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.