Ehwa and her mother, a young widow, live in the village of Namwon. Ehwa’s mother runs a tavern and bawdy local fellows often attempt to convince her to go to bed with them. When seven-year-old Ehwa overhears a couple of villagers insinuating that her mother is loose, she begins to wonder about the differences between men and women.
As the years go by, Ehwa matures. She sees firsthand how a man’s attentions bring out liveliness in her mother, and meets two local boys that catch her eye. Chung-Myung, a monk in training, returns her feelings but chooses his religious vocation over pursuing a relationship. Sunoo, a refined and educated boy, is polite to Ehwa but leaves town without a backward glance.
Stories of first love can be poignant and affecting if done right, but The Color of Earth unfortunately fails in this regard. The problem is that instead of dealing with Ehwa’s growing emotional maturity, the focus is almost exclusively on sexual maturity. From practically the first page, more time is spent on charting landmarks of sexual discovery—oftentimes rather crudely—than on any other aspect of Ehwa and her life.
Women are consistently compared to flowers throughout the book, and not in a way that is complimentary. A woman’s burgeoning sexuality is likened unto the bloom of a flower, and comparisons are made between the way a flower waits for a butterfly to alight upon it and the way a woman waits for a man to bestow his attentions upon her. Sometimes this metaphor is used well, though, as when Chung-Myung uses the camellia—a flower that blooms only in the winter and therefore never sees a butterfly—to make Ehwa see that it would be better if she didn’t care for him, as he must devote himself to his training.
There are two warring styles in evidence in the art, which features realistically drawn landscapes but almost cartoonish people. While this style works well for the cuter and/or cruder moments, ultimately it bears some of the responsibility for why the story lacks emotional resonance. It’s difficult to take Ehwa’s feelings for Chung-Myung seriously when he always looks so bumbling and childish.
The story does have its good points, the relationship between Ehwa and her mother chief among them. The volume’s final pages also ratchet up the drama, which may bode well for the second and third books of the trilogy. As it stands, though, this first installment is a bit of a disappointment.
The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, volumes two and three in the trilogy, will be released in June and September 2009, respectively.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.