January 2, 2012

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A Bride's Story Volumes 1 and 2

Written by Kaoru Mori
Illustrated by Kaoru Mori
Yen Press

On the Silk Road in the 19th Century, life can be difficult and short.  Children are married at an early age, in order to have as many kids as possible.  Alliances are formed and dissolved as quickly as the sands shift, and family members (particularly women) are told to accept things as they are, for to resist society leads to ruin.  That's the setting for A Bride's Story, but it's not the message.  Amir Hagal is an older bride, married off as a pawn of her powerful family.  But she's entered into a family for whom there is more to life than just power and advantage.  When push comes to shove, they accept her as family, regardless of the cost.  This is the story of Hagal's life.  It is...a bride's story.

I was a huge fan of Mori's series Emma, which came out from the late CMX manga imprint of DC Comics.  Not only did it have a good story that progressed nicely while telling the details of the world, it was drawn better than just about any other manga I've ever read.  Mori had a passion of the time period of late Victorian England, and used all of her skills and care to create an amazing comic that sucked the reader in from the very first pages.  Even if you were not an Anglophile, it was hard not to get caught up in the wonder of the world Mori brought to the page in painstaking detail.

Everything that made Emma such a wonderful comic is back again in A Bride's Story.  Mori, if anything, has gotten even better at making her story detailed.  The clothing is meticulous.  The interiors of the houses, huts, and other sets are crafted down to ensuring that the tile in the bathroom has etchings on it.

Let me repeat:  The tile of the bathroom has etchings.

That's typical of Mori's work, and part of why I think an argument can be made that she is the best manga-ka working in the medium today.  While she is certainly not prolific, Mori uses her time wisely to create a visual that matches the exotic settings she places the characters in.  Reading her comics are a visual treat.

The story itself has some echoes to Emma, none of which are a bad thing.  Mori brings up the power imbalance for her female characters because of the world they live in, but also shows how that imbalance can be fought, if there is a will to fight.  I am not entirely sure how realistic the actions of Hagal's married family are, but I love that she has the woman expressing their opinion and is not afraid to have Hagal be more powerful than her younger husband.  The idea that she is independent despite being in an arranged marriage is a nice (if perhaps a bit fanciful) touch.

The arranged marriage does make things a bit awkward, because of the age disparity of the characters  So far, Mori is dancing around the objections that a modern reader might have to such an arrangement by not having anything happen (which in itself is now an important plot point).  I do wonder how Mori plans to deal with this.  While it made perfect sense for a Victorian-era story to avoid some frank discussions, I do not see that as a viable strategy here.  I do trust Mori, regardless of her decision, to make it story-based, tasteful, and historically realistic.

One of the great things about Mori's mangas is that while they have an overall story, Mori always finds a way to tell us about the time period without it feeling like the plot is being ignored.  For example, Hagal and her husband go off to find his relatives, who are nomads.  It allows us to find out about what nomadic life is like on the Silk Road, which is awesome. But it also serves to allow the plot to move on with events that Hagal and her husband are not supposed to know about, so the story keeps moving even as the reader is the beneficiary of Mori's extensive research.  It's a great touch that is a hallmark of Mori's storytelling, and part of why I had no problem naming this my best manga of 2011.

A Bride's story is head and shoulders above a lot of the manga published in English.  It's intelligent, detailed, and willing to take the time to make the backgrounds the equal of the main characters.  I did not start reading Emma until it was almost over.  I am so happy to be a part of this ride while it comes out.  If you are a fan of historical manga with strong female characters, you should be, too.