May 18, 2009

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Emma Volume 1

Written by Kaoru Mori
Illustrated by Kaoru Mori
CMX

Those with weak hearts should pause for a moment before I reveal that this is a shojo manga that doesn't feature girls in a Japanese high school! The setting is in fact late Victorian-era London, with a meticulously researched setting by Anglophile Mori. Emma, the title character is a commoner straight out of a Henry James novel, working as a maid for an elderly widow. When the widow's former student returns for a visit, romantic sparks fly--but can the class barrier be broken?

The reason why I like this so much is that it does in fact capture the feel of James, arguably the first of the modernist writers. The characters still feel constrained by Victorian mores, but they want to break free of them, especially the male protagonist. Emma wants to be free of them, too, but she knows damned well that only heartache will come of it. And then there's the "foreigner"--an Indian friend of our male suitor--who walks in and promptly breaks all the rules, from class lines to fast cars and elephants. It's a great premise and Mori has each character reacting about as naturally as they would if this were a text adventure rather than a primarily visual one.

Mori's artwork does the job well enough--it's not very stylized and the characters mostly stay in their normal poses. We don't get any shrunken figures or extreme facial reactions--which is good because I think it would detract from the setting too much. She does a lot of visual work with faces, though, even without a lot of emotion lines. We know the Indian boy is in love with Emma just by the glance he gives her--no words or captions are necessary.

I am really impressed with this first volume. The story is a familiar one but the setting is sound and the characters are compelling to follow (which to me is the most essential thing in a manga--if you don't like the characters, the volume-by-volume drama is just tedious). I'm definitely going to keep going with this one.