March 8, 2010

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Manga Movable Feast: Emma at the Halfway Point

A little while back, some of the manga bloggers I respect came up with the idea of periodically picking a manga volume or series to all review in different ways at the same time. It was dubbed the Manga Movable Feast, or MMF.

I was happy that they were willing to let me join in, as I think it's a great idea. It allows some to revisit and old favorite, others to try something new, and gives anyone who follows more than one of us the chance to see a wide range of perspectives on the same book.

I was really happy to hear that Emma was chosen to be the second entry in the MMF, as it is one of my favorite series that I've read over the past few years. Oddly enough, however, I've read it rather slowly. Normally when I like a series I can't wait to rush through each volume. For reasons I don't even remember, I keep putting this one aside, only to return to it, still love the series, and promptly wait another few months before going, "Hmm, shouldn't I be reading this?"

This means that while others have finished the ten volume series, I am still stuck halfway through. I thought it might be interesting to give my perspective on the series as a person who hasn't finished it yet, thus Emma at the Halfway Point.

My commentary will contain spoilers, so if you care and haven't read Emma at all yet, come back to this after you have.

Let's start with a summary of the series as it stands by the end of Volume 5. Emma is a period piece set in Victorian England. A maid is raised above her station by her employer and as a result is more than just an attractive young woman from the lower classes. As a result, she catches the eye of William, a son of the new rich whose mother, we learn later, was a woman not unlike Emma. They are attracted to each other, and Hakim, a friend of William's from India, cannot understand why they do not just marry each other.

Before anything else can happen, Emma's kindly employer dies, leaving her with no way to stay in London. While William dithers, torn because of his family's need for him to marry in his class, Emma leaves, presumably for good.

The story switches gears as William returns to the society he detests and Emma tries to make it as one of many maids in a large household. Fate, however, starts to draw them back together again, as Emma is working for a family with ties to that of William!

Eventually, they meet again, but only after William has pledged his love to another. What can they do now, and how will the various actions of the parents in this story impact on the result? Can William defy everyone and be with Emma, or is the price for her love too high?

That's where we're at by the end of the Volume 5. It's a very Victorian plot, with the complications of love being driven by societal norms and class differences. That fits with the time period Mori is using for her manga, but normally, I'd not be interested in such a tale. After all, I once quipped that I was prejudiced against Jane Austin and my pride wouldn't let me read a Victorian romance, so why am I sitting behind my laptop telling people to read Emma?

The main difference, I think, is that Mori works hard to keep the story authentic to the time period yet with a more modern feel. At no time do the events of the first five volumes feel forced. William naturally meets Emma and comes to see what a wonderful person she is. Emma's first employer is old, and therefore it's not contrived that she passes on. (It was, however, a bit surprise to me when I read it.)

Emma's return to William's life is handled in a way that flows logically from the circumstances of the story. She doesn't just bump into him on the street or happen to take the same train. Thanks to Emma's better than her class understanding of the world--which Mori sets up from the very first volume--she's asked to do bigger things as a maid. The idea that who she gets paired up with just happens to be William's mother can be seen as a token of fate, with only just a bit of help from Mori.

I also feel like Emma is far more in control of her life than the usual Victorian heroine. Mori allows her the strength to keep her life going after tragedy strikes and shows that she can handle almost anything--save perhaps meeting William again, which is understandable. In this way, she is more modern than her Victorian ancestors in the romance novels of Bronte and Austen. However, Mori does not try to push this too hard and turn her into an anachronism.

In fact, if there is one flaw in the series in the early going, it's that Mori tries to pour too much of her research into the manga. The first three volumes are extremely heavy on exposition about the customs of the time period. I appreciate all the hard work that Mori did to make Emma feel period accurate, but at a certain point, it's too much.

There were a few times where I felt characters were explaining things not to each other but to me as the reader, and that threw me out of the story a bit. Fortunately, Mori tones that part of things down in volumes four and five.

Artistically speaking, Emma is a bit strange. You can tell that Mori has worked hard to make things look authentic, and it shows, just as it did in the writing. She details everything from settings like the Crystal Palace to a train station to the interior of a Victorian home. The clothing worn by Emma, William, and especially the well-to-do women in the book are stunning in their detail and attempts to look like they walked out of a BBC production.

On the other hand, the storytelling is very stiff and the characters' faces are rather plain. Hakim merely looks like a darker version of William, and it can be hard to tell the women apart unless they are speaking to each other. In a way, the formal panel structure fits with the formal feelings of the time, but I wish there had been a bit more of a dynamic touch to the art itself.

Looking at the series as a whole so far, I think the most glaring problem is the number of loose ends that Mori has going on. Hakim is all but written out of the story by now, yet he was integral to the plot at the beginning. Similarly, what about the old man who was friends with Emma's first boss?

I continue to be impressed by Mori's willingness to radically alter the story after only two volumes, but I wonder if maybe that opened things up a bit too much. At the end of Volume 5, Eleanor's father enters the picture with a whole other set of complications, and we've still not resolved those for the people we've seen, such as Emma's fellow servants, the odd marriage of her employers, or why William's mother stayed away so long from her family.

Plus, I don't think we ever did get closure on why Emma's former employer educated her, knowing what pain it might bring her in life. Is she harboring a secret that will impact on Emma later? I think it would be cool if that's the case, but it adds yet another mystery that has to be solved.

There's a lot of things to try and resolve satisfactorily before this series wraps up, and I worry that there's not enough time to do i in. Of course, I felt that way about Yoshinaga's Flower of Life and yet that was closed down in one volume in way that I really liked. Given almost 1000 more pages to work with and the quality of their author, I shouldn't be surprised to see Mori pull it off.

There are a lot of directions the series can go from here, and it will be interesting to see which way Mori goes, or if she has another idea in her head. Continuing the theme of an old Victorian story, Emma and William could be separated, with neither of them knowing the love they hoped for. Or she might have them defy convention and marry. That option gives two other paths, one happy and one wretched. There's also the the long shot "Emma was born of high station" route, though that would seem contrived, at least to me.

I do hope that we see some closure for others, not just Emma and William. I'd like to know what Hakim is up to, for instance. Eleanor deserves to be let down easy, if William is going to let her go. If she's wronged in this process, I am going to be angry, as she doesn't deserve it. I'd also like to know the fate of at least some of the maids and stewards that Emma works with. We spent enough time seeing them built up as characters that I'd hate to see that work wasted.

(I know some of you reading this already know the answers, but please don't tell me!)

Through the first five volumes, Emma is a very different sort of manga, at least that I've read. It takes its cue from Victorian literature and updates it to a modern audience in a way that I found compelling. I am very attached to the characters, even the minor ones, and want to see them all get out of this without being hurt, even though in reality that's probably impossible.

This is a series I would recommend to anyone, particularly an English Major that's not quite sure about reading manga. It hooks you in early, and keeps going strong by volume five, introducing new twists in the story while feeling logical the entire time. Kaoru Mori is a fine storyteller, and I can't wait to finish Emma. Now I just have to try to do so a little quicker than I have so far.

You can read more more about Emma from this hub posting at Rocket Bomber.