Lookism is, above all, a sad commentary on superficiality, but it’s a well-constructed story at home in its new animated form — it just needed a little spark to give this version slightly more justification for fans of the webtoon.
This review of the South Korean Netflix anime Lookism season 1 is spoiler-free.
If I had to pick a word to describe Lookism, the new South Korean Netflix anime that was delayed several weeks ago following the tragedy in Seoul, it’d be “sad”. And that isn’t a word I’d apply to most anime projects. But this eight-part series adapted from the popular webtoon by Park Tae-joon is often wrenchingly upsetting, both in terms of its content and the necessity of its messages, which can really be boiled down to, in essence, “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
To even have to reiterate that message in 2022 seems like an indictment of our species in general, and yet here we are. The anime revolves around beauty standards in South Korean society, especially youth culture, as a portly young man named Park Hyeong-seok experiences vicious and relentless bullying for his appearance. He’s brutalized and tormented for not conforming to the standards that his classmates value – tall, thin, traditionally good-looking. He’s a chubby kid from a poor family and for that, through no fault of his own, he has been condemned.
It’s Hyeong-seok’s mother that got me, I think. I’m the only child of a single parent – Hyeong-seok’s father is never seen or mentioned – who worked herself almost to death to provide for me, so seeing the unconditional, selfless love of a mother in this context was a powerful thing. After discovering Hyeong-seok’s torment, his mother allows him to transfer schools, funding the transition by working a second meager job that she doesn’t tell him about. Hyeong-seok tries to reinvent himself, and fails, discovering that people are the same everywhere. He finds himself once again trapped in a cycle of bullying from which he’s unable to escape, but this time he’s alone, separated from his mother, and too ashamed after her sacrifices to express the depths of his perceived failure.
Salvation comes in the form of another version of himself, an entirely separate body, this one tall, athletic, and indescribably handsome. The hook of Lookism is that Hyeong-seok can shift his consciousness between these two avatars but can only inhabit one while the other is asleep. By day, he cosplays as his new school’s most handsome, popular student, while by night he works at a convenience store while his handsome body rests. As you might imagine, this leads to a lot of issues.
I’m not intimately familiar with the source material, but from what I can tell the part that has been adapted has been treated faithfully. At a glance, the art style and character designs seem to be emulated closely. I can’t imagine any fans of the webtoon being especially disappointed with the anime.
And yet at the same time, it’s easy to wonder what else the anime might have been other than a one-to-one adaptation. Is that what fans wanted? Is simply seeing the story move enough to justify experiencing it again, in much the same form? Possibly. For me, though, I was – perhaps unreasonably – expecting something a bit more, some more of a justification for translating the material into a new medium.
Those totally unfamiliar with the premise might have been expecting more information about the logistics, too, since Lookism quickly stops being about Hyeong-seok’s dual identities and instead starts using the concept to explore other topics. It’s better if you don’t ask too many questions. The how doesn’t matter as much as the why, after all, and the why is obvious – through being someone else, Hyeong-seok can help those in the same position as him. He can buck the trend. He can hopefully make it cool to be kind and understanding.
This might be an idealistic pursuit, but it’s undeniably worthwhile, and it fits in with the show’s unflinching look at social cruelty. An extremely upbeat opening dance number by K-pop sensation Ateez creates a false sense of security, so be warned – this is a serious and sometimes uncomfortable series, but it’s one that’s well worth checking out, even – perhaps especially – if you’re unfamiliar with the original story.
You can stream the South Korean anime Lookism season 1 exclusively on Netflix.