It is not every day that one comes across a manga that pulls them into the narrative and keeps them gripped from the get go, not necessarily because the manga in question is an on-the-edge-of-seat thriller or is groundbreaking in its premise, but because its exploration and execution of what it brings to the table, no matter how unremarkable it is at face value, are thoroughly refreshing and therefore appealing, especially taking into consideration the host of titles with dull plots and bland, hackneyed characters that populate the anime and manga verse, particularly when it comes to the genre of romance.
Mori Kaoru’s ‘Emma’ is one such manga for me.
Set in the backdrop of Victorian England of late 19th century, ‘Emma’ tells the story of a young woman–the titular character, a maid-of-all-work in the household of a retired governess– who falls in love with William Jones, a wealthy young man of the upper middle class. Despite the reciprocated feelings, however, stringent class distinctions and societal norms forbid the two lovebirds to maintain and openly acknowledge their relationship in public.
On the surface, the story is fairly generic. A rich guy sweeping a poor girl off her feet is nothing short of a rehashed scenario that has been done to death for the umpteenth time now and is a trope that is glaringly visible in the shoujo demographic. However, ‘Emma’ possesses a freshness and unique charm of its own, partly due to the lavish details pertaining to its historical backdrop that are so well blended into the story and partly due to an array of engaging supporting characters that are rarely encountered in romance stories wherein it is usually the lead couple that gets to be in the limelight. The storyline has two intertwined threads running through it– one that focuses on the trials and tribulations that Emma and William face, and the other that explores the supporting characters, many of whom turn out to be quite likeable. One thing that is admirable about these characters is that they feel considerably human. They could have had been anyone walking down the Victorian London street. Likewise, it is not difficult to imagine that a predicament similar to that of Emma and William arising from differences in social status could have had been shared by someone from the era as the portrayal of class differences which the primary conflict of the story stems from has been convincingly nailed down, contributing to Emma and William’s love story that factor which makes the reader relate to the couple’s plight.
The artwork in ‘Emma’ is in one word, elegant. Though character designs are plain, a hefty amount of detailing is put into the backgrounds and the characters’ attires. Mori is a self-proclaimed anglophile and that she chose the Victorian Era as a setting for her story therefore comes across as no surprise. Everything from actual locations such The Crystal Palace of London down to little nuances of British life of the time has been incorporated. That a Japanese manga artist has been able to recreate a foreign milieu as accurately as possible with the available research material is commendable indeed.
Reading ‘Emma’ was a pleasant experience for me and I would gladly recommend it to anyone who is looking for historical romance or romance manga in general. It is an invigorative take on an otherwise typical story, clothed in the garment of an enticing time period and charming characters and laced with an ambience that stirs up a feeling akin to that of nostalgia.
I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy; as a child I would be in the garden playing with frogs instead of hosting a tea party for my dollies. Now in my mid-twenties, while I no longer try to pet any unwilling amphibian in my path, I am still more likely to be diving headfirst into a sea of shounen goodness rather than weeping my way through romantic dramas. However, one lusciously ladylike love story manages to break through my many boyish layers and tug at my very heartstrings. It’s clear that Emma is something special.
The plot revolves around the straightforward premise of a forbidden and unobtainable love between a Victorian gentleman and a lowly housemaid. Naturally, the pair faces various obstacles in the form of disapproving parents, rivals for their affections, and physical separation. It doesn’t sound particularly innovative or enthralling at this point; in fact it seems like a breeding ground for clichés – and in a way it is – but Emma’s execution makes any formulaic elements wholly forgivable.
The mangaka, Kaoru Mori, maintains a sense of realism throughout the narrative – even when a young Indian prince rides through the centre of London on the back of an elephant. Emma is entirely sensible about her situation; while she would love nothing more than to be with William, she knows that their difference in status means it cannot happen. Their road to romance isn’t simple and mostly seems entirely hopeless – every time they take a step towards their dream the repercussions are waiting in the shadows to send them two paces back.
Mori also utilises periods of solitude and silence to great effect, proving that sometimes less is more. Through private interludes such as Emma getting ready for bed, the mangaka develops the central relationship in a much deeper manner than simply focusing on sections of dialogue or action. Ultimately these scenes are far more touching and beautiful than any of the bigger or more obvious plot points, yet they are just as important.
Kaoru Mori’s artwork in Emma is truly something to behold and one of the few occasions where the manga’s art heightens the emotional attachment its reader has to the narrative. Its visual style fits perfectly with the story’s tone, with gentle character designs mirroring the softer plot. Mori doesn’t use hard or thick lines, but instead applies a more delicate approach, which not only ideally depicts the genteel nature of the Victorian era, but also conveys the complete adoration she has for what she’s drawing.
Emma boasts an impressive variety of images, which greatly enhance the narrative. Vast panels depicting a moonlit Crystal Palace or the servants dancing at a party reflect Emma’s world widening, whereas close up frames of dirty plates in the kitchens portraying the everyday drudgery of a maid’s life. Especially worthy of praise is Mori’s ability to handle the plot’s most emotional moments with such gentle elegance. She uses a variety of shots from a full page image to give maximum impact to smaller more voyeuristic frames, such as those only showing the lower half of characters’ faces. Mori knows exactly how to convey the intimacy of the situation, for instance in one particular image depicting a kissing scene she chooses to focus not on the lips, but on the hands, which adds an extra sensory reaction so it’s like the reader can actually feel the kiss as well as see it.
The attention to detail throughout is impeccable and encapsulates the era down to the last gas lamp. Mori never cuts corners so the readers get to immerse themselves in Emma’s world and experience every flower on the wallpaper, every frill on a corset, every bead of a necklace. With screentone adding a subtle, tonal depth to the beautiful imagery every panel of Emma’s ten volumes carries the same exquisite level of quality throughout.
Emma’s characters make this manga so compelling. Emma herself displays such genuine kindness, sincerity and modesty, that she is likable without becoming one of those flat and irritating ‘nice’ characters that so often waste the ink they’re drawn with. She is also the epitome of a true English woman; though utterly in love with William, she sucks it up and gets on with her life quietly pining in private instead of indulging in girlish fantasies and crying an ocean of tears deep enough to sink the Titanic. As a reader you can’t help but feel for Emma and cheer her on in her plight.
By comparison, William is quite the opposite of his love; naïve, bumbling and somewhat spineless, the poor sod doesn’t really have all that much going for him. However, while this should be a major deficit, William’s flaky personality actually works in regards to the story. He is everything that an heir of the gentry should not be; he’s fanciful and much to his father’s dismay prioritises love and happiness over social standing. Caught between a rock and an even bigger, snootier rock, William has to try and do what’s best for the family, but his inept methods of doing so coupled with his inability to put on a stiff upper lip and bury his feelings makes William a lovable oaf well worthy of our heroine’s affections.
Aside from the protagonists, Emma has a reasonable sized secondary cast. Though the main story places primary focus on just a handful of people, those who play a smaller part in the central narrative receive more development and ‘page time’ in the final three volumes, which are actually a collection of side stories. These extra tales give more of an insight into the minor characters and what happens to them after the ‘end’ of the story, which just makes the whole Emma universe that much more real and engaging.
Though there are maids a-plenty, there isn’t a single frilly garter or ‘Goshujinsama’ in sight. If searching for romance with beautiful artwork then look no further. Granted, the tale of William and Emma’s love isn’t as epic as Romeo and Juliet, but the narrative’s quiet grace makes Emma burrow its way into your heart.
Meh, That's basically what I said after finishing it. Just the way the romance between William and Emma dragged out until the end of the 7th volume, just didn't go with me.
When I read this I dind't feel like it was in Japan, that's what the character designs normally do for me. No I properlly felt like it was england in 18-whatever.
The characters felt like your average cahracters, except they were put in 19th century england. They fit their roles perfectly, but didn't go beyond expectations.
I came into this with highish expectations, but was more or less a let-down. But hey in the end I loved it, just the dragging out of the romance, maybe it's historical romances, who knows.