There are two things to know about Bride of the Water God before you begin reading: first, the artwork is stunningly beautiful, and second, the story takes frequent, confusing detours that are almost impossible to explain, given what we know about the characters. If you find yourself vacillating between “Oh, so pretty!” and “Sweet Jesus, that makes no sense!”, know that you’re not alone.
The story begins with a human sacrifice. In a rural village plagued by drought, town elders try to appease Habaek, the water god, with an offering of a “bride.” They place Soah, a stoic young beauty, in a leaky boat and set her adrift on a nearby lake. Instead of drowning, however, Soah washes ashore in the enchanted kingdom of Sugok, home of the water god. Habaek reveals himself to Soah not as the grotesque, man-eating creature she imagined he would be, but as a ten-year-old boy who presides over a lively court of deities. As she begins to explore Habaek’s sprawling palace, her initial relief turns to fear: Nakbin, Habaek’s previous wife, died under mysterious, possibly violent, circumstances that no one will discuss openly.
Soah faces another vexing problem as well. Not long after Habaek installs her at the palace as his bride, a tall, handsome man named Mui begins paying Soah nighttime visits. (And not for a friendly game of Scrabble, I might add.) When Soah presses Habaek’s courtiers for information about Mui, they offer conflicting explanations of who, exactly, he is, with some suggesting that Mui is Habaek’s nocturnal form and others implying that he is, in fact, a rival of Habaek. Soah’s loyalty to Habaek is further tested by her growing reliance on Hoo-yee, Habaek’s most trusted military officer and — natch –an impossibly beautiful man whose obvious affection for Soah arouses Mui’s jealousy.
A story this unabashedly romantic relies heavily on atmosphere and suggestion to cast its spell — two things at which Mi-Kyung Yun excels. The Sugok landscape is a delightful mixture of “once upon a time”—haunted forests, lavish palaces—and more contemporary influences—fish-shaped dirigibles, floating castles reminiscent of Miyazake’s Laputa. As one might expect, the gods wear lavish robes; Yun offers detailed renderings of the intricate patterns and decorative embroidery characteristic of traditional hanbok. Though these patterns sometimes spill into the backgrounds, taking the place of conventional sun-jeong (shojo) motifs like flower petals, Yun is a disciplined draftsman. She balances her more detailed images with ones of stark simplicity: a few blood spatters on a blank page hint at Habaek’s violent past, a burning candle indicates the passage of time.
Yun’s artwork is not without problems, however. Several of her male characters are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Hoo-ye and Tae-eul-jin-in, the mysterious court physician, for example, are differentiated only by the good doctor’s fondness for wearing glasses, while Mui and Ju-Dong, the fire god, bear an uncanny resemblance to one other, distinguished primarily by the amount of bare chest on display. (Mui tends to wear his robes open to the waist; Ju-Dong, a minor character, is more discrete.) The other drawback to Yun’s artwork is its stiffness. Even when characters leap through the air, stand in the night breeze, and burst out of the water, the images have a static quality, as if Yun were copying a diorama of beautiful porcelain dolls, rather than drawing from life. The drape of the characters’ gowns, in particular, has a starched quality; the fabric looks architectural, rather than soft and fluid. In short, Yun is a spectacular pin-up artist — as the numerous title pages and color inserts attest — but is still developing her sequential chops.
If the artwork is uneven yet beautiful, the narrative is a flat-out mess, an ungainly hybrid of folktale and soap opera. To sustain the reader’s interest over five, ten, or fifteen volumes, the author needs a clear strategy for presenting her material: either she relates her story in the manner of a legend, as a chain of events that logically follow one another in sequence (e.g. hero goes on quest to prove worthiness to marry heroine, performs a series of tasks, then wins her hand), or populates her story with psychologically complex characters who grow and change in response to events. Yun is clearly aiming for the latter, but the story is so incoherent and dream-like on a moment-to-moment basis that it doesn’t make much sense; characters behave strangely, appear out of nowhere for the convenience of the plot, and contradict themselves with whip-lash inducing frequency.
Tearing away masques is an essential authorial trick, of course — a technique for revealing hidden facets of the characters’ personalities, or revealing their true motives. Yun, however, is so taken with the idea that nothing is as it seems that it’s impossible to get a fix on any of the characters. Soah’s interactions with Habaek, for example, suggest that she feels little to no emotional attachment to the boy-deity. When a Nakbin look-alike appears on the scene, however, Soah nearly comes unhinged at the thought that Habaek prefers this impostor over her, readily agreeing to return to the human world so that her memories of Habaek’s betrayal can be erased. Soah’s behavior might make more sense if she realized that Habaek and Mui were different manifestations of the same deity, or if her interactions with Habaek were personable, but as of volume five, she still believes that the two are separate individuals, and Habaek remains coolly detached in her presence.
…it’s impossible to deny Bride of the Water God‘s appeal. Perhaps it’s a sign of arrested development, or just a measure of how attuned I am to my inner eight-year-old, but I still love a good folktale. The same things that fired my imagination as a kid — ghosts, dragons, resourceful heroines, talking animals, terrible curses, magical objects, lovers separated by fate — still appeal to me as an adult reader. Bride of the Water God may be static and confusing — hallucinatory, if I’m in a more generous mood — but in its best moments, Mi-Kyung Yun’s story reads like an honest-to-goodness fairy tale, as Grimm as anything Jacob or Wilhelm collected in the Bavarian countryside.
This is a revised version of a review that appeared at PopCultureShock on October 10, 2007. Click here for the original text. N.B. The original essay covered only the first volume of the series.
Kris saysFebruary 18, 2010 at 12:37 am
It’s completely nonsensical, but I absolutely adore this series. It’s so hard to explain why, because the damn thing makes NO sense. Every volume has to be red at least twice upon initial viewing. And just when you think you understand what’s going on, the next volume creates another mess.
It starts making sense after a while, but you really do have to invest some time rereading it and piecing things together.
But the art…I am so in love with the art! I think she draws amazing backgrounds (architecture, I mean), and beautiful clothes. I don’t think I picked up on their lack of movement…. Will have to look through them again. I think it’s hard enough sorting out the plot to even notice something like that.
I will have to slightly disagree with your interpretation of Soah’s (lack of) feelings toward Habaek. She has an intense loyalty toward him, though admittedly that’s not the same as lovingly, wifely feelings. Though I almost got a sort of sibling love vibe. She cares for him, and is loyal to their “marriage,” at the very least. And I think, 5 volumes in, she’s starting to think Habaek and Mui are one and the same. In fact, I’m certain she thinks so, she just keeps getting told that he’s not, so she won’t believe her own intuition.
spearcarrier saysFebruary 18, 2010 at 6:50 am
I love this series… but I often find the artwork emotionless, even given that it’s coming from a culture tightly controlled in that way. There are times the characters’ flat expressions pull me completely out of the story. I find the artwork beautiful, but often end up complaining out loud about that when I get my next book.
I’m enjoying the story, and I haven’t been confused by anything that’s going on in the plot so far. However, there have been quite a few times I’ve had to look at pages and look again because I wasn’t sure of just where the characters were standing. There hasn’t been enough background for someone like me… but I’m sure I’m alone in that one. Manga does things like that.
Overall I’m liking this series and have noticed an improvement on the artist’s part as it progresses. I haven’t been able to get v. 4 and 5 yet, but I hope to soon. =^-^=
Katherine Dacey saysFebruary 18, 2010 at 8:16 am
@Kris: I almost ended on the line, “Bride of the Water God, I just can’t quit you,” then resisted the urge. It’s one of those series that’s a pleasure to read in spite of itself!
As for Soah’s loyalty to Habaek, I definitely see what you’re saying. Maybe a better way of expressing my issue would be to say that her feelings for him don’t seem… earned? justified by what happens? Their interactions are kind of remote and formal, so it seemed odd to me that she’d be so utterly crazed by the idea Nakbin was still hanging around. I have a feeling I’m waaaaaay overthinking this one!
@spearcarrier: Your point about the artwork is well-taken; the story feels a few degrees cooler than it should because the characters look so passive, even in scenes of intense emotion. I also agree about the artist’s command of space; it’s not always easy to imagine the space in which the story is taking place, since it’s hard to get a fix on where the characters stand.
Laura saysFebruary 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm
Not meaning any offense to the good people at Dark Horse, but could it be that some things were lost in translation? I often wondered that after attempting this series. Possibly I just don’t have the knowledge to pick up on the cultural aspects of the story, not knowing much Korean history or folklore. Whatever the case may be, I agree that it is beautiful and confusing. :)
Katherine Dacey saysFebruary 19, 2010 at 7:54 am
That’s a great point, Laura — some kind of essay or appendix identifying the various gods, their role in Korean folklore, and their role in the legends that Mi-Kyung Yun is using as her source material would be very helpful. Her own summaries of the stories are clearly aimed at people who’ve learned them in school.
Rio saysApril 18, 2010 at 4:43 am
Personally, I find the manhwa a fresh change. The art isn’t stiff—again, this is my personal opinion—I’m thinking it’s gently acquired taste that will get you used to it. Japanese manga artists have different strokes and emphasis so it really will be some sort of a shock for people who don’t read manhwa so much.
Also, I think the reason why it is confusing is because readers are used to looking for the usual “transition” elements used in japanese manga to indicate flashbacks or flash forwards (e.g. lighter brush strokes, a light “veil” of shade over the pages that show the flashback or flash forward). There is also such a thing as linear narration when it comes to Japanese manga—which makes some readers think that manhwas also work in the same line. I’ve read a couple of manhwas already and I’ve realized that this is not so. Instead, they have a tendency to move the characters freely—-although, admittedly to the confusion of their readers.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 18, 2010 at 11:22 am
Hi, Rio! Dissenting points of view are always welcome — after all, this review is just my personal opinion!
I’m guessing from your comment that this is the first time you’ve visited my site. What might not be obvious from this review is that I have read a lot of manhwa. If you visit my home page, for example, you’ll see two articles of interest: a report on the Korean comics exhibit at the San Francisco Library (http://mangacritic.com/?p=4063), and my list of ten essential manhwa (http://mangacritic.com/?p=4120). Before launching this site, I reviewed manhwa for PopCultureShock, covering everything from Banya the Explosive Delivery Man to I.N.V.U. I say this because I understand how my comments might seem naive or ill-informed but they do, in fact, reflect a long engagement with Korean comics.
You make a great point about the subtle differences between the Korean and Japanese approaches to narrative. In many of the historical/folkloric titles that NETCOMICS has licensed, I’ve noticed a similar tendency to juxtapose past and present without using the visual signifiers that you mention above. I haven’t found titles such as Kingdom of the Winds or Land of Silver Rain nearly as obtuse as Bride of the Water God, however; I felt that Kimjin and Mira Lee had a much stronger grasp of their characters, making it much easier for me to follow the story, even when the narrative wasn’t linear. By contrast, I found Bride of the Water God atmospheric and beautiful to look at, but lacking the internal logic that would make the episodic narrative really cohere.
Jennifer saysAugust 16, 2010 at 1:35 pm
A fun and very fair review.
Jennifer saysSeptember 17, 2010 at 12:37 am
I linked your review to my BotWG post.
Katherine Dacey saysSeptember 17, 2010 at 5:48 am
Thanks for the link and the kind words, Jennifer!