After 512 episodes, Yumi and her cells say their final goodbye
After five years and seven months, 512 episodes, 3.2 billion views and 5 million comments — one of Naver Webtoon’s most popular series “Yumi’s Cells” has wrapped after bringing both laughter and tears to readers, and its author Lee Dong-geun says the main character Yumi wasn’t the only one that matured and learned over the years.
“I feel so free and relieved to finish safely,” said Lee in an email interview with the JoongAng llbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, after uploading his final and 512th episode on Nov. 7. The goal for the work was to make it “relatable for people and make them think, ‘That’s right! People think things differently from how they act in real life.’"
“Not only was I able to achieve my first goal, but I was lucky to receive a lot of support from the earlier reactions [from readers]. That allowed me to continue the work for longer than first anticipated, and I was able to mature more as an author,” he said.
“Yumi’s Cells” tells the a story of an ordinary woman in her 30s named Kim Yumi and the 200 different cells living inside her brain controlling her behavior in her daily life. In Yumi’s brain, different cells talk to one another to decide what action she should take.
On April 1, 2015, Yumi’s cells first introduced themselves to the world. The Rational Cell — who’s in charge of, obviously, reasoning — tells the other cells to “cheer up” while they grind Yumi’s millstone to get her brain “that’s been stiff for a while” going while she works late into the night.
From then on, readers were introduced to the cells. While the Rational Cell reasons with Yumi, the Emotional Cell lets her expressive side out. The Hunger Cell is always there, whereas the Naughty Cell makes unexpected appearances. Together, they live the story of Yumi.
The webtoon has maintained popularity over the course of the last five years thanks to the fact that Lee’s work goes beyond a unique idea. The portrayal of Yumi’s maturity, especially regarding love, stole the hearts of many readers as the character gradually saw herself grow after five different relationships.
Yumi initially put her boyfriend on the top of her priority list on her bulletin board. But after her third breakup, she realizes that “there is no male protagonist. There is only one main character in this story,” as the Bulletin Board Manager Cell removes the boyfriend tag. After she prioritizes herself, Yumi is able to focus her talent for writing and quits her job to become a writer. She later goes on to win the Romance Writer of the Year award and achieve other goals in her life.
The detailed descriptions of Yumi’s thought process and the subtle changes are so well conveyed, that a lot of readers assumed Lee was female.
“It’s a pleasing misunderstanding because it means that I expressed everything in real detail,” he said. “It is a webtoon, but I think a lot of people regarded it as a short story. I think people identified with Yumi, regardless of their gender. People begin building their own lives in society when they are in their 20s and 30s, and most live similar lives and have similar thoughts and emotions in life and love. People’s desires and emotions are all similar, regardless of gender.”
Desire is what sets Yumi's cells apart from the personified emotions featured in the 2015 Pixar animation “Inside Out,” according to Lee.
“If ‘Inside Out’ personified emotions, ‘Yumi’s Cells’ personified desires. There are times when people do something to feel happy, but things don’t turn out the way they want and actually end up sad. It’s a different approach,” he said.
Before Lee debuted with his first work “Sweet Life” in 2011, he dropped out of art college and spent his 20s as a bassist in an indie band. Then he got himself a job at a stationery company, but his design position was lost when the company changed its business model. He was making stickers for diaries when he first turned to webtoons.
Like many people, he has the One-Step-Behind Cell who always arrives a tad late — which is why if he could give his younger self any advice it would be, “Start drawing webtoons now!”
“The One-Step-Behind Cell comes to me here and there. Whenever I talk to someone for work and then lie down in bed, I feel like someone who’s not me comes and talks to me. And he says, ‘You should have said this, not this,’” he said.
Along with the success of “Yumi’s Cells” came a fair share of woes.
Lee had to take almost a year-long break in 2018 because he thought he was “pushing it” and was concerned bad decisions would lead to bad outcomes. Maintaining a high quality of work was also tough for Lee. Some fans criticized that the webtoon ended abruptly following the news in May that it would be made into a drama. It was also around this time that Lee began uploading one episode a week as opposed to two episodes, which he had been doing previously.
Some also complained that the newest character Soonrok wasn’t portrayed as much as Yumi’s past boyfriends such as Woong or Babi, and that the ending of the webtoon was clichéd.
“The Soonrok stories were told as tightly as possible without unnecessary episodes because I didn’t want to overlap with things I dealt with in past episodes,” he said. “I don’t think that marriage is a symbol of a certain result. It’s just the decision that Yumi came to in the story. I think I was able to tell all the stories that I needed to, so there’s no plan for spinoffs or epilogues at the moment. Regarding the drama, it’s not a field I’m familiar with, so I trust the experts to make the best out it.”
For now, Lee has no set plans for his future — except enjoying the freedom of not having a weekly responsibility.
“I want to enjoy a thoughtless vacation with my family until the end of this year,” he said. “I think the next work will naturally present itself if I gather some fun and exciting energy.”
BY MIN KYUNG-WON [firstname.lastname@example.org]