Are the pop-cultural good times back?
Sometimes a cultural shift is forward-looking, the creation of something new. Sometimes, however, it is deliberately retrospective. Remakes, adaptations and prequels by Hollywood that reference the toys, films, cartoons and comics of the 1970s and 1980s are easy money: make them action-packed enough to excite young kids, while getting swathes of adults flocking back to a franchise that reminds us of a simpler time, when life didn’t seem to include nuclear crises, 9/11, horse-meat scandals, refugee emergencies and all the other adult problems we now have to think about*.
It seems a similar formula is being used in the DPRK, where the most popular cartoon of the 1980’s and '90's has been remade, now with crisp, modern computer-aided animation and an (apparently) engaging storyline. It’s made by the 4.26 Animation Studio and the recent installments have been broadcast Sundays on the country’s most popular channel.
The cartoon is called “The Boy General” and features combat-ready teens from the Gogoryo era, coming of age while together with their tigers and the iron will of the Korean people/army, constantly thwart the machinations of wicked, invasive foreigners. They do this through guile and stabbings, impalings and piercings mostly. There are a lot of stabbings in the original series. Like, a lot.
The new episodes pick up where the last of the old ones (episode 50) left off: when the main antagonist, Hobi, is hurled off a cliff and dies. Or does he?
Most of the classics are available on the youtube, which you can access through your internet explorer browser. A couple of the new ones are up already , so you won’t have to visit the DPRK every weekend or find a stream of Korea Central Broadcasting to get a taste:
On the lone Sunday I spent in Pyongyang since the new show began its new run last month, I was at a public venue that figuratively ground to a halt as nearly everyone – children and adults alike – gathered around to watch. It was frankly a joy to see this throwback cartoon commanding so much attention and affection. For the audience it consciously recalls an era that was culturally a little more open, more breezy…more fun. And it is clearly a hit.
*These are not without problems – perhaps the infantalization of society - as both French cultural theorists and a star of the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises have noted.