Gunpla Advertisement Analysis, and 우뢰매!

This entry is part 49 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

Gunpla Ad Analysis:

While it’s a side of SF fandom that, like filk, I just don’t quite “get” — mostly just because I know so little about Japanese anime SF, I suppose — Gundam fandom is something that is, at least, visible here. Gundam merchandise in shops is, in fact, more common here than RPG game products ever were in shops in the North American cities I’ve lived in, and there’s definitely some serious interest in anime here. (Indeed, Korea’s Robo-Taekwon V was quite obviously a response to Japanese battlebot-suit anime frnachises like Mobile Suit Gundam; see here for more on that).

In any case, while he doesn’t get into the SFnal side of things, James at The Grand Narrative does dig into the gender and sexuality issues involved in a series of Gunpla ads — I believe from 2010. He has interesting things to say, and I don’t know that I can really add much except for the following:

  • In some sense, the whole “armored cuties” phenomenon —  as discussed in great depth by Saitō Tomaki in the essay “Otaku Sexuality” (collected in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, a mostly-great collection of academic papers on Japanese SF) suggests interesting questions about the unspoken (and probably, in Korean society, unspeakable) sexual component of robot-warrior fandom. The sexual imagery James points out is obviously there, but, like in so much Korean media, buried under layers of pseudo-innocence, as if to provide for plausible deniability.
  • One wonders whether a trend toward idolizing “armored hunks” in fantasy, because of the increasing feminization of men in Korea media, and in idealized behaviors and appearance of men (the kkotminam) might not be, you know, linked. (The way the increasing sexualization of youth and prolongation of childhood-like behavior into adulthood in women in Korean media (aegyo) is, as Kang In-kyu argues starting here (again, via and translated by James, who I wish had included links indexing all the posts in the first one) is somehow linked to the economic tribulations faced by Korean men, and the anxieties springing from that tribulation.)

I don’t know, I haven’t thought much about all of that and anyway don’t know many people in Korea who are interested in Gundam. (Or at least, don’t know anyone who actually has expressed such an interest in it to me.)

우뢰매 1 (외계에서 온 우뢰매) Film Review — Kiddie SF from the 80s:

In other Korean SF news, Miss Jiwaku was delighted to discover that I had, at some point, picked up a boxed set of the old 우뢰매 film series on DVD — titled 외계에서 온 우뢰매, or, approximately, Wooraemae That Came From Outer Space. Apparently she watched some of these when she was very young, and loudly begged her mom to buy her some of the merchandise, especially the robot (for which the film series is apparently named).

So it was, for her, something of a trip down memory lane — vague memories, but memories nonetheless — to watch the first film. (The screencap below, and all the others too, are from this post by a Korean on the film and toy franchise: the image of the toy above is from there as well.)

The films are pretty obviously for kids, and given the budget for special effects available for Korean kid’s film productions in Seoul in the 1980s, the solution is amusing and creative: as with the Japanese Ultraman, lines of force (laser blasts and other “energies”) are drawn onto the cells when characters are fighting. There is also extensive use of cartooning to bring to life some of the bigger stuff, such as the 우뢰매; you can see some of the cartooning in the opening credits:

… but there’s also cartooning against real landscape shots, which was interesting.

The plot is slightly reminiscent of the Indian SF movie Koi Mil Gaya, wherein a local who could be, unkindly, called a “village idiot” (and who  idiocy is hammed up by the actor) encounters aliens. However, in this case the village idiot meets the aliens precisely because he actually is more than an idiot: he has some latent psychic powers, and the aliens use his sensitivity to contact him and summon him to their crashed ship.

There, they use, er, alien power to transform him into “Esperman.” (If you’re scratching your head, it’s actually just the term invented by Alfred Bester — “esper”, denoting someone with ESP — turned into a superhero name.) One of the aliens — a white-bearded old man — “dies” but continues to guide his daughter,  a purple-spandex clad young woman named Daeli (Daily?) and Esperman.

They fight against a troop of ugly and evil aliens for control over the giant space robot (the eponymous “Wooraemae”) and finally save the Earth.

Wow, that was surprisingly coherent. The film isn’t quite so coherent, though it is at least gleeful and goofy. South Korean production values for the 1980s look a lot like production values for the 1960s Batman live-action TV series, if that says anything to you, and the comedy is about on a par…

… for the most part. There were a few things that surprised me (or, in one case, shocked us both). For one thing, the female characters actually engage in a lot less of the “aegyo” we see in Korean media today. All the supernatural characters are dressed in tight spandex, but… well, it’s not really sexy or sexual at all. They look more… well, like outer-spacey and weird. The female characters, while they are both exoticized by their hairstyles (the villain has blond curly hair, while heroic Daeli has white hair), they are actually pretty tough, and for the most part shoot their penned-in laser bolts just as ferociously as the male characters.

But there are some things you would not see in kids’ entertainment today. For one, there’s a little boy (in the family with whom Esperman lives, in his secret identity) who is goofing off at home. At one point, his mother comes over and playfully starts “fighting” with him. The playfulness kind of goes, well, farther than I felt comfortable watching — when she started to kick him, I wondered whether she might not be another villain in secret. But nope, she was just a normal mom, and went back to cooking dinner. I thought maybe it was just poor acting, but Miss Jiwaku was shocked too, and said, “Oh my God!” when the mom just started kicking as well as thumping the kid with her hands. So I guess it’s not just me…

Then there’s the threat of rape leveled at Daeli. When she is captured by the enemy alien group, the baddies’ leader  commands one of his underlings to go an, muhahaha — yes, he laughs evilly — make sure she gets “a shower.” I don’t know if this was supposed to add tension to the story for adults, or even for kids; I don’t know if it was figured it would go over kids’ heads, or whether the threat of rape was, in a Korean kids’ show in the 80s, analogous to the threat of being eaten by a wolf for us Western kids who grew up with the sanitized version of Grimm’s fairytales; but it was certainly not the kind of thing we expect to see in kids’ entertainment today, not in the West of course, but also not in Korea, as far as I know.

And then there’s the truly shocking bit: there’s a moment when the little boy I mentioned earlier, and his older sister, are in the woods. The boy had previously tagged along on the camping trip, after being told he was too young to go, and peed his pants in order to stay in hiding. As a result, he has to don the village idiot’s far-too-big pants, and at some point, his elder sister playfully pulls his pants down… to reveal he is wearing no underwear. And yeah, this is full frontal nudity, at least from the waist down. His equipment is not shadowed or blacked out or hidden in any way, though, mercifully, it’s just a flash on screen and gone.

Which would be one thing if the camera had, after quickly swinging away, not returned.

Instead, when the camera settles on the village idiot character, he is hurrying over; the camera follows him as he runs up the boy, whose pants still around his ankles, and then the village idiot points at the poor kid’s juvenile naughty bits and makes a joke I didn’t catch, because I was just sitting there, beside Miss Jiwaku, our eyes wide in shock. (It was another “Oh my God!” moment.)

I’m not castigating the film — the scene is clearly not meant to sexualize the child, and it very clearly doesn’t do so — it’s far less offensive in some ways than the stuff we see involving teenagers in a ton of mainstream Korean media today, and it’s even clear that, while Miss Jiwaku and I were slightly shocked, the kid wasn’t really all that disturbed by it — if I remember right, he’s laughing too at the moment. Which is, of course, the weird and interesting thing: it’s a cinematic representation of a kind of physical-humor we just don’t have (or don’t have anymore) in the West. I can’t really pass a judgment on it in an objective sense, but I can say that Korean society — for whatever set of reasons, and I suspect there are a number — has banished this sort of thing from its media, if not from real life.

(Honestly, I suspect the same sort of humor was common in some pre-media epoch in Europe as well; I can grasp, beyond the learned horror of such things, how people might think it was funny, even though personally I just sympathized with the boy and felt bad for him being humiliated that way. Well, and wondered what the actor would say about it now, thirty years later.)

One more note of interest: the guy who plays the village idiot/Esperman character went on to other and more expensive forms of village idiocy: he’s the guy who made the Yonggary remake(s? I’m confused about how many there were), and he also inflicted the horror that is D-War upon the world. One wonders if his formative experience on this show convinced him of the aesthetic approach — nonsensical is fine, as long as you can come up with a merchandising model — that ended up being so disastrous in the films he has since directed?

I have no idea whether we’ll ever watch this film again — I just might, when I need a laugh, but I can’t see myself sitting through it too many more times in this lifetime — but I do at least plan on watching the rest of the boxed set. I really, really wish they’d brought in some of the cast and director to do some commentary, though: that would have been amusing, I’d bet. (Subtitles would have been nice too, but given the films never were subtitled in the original, I’m not surprised to find them lacking on this DVD.)

For those interested, I’ll try post a video below that, apparently, contains a big good chunk of the first film. If the video below fails you, try here.

BONUS: I could not believe it myself, but… Wooraemae cosplay. No, really:

The image is from this site. Who is this? I’m slightly in shock. But now you can see what I mean about the the spandex uniforms not being sexy or whatever… no insult intended to the cosplayer, of course — it’s not a criticism, just an observation about that particular costume.

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