Book Review #2

22 Feb

Story of a Comfort GirlI went inside and bowed to Chiyun, whose simple blue uniform was dirty with stains. He did not seem to notice me. On the wall was the familiar picture of the ugly young man, Emperor Hirohito. I always thought he was not a very impressive man for an Emperor. An Emperor should be handsome and strong, not boyish and ugly. Maybe that’s why the Japanese had to try to keep us weak, so people would not notice how much more handsome and strong a man such as my father was than their Emperor.

Story of a Comfort Girl is the novelized version of a stage play written by Roger Rudick based on the testimony a comfort woman, Ji In-sil. Ji, then 70 years old, offered her testimony to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1991. Ji’s account begins in 1941 in an unnamed village, where Ji and her widowed father, a teacher with anti-Japanese sentiments, fear Japanese reprisals. Ji’s father instructs her to flee to Busan, if he ever fails to return from late-night meetings with his fellow anti-Japanese scholars. Ji begins a journey to live to with her father’s family in Busan, is abducted under false pretenses by Chiyun, a minor Korean functionary at the post office, along with two other Korean girls, goes to Japan, and then finally to an unnamed Pacific island, where a Japanese unit is attacked by American forces. In the process, Ji and the other two girls are repeatedly raped by Japanese sailors and soldiers, and both of the other girls are murdered by Japanese soldiers.

The opening chapters seem the most accurate, and later chapters occurring when Ji is stationed in the unidentified Pacific island have a standard dramatic structure. One girl has a pet lizard she hides in a box. Ji and the other three girls, as well as a Chinese comfort woman who is the veteran and “madam”, seek to escape and develop strong anti-Japanese opinions. The commanding officer is a sadist who murders a comfort woman when he finds a map of the island in her room. Another girl with the pet lizard is shot when she becomes pregnant. Ji contracts STDs twice, but is still raped while she is under medical quarantine. But, Ji meets a “nice” Japanese officer whom she enlists to escape. The American assault gives Ji her chance to leave. I don’t doubt these events occurred, but the “nice” Japanese officer and the lizard seem contrived, and there is also a scene when Ji sees the ghost of her father giving her crucial advice.

Still, Ji In-sil is a sympathetic character whose innocence is compelling. She accepts Chiyun’s invitation to take her to Busan without suspecting he is a broker for beautiful girls. She loses her virginity with little understanding of her body. She trusts the other girls, including the Chinese “madam”, and the Japanese officer.  She yearns for an American victory, so she can go back home, never suspecting that American troops might act like the Japanese conscripts. Her character adapts but remains child-like.

I suspect Ji In-sil’s real story is less framed and far uglier. Detail or depth are not Rudick’s strengths. Minor characters, like Chiyun or the sadistic commander, are not developed when their role is in some ways more interesting than the comfort women’s. Scenes seem trite, like an American soldier handing out chocolate. This is a story where innocence frames brutality.


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