Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Notes 1

In case you don't know the alternative universe (called BU) of the South Korean music group BTS in advance, I guess it will be very difficult to understand what is going on in “花樣年華 The Notes - The Most Beautiful Moment in Life 1” (or “The Notes 1” for short!) by Big Hit Entertainment.

The BU, which is short for Bangtan Universe, has existed more or less since BTS’ debut in 2013 and in it we follow seven young men and the problems they face in their childhood and youth. Although the names of the seven protagonists are the same as the real names of the seven BTS members, their stories are not BTS’ stories. Instead they deal with all kinds of problem that are relatable and relevant to young people, ranging from loneliness, illness and poverty to abuse, suicide and even murder. As the seven boys grow into men, the BU is expanded to include time travel, parallel universes and a huge amount of refences to mainly European literature, art and schools of psychology and philosophy.

The creation of such an alternative universe is very satisfying for a professional writer such as me, and it is one of many reasons why I have come to love BTS. The stories and the characters in them have always been interesting and multi-facetted, because even though the BTS members personify these characters and lend them their names, Big Hit Entertainment have never tried to make the characters heroes or the story a heroes’ quest. Instead, it is nitty-gritty realism paired with mysterious, maybe even magic and definitely highly intelligent psychological and cosmological aspects!

The story of the BU can be found in BTS’ music videos, highlight reels and other videos as well as in the notes that have accompanied their albums since the release of “Love Yourself: Her” in September 2017. These notes have only told snippets of the story using a deconstructed timeline, but in “The Notes 1” we are finally presented with the album notes in chronological order. New contents have also been written for the book, mainly about Seokjin’s childhood and what Namjoon did when he had to move away from Seoul with his parents. We also get to understand the actions of both Taehyung and Jungkook much better. As such it is a great read and “The Notes 1” comes with a free... notebook, of course!

On the other hand, not all the questions that we as ARMY (BTS fans) have concerning the BU are answered in “The Notes 1”, probably because there is going to be a Notes 2 and more. I for one am tired of waiting and waiting AND waiting to learn what happened to Jimin in the arboretum and I'm annoyed that Hoseok's shirt in Yoongi's motel room isn't even mentioned. We only get a tiny glimpse of Yoongi's dependence on Hoseok and of their own private chat room.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that “The Notes 1” has been written in Korean first and then translated into respectively Japanese and English. It’s the English version that I have read, and I do find the translation rather poor. Sometimes you have to guess what a sentence means, other times the sentences are pure nonsense. The texts at the back of the book haven't been translated at all, which is a shame, as they contain several clues to the story.

The reason I give “The Notes 1” five stars despite its flaws is that we as ARMY have waited for this book for years. Besides, I hope to get the answers to the rest of my questions as well as a better translation when “The Notes 2” is released!

Five out of five stars: *****

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Save Me

“Save Me” is a webtoon based on the fictional universe created around the South Korea music group BTS, especially the parts of it that have been cover by their music videos during their “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” era in 2015. Their company Big Hit Entertainment has provided the plots and then the Korean Animation/Webtoon studio LICO adapted and incorporated them into the webtoon.

The first episode of “Save Me” was released on January 17th, 2019. The webtoon consists of a prologue and fifteen episodes with a weekly episode release on Naver Webtoon in Korea and Naver Corporation’s international webtoon portal LINE WEBTOON. The last episode was released on April 11th, 2019.

Although the names of the seven main characters are the same as the real names of the seven BTS members, their stories are not BTS’ stories. On the contrary, their stories are part of the fictive BTS universe (usually called Bangtan Universe or just BU), where each of the characters is seen having some kind of trouble or problem that is relatable and relevant to young people. Some of these issues are more serious than others.

In the webtoon, Seokjin is the main protagonist. He has returned to Seoul, South Korea, after two years in America and upon his return, he learns about the awful fates of his six high school friends Namjoon, Yoongi, Hoseok, Jimin, Taehyung and Jungkook.

Namjoon is in jail for starting a fight with a customer at the gas station where he works. Yoongi has committed suicide by setting fire to the motel room where he lived. Hoseok, who is an orphan, has suffered from narcolepsy since his mother left him, and this has caused him to break his ankle, so he is no longer able to do what he does best, which is dance. Jimin has been hospitalized for years due to weird seizures that he suffers from since a traumatic childhood experience in an arboretum. Taehyung has killed his abusive father and is facing his trial and finally Jungkook has killed himself by jumping off a roof because he was neglected by his mother and her new family after his father’s death.

It is now Soekjin’s quest to save each of his friends and to do so, he must relive the same day, April 11th (!), over and over again until he gets it right. Through his travels between points in time and space, he must face himself and so must his friends in order to progress.

The webtoon as such is quite good although the characters look so much alike that they are hard to tell apart, especially Seokjin and Jungkook. The simple, douche color-tone used, where most things are black and white added a few faded colors, is not at all helpful, but a bit depressing just like the tone of the story.

“Save Me” is not quite as fulfilling to read as I had hoped, mainly because this is probably just a first season so most of the questions that the story raises are not answered. Personally, I am also a bit disappointed, that some of the more controversial subjects in the music video BU have been filtered out in the webtoon. Here I do of course think of subjects such as homosexuality and drugs, which are no go subjects in South Korea.

In the uncensured music video to “I Need U” as well as the music video “Run” and “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” highlight reel (usually referred to as the HYYH highlight reel), it is implied by their closeness (and matching beach outfits!) that Yoongi and Hoseok are in a relationship of sorts. Yoongi’s suicide seems to happen right after Hoseok has left Yoongi’s bed in the motel room, leaving his shirt behind hanging on the wall and Yoongi stoking the pillow next to him in the double bed, pining for the one who has left. In the same way, Hoseok is seen taking an overdose, the red light from the motel sign reflecting in the bathroom mirror, indicating the connection between him and Yoongi. The overdose shows how it is almost impossible to live with a non-hetero sexuality in South Korea, many young people seeing suicide as the only solution.

BTS is known to support the LGBTQ+ community and this is a the most daring way they have ever showed it, but this was back in 2015 when they weren’t particularly famous, yet, and as BTS grew in popularity, the gay references disappeared, as being something other than straight in Korea can ruin your reputation.

As “Save Me” is from 2019, the shirt hanging on Yoongi’s wall is no longer Hoseok’s and Yoongi kills himself due to a bad relationship to his father after his mother has passed away, just like Hoseok no longer takes an overdose, but just passes out because of his narcolepsy.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that a second season of the webtoon, if a such is going go surface, will be braver, but still it is going to be interesting to see where the story will take our main characters and if they’ll go directly to the “Love Yourself” part of the universe or dare to dig into the dark, controversial “Wings” part first.

“Save Me” is the third BTS-related webtoon, the previous being, “Hip Hop Monster” with BTS represented by seven lovable “monsters” that were also merchandised as plush dolls, and “We On: Be the Shield” which was a fantasy/action webtoon featuring BTS as high school students with supernatural powers. Both were published in 2014-15.

“Save Me” is the best of the three webtoons and I’ll give it four stars out of five: ****


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