3 Level Combination is a Korean comic by Il-Kwon Ha, the guy you may know as the author of Annarasumanara. Shaurya recommended me both of those manhwa, and I am really glad she did. Here I want to talk about what I think about that comic. I’ll make a tiny introduction for those who haven’t read it and put a spoiler warning before the part where I start to go deeper into the story.
3 Level Combination starts as a story about a boy Hogu, a boy from a poor family who is being bullied at school. We follow him around, observing how he is being humiliated, beaten and otherwise abused by a group of his classmates. It gets pretty heavy and the story doesn’t hold back at all. After a while a new character is introduced, a humanoid robot prototype named Chevrolet. That robot was supposed to attend school together with normal students as a part of its testing. For better or worse the robots ends up becoming Hogu’s friend, while Hogu is put in charge of keeping it safe. With this event the both the story and Hogu’s life become more complex, going through tragic and happy moments, always unpredictable and thought provoking. Please read it, it is very good.
I want to mention that for me 3 Level Combination was a really hard read, I even had to make a break for a few weeks, because I felt a bit overwhelmed. It is just my personal thing though, stories about abused people living in misery kinda get me. I don’t know if that affected my opinion about the comic, though.
Spoilers start from here.
I want to talk about a few of the characters, and since I myself can barely remember any names from this comic I decided to list them all beforehand. Besides Hogu I am going to be talking his former friend Minwoo, his class president Anna and her father Dr. Lee. Hope it won’t get too long.
I think a good way to start thinking about this story is with Dr. Lee. Who was that person? We know he was largely responsible of making a complete mess of his family life. His wife committed suicide after seeing him clearly displaying preference for a female humanoid robot over her. He said that the robot is better because “it is obedient”, because it is “his type”. He was a sad man who wasn’t able to appreciate the people around him and would rather play with toys. And his story doesn’t even seem all that interesting. The main reason I’ve brought it up is his daughter Anna.
I think Anna might be the central figure to this whole story, and I will try to explain what I mean. What defines Anna as a person? She grew up in a broken family and saw a lot more ugliness of human relations than a child should. Do you remember what was her reaction to that? She would say that it was “boring”. Such an inadequate description, such an obviously wrong choice of words. But let’s go on. Anna’s mother committed suicide because her father brought home a robot and stated that he liked it more than his wife. Naturally that influenced the way Anna felt about robots. She learnt to hate them. She even decided to study robots to prove that they can never be humans. Now let’s pause and think about it. Why would she do that? It is not a disgust towards machines that can be understood in her situation. What’s more, she was still working with her dad. I think what we see here is Anna misplacing the responsibility for what happened in her family; instead of blaming her father entirely she puts a part of the responsibility on the robots. It should be easy to realize that Dr. Lee’s self-centered destructive behavior was the reason Anna’s family ended up in the state it is. He could have had any other occupation, it wouldn’t have mattered, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that he didn’t appreciate his wife and was abusive.
So here is what I am getting at. I think a large part of Anna’s character is self-deception and neglect. Just as she was pretending to be bored to ignore her pain as a child she now pretended that the robots are to blame for what happened in her family. Why would she do it this time – who knows, but an obvious reason is so that she would be able to live on with her father without losing her mind because of the cognitive dissonance.
You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t justify the word “neglect” yet. To talk about that I will need to jump to another character I’ve said I would talk about, Minwoo. He, Hogu, and Anna were friends back when they were younger and Hogu was what kept them together. In the quick episode where Hogu takes a picture of Anna and Minwoo it is pretty obviously hinted that in this friendship Anna was mostly interested in Hogu, while Minwoo was more interested in Anna. And apparently she was oblivious to that. What’s more, this never stopped, with the only exception that after a while Minwoo started to target Hogu, making his school life worse and worse. It might have been jealousy, might have been a desire to get Anna’s attention, likely it was both. And it seems that Anna could have stopped the whole thing, as she did in chapter 17, just by asking Minwoo to do so. But she never even tried to talk to him, never started a conversation in the whole year, as Minwoo mentioned once. Imagine if she did, if she thought through this situation and realized Minwoo motives. Anna is smart, she definitely could do it. And if she asked Minwoo to stop hurting Hogu, then maybe there wouldn’t have been any fights in that class. And going from what we saw of Minwoo I think that is the only thing she needed to do was to ask, there wouldn’t have been conditions or price. But Anna never even thought about it. That is what I mean by “neglect”.
I am sorry if you think I’ve spend more than enough time on Anna, but I have to go a little further. In the late chapters we see Anna repeatedly putting effort into making Hogu see that Chevrolet is a robot and hence his friendship with it is absurd. She doesn’t see (or prefer to not notice) the simple fact that Chevrolet was the only one who showed Hogu kindness and care, who spent time with him when he needed it. It is so simple to see, and it is so easy to then understand why the boy would be so attached to the thing, regardless of its nature. What’s more, it is not hard to imagine that Anna might have wanted to be the one who did all of that for Hogu; only she didn’t do it. She would say that Chevrolet was a piece of metal, only the reality was that this robot was more of a human then most of the people around it. And instead of embracing that reality Anna would rather destroy it. She did, with a lie, betrayal and murder, a one act that took away all she had, including her own conscience.
I find it interesting that throughout most of the story Anna doesn’t do anything wrong, and there is no way to blame her. She isn’t hurting anyone, even does good things here and there. Nevertheless, it is as if her way of life slowly places a rope around her heck. It is one of the most interesting character arcs I’ve seen in a long time.
It doesn’t feel right to talk about supporting characters all this time and leave out Hogu and Chevrolet. But I don’t think I have as much to say about them. I like their story. It is the kind of story you would want to end on a happy note. While reading I thought that maybe they will use this bomb episode to say that from now on Chevrolet can’t be opened and since her remote control functions were disabled she could effectively become a human. That would open a possibility for a nice ending for both her and Hogu. I was also prepared for Chevrolet’s demise; I think Hogu would have survived that, and I wonder what kind of person would he ended up being. Neither of that happened though.
The actual end made me think of the Romeo and Juliet play. It used be regarded as the greatest love story of all. I’ve heard that since some time ago people started to look at it in a new light, considering Romeo and Juliet to be a cautionary tale about irresponsible passion of young people. I can see that point of view and I don’t think it takes away anything from the romantic side of the play. What’s more, I think the same argument can be made for the story of Hogu and Chevrolet. Do you want to see their story and it’s end as a beautiful romantic tragedy? Or do you want to see it as a tale that says “Don’t be as foolish as this boy was.”? Both ways are good I think. I like the ending, even though it does make the story even more sad.
One more thing. I imagine 3 Level Combination would naturally make you wonder about human-robot relations, asking yourself “What was this friendship between Hogu and Chevrolet? Was it different from the relations Dr. Lee had with his old robot? Can you take any of this seriously?”. I think the comic doesn’t have a lot to say about robots and their potential place as a new kind of sentient beings in our society. Was Hogu any different from Dr. Lee – I have no idea. It is a very hard question, and I don’t see any answers in the manhwa.
Sorry if this post was a bit too long. See you next time!