MELINDA: Good morning, Michelle! How are you holding up after your marathon read?
MICHELLE: Fairly well! I’m usually a terribly slow reader, so it’s always nice to marathon manhwa since the big, spacious paneling allows me to go a lot faster!
MELINDA: Girls’ manhwa, especially, is easy on the eyes… and in more ways than one, most of the time!
So, anyone who’s been following My Week in Manga will know that the series Michelle and I have been marathoning this week is Chocolat, a girls’ manhwa series by writer JiSang Shin and artist Geo—the same team who brought us Very! Very! Sweet. This series went abruptly on hiatus after seven volumes—the last of which was published here in 2008—and finally resumed publication in South Korea in the spring of 2011. Its North American publisher, Yen Press, collected the series’ final three volumes into a single omnibus that was released just last month.
Chocolat tells the story of Kum-Ji Hwang, a middle-school student obsessed with a popular idol group known as “DDL,” and particularly its lead singer, Jin. Having discovered DDL too late to get in on its fan club’s initial membership drives, Kum-Ji and her friends are firmly stuck at the very bottom of the fandom hierarchy, with little hope of ever seeing their idols up close, let alone interacting with them in any meaningful way. Frustrated by this cruel reality, Kum-Ji gets in on the ground floor of the fan club for a new idol group, Yo-i. Though she cares nothing at all about Yo-i, Kum-Ji’s status as a club officer grants her special access to entertainment complexes and live events, including those that Yo-i shares with DDL!
When the day finally arrives that Yo-i and DDL are working in the same studio, Kum-Ji struts in proudly to find her way to DDL’s waiting room, and though she finally gets her opportunity to meet Jin, her moment of glory is interrupted by E-Soh, a cute (but spoiled) boy she tussled with on the elevator, who also happens to be the lead singer for Yo-i. Catching on to Kum-Ji’s ruse, E-Soh threatens to blow her cover unless she agrees to be his personal slave.
The rest of the plot is totally predictable, right? Kum-Ji will grudgingly consent to E-Soh’s terms, all the while hating him with her whole heart, until hate finally turns into mutual love and they live happily (and entertainingly) ever after. Right?? Thankfully, no.
Though Kum-Ji initially succumbs to E-Soh’s blackmail, she’s not cut out for polite servitude and her rebellious nature pretty much ensures that her cover is doomed from the start. But as it turns out, Kum-Ji’s aunt is a coordinator for Yo-i, which means that Kum-Ji’s proximity to the idol world is not wholly dependent on her fan club status. This is pretty fortunate for Kum-Ji, since her “disrespectful” treatment of E-Soh puts her immediately at odds with the Yo-i fan club president—a dazzling beauty commonly referred to as “Barbie.”
Beyond this, the series becomes pretty complicated to summarize. Though its melodramatic nature gives it a formulaic feel, its romantic entanglements and various character trajectories are actually quite difficult to sum up in any kind of neat way. Predictably, E-Soh falls for Kum-Ji (in typically inexplicable fashion—at least at first), but Kum-Ji’s feelings are much more complicated as she tries to weigh her growing friendship with E-Soh against both her longstanding idol worship of Jin and her unexpected sexual attraction Yo-i’s main rapper, E-Wan. Meanwhile, Barbie’s obsession with E-Wan spurs her to pursue a career as an idol herself so that she can approach him as a colleague instead of a fan, and E-Wan struggles with just figuring out how to coexist with other humans at all. Ultimately, the series becomes a strange mixture of tried-and-true romance formulas and surprisingly insightful musing on the nature of love and corporate-made social hierarchies, which works better than you might think.
MICHELLE: Wow, that summary was incredibly well done!
As I began Chocolat, I had the same expectations. “Okay, this is another series where a childish and uncouth girl encounters a handsome and rich guy and they bicker and bicker until suddenly he loves her, but then she’s never grateful for anything he does until suddenly she matures and they live happily ever after.” And, on some levels, it kind of is that, but there are definitely some twists to the old formula.
I expected that Kum-Ji would mature—for the first four volumes, she’s pretty insufferable—but I wasn’t prepared for just how awesome she would become and how necessary all that earlier squabbling would turn out to be. If you’re introduced to a character who is calm and mature, they could be a bit dull, but knowing her background, when we see her exhibiting those qualities, we’re just struck by how much she’s grown. Also, she is completely reflective on her own past behavior and acknowledges several times how she’s sorry for it and grateful for the many kindnesses she initially rebuffed. By the end of the series, I liked her very much.
I also thought JiSang Shin and Geo did a decent job explaining why these boys would be attracted to her, even though it initially seems so inexplicable. Aside from the fact that their obsessively scandal-phobic production company is keeping them away from girls as much as possible, Kum-Ji is the one girl they meet who is utterly honest and who expects nothing from them. E-Wan later explains that he’s attracted to her because, growing up the son of a mother who never put him first, he can see that she’ll become a terrific mother one day. Strong, loving, and utterly willing to protect her kid with the full extent of her ability. (Well, okay, he doesn’t necessarily say all that, but that’s what he means.) She finally convinces him that real love is possible, and if his change of heart is a little swift and unconvincing initially, by the end I was sold on their relationship.
MELINDA: I think in general I have a higher tolerance for heroines like Kum-Ji than you do (I tend to find the arrogant male love interest much more insufferable), but in Kum-Ji’s defense, specifically, I feel that she has an especially good excuse for immaturity, since she is actually younger than all of the male idol characters, none of whom are any more mature than she is, when you think about it—quieter, in some cases, but not particularly mature. I am in complete agreement with you, however, on how awesome she becomes, and I need to extend the same praise to E-Soh, whose personal growth is just as dramatic as Kum-Ji’s. It’s not often that I find myself equally admiring both the heroine and the guy she doesn’t end up with by the end of a romance comic.
MICHELLE: Oh, I found the arrogant guys pretty insufferable, too! The tone of the story in early volumes is also more “comedic,” in that there are lots and lots of ugly panels and some truly awful attempts at humor at Wu-Hee’s (the female member of Yo-i) expense. I expect you know what sequence I’m talking about, and I really could have done without that. The whole manhwa could’ve done without that! But, in general, I don’t get along that well with comedies, so that probably contributed significantly to my irritation with earlier volumes. I had faith that the story would eventually shift into something more my speed, though, and it did.
E-Soh is indeed an interesting character. I really liked the bit at the end where he’s realizing that the idol business can’t go on forever and he should think about what else he might want to do with his life. I’m not sure characterization with him was always consistent—at one point he’s playing a sort of Momiji role by helping Kum-Ji and E-Wan get together, but later he’s demanding of his bandmate “What the heck do you see in her?!!”—but his overall story line is a good one.
MELINDA: Yeah, I think there are some confusing moments in E-Soh’s character development, but some of those end up being used to great advantage, too. One of the things I love most about the way Kum-Ji and E-Soh’s relationship is written throughout the series, is that the authors aren’t afraid of letting them be confused or to hurt themselves and each other in the midst of that confusion. Neither of them is portrayed as the villain in the relationship, and the differences between the way Kum-Ji feels about E-Soh versus E-Wan versus Jin are really nuanced and not necessarily cut along the lines drawn by typical romance tropes. Likewise, E-Soh’s feelings about Kum-Ji and E-Wan are changeable and not easily defined. Because of this, Kum-Ji and E-Soh’s relationship is probably my favorite in the series—kind of because they don’t end up together romantically. There’s a scene near the end of the final volume in which Kum-Ji thanks E-Soh for making a clean break with her, and he acknowledges how difficult keeping it clean actually was that really sums up how well the relationship is written and it actually made me kind of teary at the time.
MICHELLE: I agree completely about the nuanced difference in Kum-Ji’s feelings, and I thought that the manhwa-ga team did a great job clarifying those for the reader at a pace that matched the internal clarification Kum-Ji herself was experiencing. This leads me to note that the portrayal of fandom is also really well done—the dedicated fervor as well as the gradual moving away from that kind of idealized obsession while still looking back on all those times with nostalgic fondness. It’s never portrayed as a waste of time and the feelings experienced by fans are presented as absolutely genuine.
And yet, reality inevitably wins out in the end. There’s a great scene where E-Wan, thinking to do something nice for Kum-Ji, invites her over to Jin’s place, but by then her feelings for E-Wan have developed so much that she only has eyes for him and practically ignores her idol lounging next to her on the couch in his bathrobe.
MELINDA: Yes, I absolutely loved the way the story handles fandom/fans. I think Jung-Yeon (aka “Pretty Boy Jin”) is one of the best examples of this. First, I love the fact that Kum-Ji and her friends continue to think of his online fandom name as his actual name (wow, can I relate to that), and also that he ends up being both a totally real guy with his own life and issues and also a serial fan who is just really good at being a fan. He’s that fan whose homemade gifts and banners outshine everyone else’s, and by the end of the story he’s moved on to another fandom to which he’s just as devoted as he ever was to DDL (I can relate to that, too).
MICHELLE: Because he looks so much like Jin when he’s first introduced, I kept waiting for the big reveal that he was some secret little brother or something, but nope, just a fanboy. At one point, it seemed like his story would come more to the fore, as there was a line about his parents having kicked him out, but then we never hear about it again, so I’m not sure what happened there.
MELINDA: Oh, interesting, I never really expected it to become more prominent—just kind of took it as a character note—but I should mention, too, that I liked his relationship with Kum-Ji and the kind of friend he was to her, even if it was clear that they weren’t exactly on the same page there. I was glad that the authors didn’t feel it necessary to try to neatly fit him into her harem (like making him confess or something), but that there was some ambiguity and unsettled-ness in terms of how each of them viewed the friendship.
MICHELLE: Definitely. If it had been yet another boy expressing his interest in her, it would’ve been overkill.
Speaking of boys who fancy Kum-Ji, we haven’t really talked about E-Wan very much. He starts off very surly and angsty—this, combined with the boy band aspect of the story, reminded me of the lead character in You’re Beautiful to the point that I called him “Murderbot” in my notes a few times—but we eventually learn that he’s had a terrible home life. It seems like he joined Yo-i at least in part to distract himself from his pain, but all the smiling and singing and pretending like nothing’s wrong are really wearing him down.
Burdened by a past full of unsolicited, expectant admirers, he’s pretty nasty to Kum-Ji when she finally confesses her feelings to him, but when she—unlike all the others—actually takes his feelings into account and leaves him alone afterwards, he apologizes and starts becoming nicer in general. I actually found his about-face here a little too sudden—I was so suspicious I wondered whether his illness was terminal or something—but it’s certainly not unwelcome.
MELINDA: Ha! I’ll admit that “Murderbot” came to my mind a few times as well, though I do kinda love that, unlike Tae-Kyung in You’re Beautiful, E-Wan isn’t the obvious love interest from the start. He sort of sidles in there unexpectedly as Kum-Ji gets to know the group, unlike E-Soh, who is completely transparent and in Kum-Ji’s face (and thus, ours) the whole time.
E-Wan’s transformation felt pretty slow and natural to me, but I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that I was actually re-reading the first seven volumes rather than marathoning the whole series for the first time. Did my later impressions of E-Wan color my reading of him early on? That certainly seems possible.
Though as a reader, I would have been happy to see Kum-Ji end up with either E-Soh or E-wan (as long as she was happy), I admit I loved E-Wan’s final volume persona as the cranky idol who will only behave for magical manager Kum-Ji. I would have been sad had that E-Wan never surfaced. He’s pretty adorable.
MICHELLE: “Sidling” is the perfect way to describe how E-Wan ends up becoming the love interest. I really liked that, too, though because Kum-Ji ends up genuinely becoming such close friends with E-Soh, ending up with him wouldn’t have felt super-predictable either.
And yes, I quite liked the glimpse of the two of them at the end! In their notes, the creators mentioned being dissastified with the conclusion to the series, but I honestly don’t see what’s wrong with it! I was a little worried when Kum-Ji didn’t get angry when E-Wan suggested she forget college and just marry him, but relieved to see that she did indeed go to university and made a name for herself doing something related to him, but by no means dependent upon him.
MELINDA: Speaking of Kum-Ji’s career trajectory, I also am in love with the scene in which she discovers that she’s good at sewing costumes and her aunt says (essentially) something along the lines of, “Well, if you’re just going to go to fancy costume design school and still end up doing this like all the rest of us did, you might as well just skip that enormous time-suck and sign up with us now!” Because even though this isn’t precisely what Kum-Ji ends up doing, it’s still surprisingly practical advice for a romance series to be handing out.
MICHELLE: Yeah, and there’s an arrow pointing to the lady who did go to a prestigious school and the caption “sewing spangles on a shirt.” Hee.
This does bring up the thoroughly corporate nature of the band. It’s never expressly stated, but I don’t think any of the boys knew each other before being drafted to be in the group together. (E-Soh and Wu-Hee were “discovered” simultaneously.) Due to their closeness, it’s possible E-Wan and Eun-Sung did know each other, but this is never explored. (Eun-Sung in general is never explored, which is kind of a shame.) They live in dormitories furnished by the company and have a rigorous schedule of promoting an album, then having a break while another group rotates into the spotlight, then having a “comeback” when it’s time for their second album. Although we see them rehearsing from time to time, it’s generally just choreography. They’re never seen writing songs or playing instruments, and are really described as rappers in a “dance group” rather than singers in a band. So, really, they don’t seem to be musicians with any particular love of music. They’re just handsome and coordinated guys put together by a company to generate income. It’s all very… sterile.
MELINDA: Yes, definitely. And it’s interesting how the comic addresses it, too, by acknowledging it without judgement. On one hand, there is a character who really does crave more—Jin, who eventually leaves DDL in order to pursue his own songwriting and a career as a real musician—and we also have Barbie, who (rather accidentally) discovers that she’s got real talent as an actress. But E-Wan’s job (and the job of all the other members of Yo-i) really is just to be an idol, completely crafted by corporate entertainment for mass consumption. And this is totally okay, according to Chocolat! I kind of love that. It’s oddly refreshing.
MICHELLE: “Acknowledging it without judgment” nicely sums up the depiction of fandom, too!
So, let’s talk about Barbie for a minute! Originally Yo-i’s fan club president before embarking upon the path to stardom, Barbie is desperately in love with E-Wan. Although she is at times at odds with Kum-Ji—and orders a couple of fangirl attacks upon her—they eventually call a truce. Towards the end of the series, however, when Barbie learns that Kum-Ji lied to her about having feelings for E-Wan and went so far as to confess to him, Barbie declares that she must pay the price for the deception.
I was expecting more bullying to ensue, but instead there’s actually a fairly awesome moment when Barbie intercepts the boys just as they’re about to go back on stage for their comeback and pulls E-Wan into a much-photographed embrace, effectively overshadowing their return (which had been delayed by a terrible car accident) with scandal. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by this twist, but I was, and quite delighted by its cruel efficiency.
MELINDA: Everyone’s reactions to her villainous move were so, so interesting, too! E-Wan, E-Soh, and Kum-Ji all react in ways so true to their characters, it’s a further delight!
MICHELLE: Is there anyone else we forgot to talk about? Although the supporting cast is pretty vivid, I’m not sure I have too much to say about them, aside from lamenting again that Eun-Sung and, to an even greater extent, Wu-Hee are not given very much to do. I did like the acknowledgment that it was only Wu-Hee’s quirkiness that kept her safe from fangirl vitriol, but she’s pretty much portrayed as a country bumpkin throughout.
MELINDA: I was a bit offended by Wu-Hee’s country bumpkin portrayal in the beginning, though I liked her quite a lot by the end, so I’m thinking the offensiveness must have been toned down at that point. Sadly, I think her role in the series was mainly to provide E-Soh with both a huge burden of guilt (as she’s horribly injured in a work-related car accident not long after he prevents her from quitting the group) and a crippling neurosis (again, related to the accident).
Eun-Sung, on the other hand, seems to exist to provide a sounding board for E-Wan, though one thing I do like about the way he’s written is that he’s really kind of an ass, which was totally unexpected—at least by me. So often, I expected him to come out and say something warm and helpful only to be confronted by a guy who is perhaps more caught up in the corporate-invented classism of the idol business than anyone. There’s a scene early on where he basically lectures Kum-Ji about not respecting her betters which was so not what I was expecting from the role he seemed to play. It made his close, cuddly relationship with E-Wan even more intriguing. I’m not sure even now that I completely understand how they really got there.
MICHELLE: I also wasn’t expecting Eun-Sung to be such an ass! Early on, I was still making You’re Beautiful parallels and had him pegged for the kindly Shin-Woo type. Sounds like we were in the same boat there.
MELINDA: We certainly were!
I’d also like to take a moment to express my enjoyment of Kum-Ji’s circle of fandom friends, because I was so pleased that the authors decided to check back in with them at the end of the story so that we could see how they all turned out. They managed to capture fandom friendship perfectly as something that really is real, but is also usually destined to fade over time as the friends all move on to other obsessions or regular life pursuits. They portray this without trivializing the group’s fandom experience or the bond formed between them, and it made me feel certain that the writers had been fans on that level themselves at some point in their lives.
MICHELLE: I think there were actually some author features in early volumes (these would be the Ice Kunion editions) that mentioned them being fans of some group, but I can’t remember now what it was. So yes, I’m sure they had intimate knowledge of those kinds of friendships. Heh, now I’m recalling a girl I was “best friends” with in sixth grade based on the fact that we liked the same boy. And when I stopped liking him, our friendship fizzled overnight.
MELINDA: I’ve had both that exact friendship (which can feel—and I think is—very real in the moment) and also the even better kind that ends up transcending fandom and remains even after the shared interest has waned. After all, I met my husband via band fandom! Chocolat‘s nuanced approach leaves room for all of this, and I love it for that. Also, I admit I’m a fan of Pretty Boy’s new look. Heh.
MICHELLE: It certainly is striking!
MELINDA: I suppose it’s obvious by now, but I’d like to wrap up just by saying how happy I am that Yen Press opted to complete this series, even after such a long hiatus. It’s a charming treat, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to see it through to the end … and also for the opportunity to discuss it with you! Thank you, Michelle, for a delightful conversation!
MICHELLE: It was fun!
More full-series discussions with Melinda & Michelle:
The “Color of…” Trilogy | One Thousand and One Nights | Please Save My Earth
Princess Knight | Fruits Basket | Wild Adapter (with guest David Welsh)