Study Guide

Pyongyang Animation

By Guy Delisle


Animation Nation

The whole reason Guy goes to North Korea is to work on animation. “I’ve come here to work” (1.54), he tells us. It’s his job to do the finishing work on a French production. You may not know it, but animation is often finished up in East Asia—that’s why you sometimes see cartoon characters in older shows reading backwards

Guy’s job gives him the perfect opportunity to showcase a variety of lost-in-translation moments, like when he tries to explain a French gesture in English to a North Korean. (If you don’t have a headache yet, we explore this more in on “Language and Communication” theme page.) One common theme throughout the book is the difficulty of finding any common ground for communication between Guy and the North Koreans—and even between Guy and his fellow animators.

Guy’s fellow animators are also in North Korea to work. As Richard says, “[A]ll we’re doing here are the in betweens” (1.74), which is a pretty symbolic quote. All the animators in North Korea are “in between”: they’re hovering somewhere between their past and future lives, and they’re living in a country that is in between reality and nightmare for them.

In Pyongyang’s graphic novel format, everyone’s lives are condensed into cels of animation. At least Guy does a better-looking cartoon than Beavis and Butthead.

Another thing we wonder about is whether Guy’s view of North Korea is as simplistic as an animation might be. Does he see things as they are, or does he see things in a cartoon-like way? On the other hand, maybe the graphic novel style emphasizes the sense of alienation Guy—and maybe even the North Koreans themselves—feel in Pyongyang.