We’re back with another webtoon feature, and this week we’re reading ‘Whale Star’ by Na Yoonhee (Na Yuinhui). Otherwise known as ‘The Gyeongseong Mermaid‘, Whale Star is a Korean re-imagining of ‘The Little Mermaid’, set in 1926. There’s no fantasy or magical elements however – the story is inspired from Andersen’s tale in a metaphorical, parallel sense. Do not come in expecting mermaids, is what I’m trying to say here. Pain on the other hand, that you should brace for. It’s a period drama, there’s little romance (but not the happy-end kind), and a lot of political undertones.
We had previously featured another, more recent series by Na Yoonhee, This Magical Moment. At this stage, I just consider myself her fan – if she writes something new, I’ll be there throwing coins at it. A very different story, a very different vibe, but equally impeccable execution and art. Despite ‘Whale Star’ being older, it was only officially translated in English recently; not that I’m complaining, at least we got to read this masterpiece.
Whale Star: The Gyeongseong Mermaid
‘Gyeongseong‘ was the name of Seoul during the period of Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. However, our tale begins further south, in Gunsan. The year is 1926, and Joseon (Korea) is under Japanese rule. Su-a is a simple handmaiden to a rich merchant’s daughter. What little free time she has, she spends swimming in the sea. Her mistress, and her work, are very literally her entire world and her life.
This all changes when one day, she happens to find a drowning Korean independence fighter and saves his life. She nurses Uihyeon back to health, and promises to keep his secret and not turn him in. Unfortunately, his comrades Haesu and Yeongyeong are not so trusting, and she ends up losing her ability to speak in a botched murder attempt. As her life unravels, she makes up her mind to travel to the capital and get revenge. Instead, she finds herself more and more intertwined with these people and this world that is so much bigger than anything she had known.
This series needs to be adapted into a drama yesterday. I cannot overstate how intense and exceptional a read this was. It’s on a completely different level, on every aspect. While I enjoy historical fiction, normally I prefer more medieval sort of periods. The 20th century feels too close, too real, too raw still, so I prefer to steer clear. Even so, this one was just so beautifully written, so engaging that I could not put it down. It’s the best Webtoon I’ve read this year so far, and I really doubt it’s going to be challenged for the spot anytime soon.
Every single character’s, main or supporting, motivations are expressed so well, and they all hit straight in the feels. Su-a is a tragic figure but not she is not pitiable. She has her own agency and shes pushes forward through all the events unfolding around her. The little mermaid used as a theme and a metaphor for living in ‘different worlds’ is wonderful.
The only reason I would accept for not reading this is if you cannot deal with tragic stories. It’s sageuk, and as such, you’ll need to temper your expectations for ‘happy’ endings; and after all, the basis of inspiration, Andersen’s Little Mermaid, has always been a bittersweet tale. But if this is right up your alley, I promise you won’t be disappointed. ‘Whale Star’ is truly an exceptional read.