Due to popular request, I’ll be reviewing one of my favorite webtoons, Annarasumanara! An avant-garde series that explores the vagaries of adult life, this is hands down one of my all time favorites. It’s one of those that falls into the everyone-should-read category, and I think the story is applicable to all ages.
|Drama, Josei, Psychological, Romance, School Life, Slice of Life
|A rumor goes around school about an abandoned amusement park and a magician who lives there that can make someone disappear for good. Yoon Ah-ee, a girl struggling to feed her sister and herself everyday will experience her life change as she meets a mysterious magician.
** has translation/artwork problems. see Scanlation section for more details
The artwork is unique. It’s done in an avant-garde black and white style, with colored accents reminiscent of that one little red girl in Schindler’s List. At times there is more color, at times less, and the colors/varying shades of grayscale are entwined with the mood and feel of the story.
The author also uses non-illustrated objects from time to time (such as a real photograph, or a collage) to create a surreal, otherworldly feeling, and exaggerates certain features as metaphors (see Symbolism section), such as one student’s face.
It’s a very striking style that leaves a deep impression, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
However, the one thing I do have to say is be wary of which version you are reading! The official English translation in LINE Webtoon not only makes some romanization choices that I’m a bit leery of (see Character section), they actually went so far as to alter the art itself, and really… not in a good way. See Scanlation section for more details.
The story is intentionally vague, with an air of the mysterious/magical about it, and oftentimes readers are left to interpret for themselves what’s real, what’s not, and what the author is trying to say. Some parts can be confusing, and it could use improvement here and there, but overall it’s perfectly fine for a story whose main focus is its striking art and symbolism.
Plus, if you don’t get too into trying to figure out whether the magic is real or not, the main plot is surprisingly easy to follow — pretty much Ah-ee, her seatmate Il-Deung, and their repeated encounters with the strange magician that lives on top of the hill.
Meaning of the Title
Annarasumanara is not a random made-up word, as some believe, but a legitimate word in Korean which is equivalent to the English “Abracadabra.” It’s basically a recognized word for magicians to say when they cast a spell, although the word itself doesn’t have any particular meaning.
The main character. Broke and in debt, parents nowhere to be found, she tries her best to support her and her younger sister through meagre part-time jobs. Her one goal is to grow up and become an adult quickly, but repeated chance encounters with the magician begins to awaken past childhood memories…
Note: Her name “Ah-ee” is the same as the word for “child” in Korean. The official LINE version romanizes it as “Ai,” but I prefer “Ah-ee” because it more correctly simulates the Korean pronunciation IMO. I prefer “Yoon” for the same reasons.
Nicknamed by some fans as the sausage boy, Na Il-Deung is Ah-ee’s seatmate and the top student in school. His parents are rich and powerful, and students both envy and admire him for his prowess in life. He is intrigued by Ah-ee, who is also known to have good grades but seems very different from him, and his interest in her leads him to eventually become tangled up with the magician as well. His most distinguishing feature is his abnormally long head.
Note: Il-Deung in Korean actually means first class or “number one,” and Na is also the character for “I,” despite being a legitimate last name. So if you take his name literally, it means “I am number one”…
A pure, childlike existence. He takes up residence in the abandoned theme park on the top of the hill, and spends time entertaining the townschildren with magic tricks together with his talking parrot. The townspeople believe that he’s a lunatic and gossip behind his back, but he claims that he is a “real” magician who can do real magic. His trademark phrase is “Do you believe in magic?” which he always asks before performing a magic trick.
To me, Annarasumanara isn’t so much a casual story you pick up and read as it is a complete, allegorical work of art, the core of which comes from the stylized art and thought-provoking imagery.
A lot of readers’ first reactions to the first few chapters is “Why is Il-Deung’s head so long?!” If you read on, you’ll find that not only is Il-Deung’s head long, so are the heads of his parents. However, no one in the webtoon seems to notice their warped appearance and repeatedly refers to Il-Deung as handsome. From this we can deduce that this appearance is only visible to the readers (perhaps also to the magician, who sees things differently), and not to the characters in the webtoon.
The common explanation is: the head symbolizes Il-Deung’s pride and arrogance, his “big head,” so to speak. Indeed, in Korean one of the phrases for arrogance is 목에 힘을 주다 , “to put power into one’s neck.” While it’s certainly true that Il-Deung’s family is distinguished and proud of it, I don’t think that’s the only reason for their appearance.
In most Asian cultures, there is a concept of “face” and saving face. Essentially, “face” is your honor/dignity, represented by your external image, and maintaining a positive outer image and covering up your embarrassments can be considered more important than anything, sometimes even death. I believe Il-Deung’s elongated head represents the “face” his family was endowed with, along with the pride, the conceit, the “prestigious” image, but also the stress and pressure that maintaining such an image comes with.
In one scene, Il-Deung reflects on the path he has been walking on all his life, and in it his head is elongated as a baby. By the very nature of his birth and family, he was granted a “prestigious” face. Escaping is not as simple as becoming less conceited – Il-Deung’s mentality begins to change ever since he meets the magician, yet his head does not transform until he finally smashes the window with a chair.
It’s a complete societal construct he’s fighting, and while he repeatedly struggles against it, he gets swept back by his parents, his teachers, and the world at large. Smashing the window marks a turning point, a point at which he is so fed up with the absurdity of the system that he wishes to completely destroy it, and only then is he able to break free of the hold that the system has over him, and stand strong in the face of adversity.
The Asphalt Road
A relatively straightforward metaphor, the asphalt road represents the “fast track to success” in today’s society.
It’s more pronounced in Asia, but even here in America we obsess over SAT scores, volunteering, looking good on the college application, and a good college is often thought of as a ticket to success. But taken to the extreme, one can become so obsessed with doing everything required to become successful that one forgets how to slow down and enjoy the “field of flowers” by the roadside. Fahrenheit 451, one of my favorite books, contains eerily similar critique:
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly…if you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur! That’s a rose garden. White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows.” –Clarisse, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The flowers in this case refer to simply enjoying and celebrating life and its various pursuits. This isn’t as apparent in US society, but in Asian society anything that “strays from the path” of success can be frowned upon, including leisure activities such as TV, comic books, liberal arts pursuits such as dance, sometimes even sports. Getting into a good school, rather than a means to an end, can be seen as the end itself, which sometimes leads to the bizarre phenomenon of kids in Asia working their ass off to pass the entrance exams, and then slacking off/partying all day once they “make it in.”
If the asphalt road is the publicly acclaimed fast track to success, then magic represents the small joys and “magic” of everyday life. And my favorite part about Annarasumanara is that the magic is not necessarily real magic. Many of the magician’s tricks aren’t explained, but ones that are are often revealed to be simply that – tricks.
He pulls a rose out of a handkerchief. He draws a field of flowers around Il-Deung with some markers. He throws monopoly money in the air. All of these are very simple things that you and I could probably do, with a little studying-up on presentation and sleight of hand. Yet, as Il-Deung says, “It’s just a simple trick, so why can’t I get it out of my mind?”
It is not the magician’s tricks which eventually move Ah-ee and Il-Deung. It is the sincerity behind the tricks.
The magician’s favorite catchphrase is “Do you believe in magic?” He brightens up like a lotus flower when the answer is yes. He becomes sullen, angry, and withdrawn when the answer is no. When Ah-ee’s classmate accidentally reveals his tricks, he shoves her in a fit of rage, telling Ah-ee that she is a horrible person who ruined his world and the children’s fantasies. At its core, the magic in Annarasumanara does not revolve around something spectacular and flashy, but rather something small and sincere which touches your heart. And this is truly beautiful, because it suggests that the most important part of “magic” in everyday life is soul, that it’s a mentality that anyone can learn and pick up.
OK, so typically when I can I recommend readers to read the official version, in this case at LINE webtoon, but in this specific case please please do not because the fan version is much better! The official version has made a huge mistake – altering the artwork so that all of the Korean bills are turned into US bills. Money is a huge part of this series and this is a problem for many reasons:
- Everyone knows that US bills, out of all the money in the world, is probably one of the ugliest.
- All US bills are an ugly dark green. The accented color of the bill in the black-and-white world looks very different when it is the US dark green vs the Korean bright green.
- The official US translation actually made a mistake with the bills in Episode 6. I don’t want to spoil the episode for anybody, so if you want to know, check the spoiler below.
But I mean, come on, we already know we’re not in the US thanks to the Korean names, Korean school uniforms, Korean convenience stores, and a million other things. Why try to force the bills? I am very disappointed in LINE Webtoon for this, especially considering how it affects the artwork.
The fan scanlations by Easy Going Scans are much better – the only catch is you’ll want to try to find a site that maintains the original scrolling format. KissManga is the best I’ve found for browsers, but not all pages are sized correctly in Annarasumanara’s case, so for optimal experience read on a tablet. See Infinite Scroll for Webtoons for more details.
In episode 6, there is a scene where the magician throws many different bills into the sky as fireworks. At the very end, a bill falls into Ah-ee’s hand and she realizes it says “Bank of Children” instead of “Bank of Korea,” which means that it’s fake money similar to monopoly money. Easy Going Scans notes this, and even adds in a small translator’s note to explain that it’s similar to monopoly money, in case anyone doesn’t get it. However, the LINE Webtoon edition does not take this into account and photoshops in an actual $10 bill, ruining the impact of the scene.
High. The art itself makes it worth going back, because some of the scenes are so beautiful, they are a joy to read in and of itself. It also isn’t a heavily plot-driven story to begin with, and if you do go back, you are going back for the mysterious sense of wonder and fascination that the story evokes.
This is not a manga, but if you like to read, Annarasumanara reminded me very strongly of The Night Circus.
For other webtoons, I would check out the author’s other work, My Heart is Beating. His works God of Bath and Sambong Barber Shop are also quality stories worth your time, but both contain more comedy and My Heart Is Beating is most similar to Annarasumanara in tone and feel.
Otherworldly series involving magic and striking art include xxxHolic and xxxHolic Rei. Mushishi also has that otherworldly feeling, but with watercolor style artwork it’s a lot more serene/melancholy compared to the black-and-white art of Annarasumanara.
Two other webtoons that have a similar mood with hints of the fantastical and absolutely gorgeous art are KissWood and The Pale Horse. Those are both full-color, and while they don’t have the striking, offbeat effect that Annarasumanara achieves with the accented art in grayscale, they are both breathtakingly beautiful. You won’t be disappointed.
Lastly, if you want something else metaphorical, where things are not always as they seem, try Oyasumi Punpun. Punpun’s depiction as a bird is in some ways reminiscent of Na Il-Deung’s head, and that entire series is pretty much nothing but veiled criticism of Japanese society.
A wonderful, philosophical little gem. Read if:
- You want to believe in magic
- You identify with the push-and-pull of “real life” against childhood dreams
- Read it. Just read it.
Do not read if:
- You are looking for comedy right now. This is probably one of the least comedic stories I have ever read, lol.