ok-sun that she tells about herself. The book never brings into question the truth of her story or even implies she is an unreliable narrator. It does, however, make it clear that the story is filled with her little insights, emotions, and prejudices. This is not a fictional story of some amalgam character meant to represent all the Korean comfort women of WWII. This is one very particular woman’s story.

It is also clear that Lee Ok-sun has been irrevocably damaged by her life and left bitter. Then again only a truly naive Pollyanna could remain hopefull after be sold by their family, forced into sexual slavery, abandoned by one husband, abused by another, and generally treated like damaged goods by society. But even when she is reunited with her birth family it seems like she is incapable of reconnecting with them and vice versa. I’m sure some of it is people who have effectively become strangers trying to reforge a long shattered bond. But part of me wonders how much are the scars of the past preventing a proper reunion. I don’t think anyone, especially an outsider like me, could ever answer that question. I just know that the idyllic story of the unbreakable family bond does not play out here.

Japan’s relationship with the rest of Asia has always been complicated, to say the least. When it comes to Japan and Asia when it involves WWII you can amplify any feeling expressed there about 100 times. Everyone who was involved in that conflict did horrible and disgusting things. That is unquestioned. The problem is there are several major crimes, atrocities, and foul deeds that the Japanese Army did that even the current Japanese government either downplays or even outright denies despite clear evidence to the contrary. The forced sexual slavery of Korean comfort women is the main one that this book is concerned with.

As someone who has written about Japan and their animation for over a decade, I clearly have respect, admiration, and even fascination with the country and its culture. That said I try to face it all with eyes wide open so that means praising its accomplishments as well as looking with eyes wide open at its moments of darkest sin. If you have an interest in Japan warts and all then this book is a dark but solid testament to that tragedy. But even beyond that, it is a reminder of man’s capability for inhumanity and apathy. That is an occasionally necessary cold reminder for everyone.

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