Ah November, that bleak grey space between Halloween and Christmas enlivened only by the national day of gorging that is Thanksgiving (well, for Americans at least). Still, being the month in which thanks are given for the good things in your life, I want to show some of my appreciation for some of my favorite mangaka. So, this November I will be reviewing works by some of my favorite writers and artists, and I'm starting with my absolute favorite: Kaoru Mori.
A BRIDE'S STORY (Otoyomegatari), by Kaoru Mori. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2011.
PLOT: Sometime within the 19th century on the steppes of central Asia lives Amir Halgal, a 20 year old girl from an unspecified nomadic tribe. She is being sent to a village to the Eihon family, where she is to marry their 12 year old son Karluk. As time progresses, we learn more about Amir and her new family as the new couple learns to adjust to one another, even as tensions from Amir's family threaten to pull it apart.
STORY: I LOVE KAORU MORI. I'm going to be saying the equivalent of that A LOT in this review, so I thought I'd get the obvious out of the way. One of the reasons I love her is that she has such skill for writing slice-of-life stories. So many mangaka use that genre as an excuse to just write a bunch of randomness, but Mori finds a way to make the mundane details of life interesting and to write interesting characters that still fit within this vaguely defined historical period.
Amir is such a lively, spirited person that it's nigh impossible to not like her, even as she struggles with her own anxiety about fitting in with her new family and with the age difference between her and her groom (as theirs is a culture where she is old for a bride and Karluk is somewhat young for a groom). Karluk is more sedate in comparison, but he too is having to make some big adjustments. You would be too if you became a married man (with all the social changes that come with that status) before you had barely begun puberty. It's also kind of cute to see just how awestruck he is about Amir's skills when it comes to riding and hunting. We also get to know Karluk's extended family throughout the volume - his father, mother, and grandmother; his sister, brother-in-law, and their children; and Smith, the foreign anthropologist who is recording their culture as a guest. As someone with an anthropology degree, I was very happy to see a positive portrayal of an anthropologist, even if Smith is probably the closest thing to comic relief in the cast. He's a bit befuddled and a little bit over his head, but it's clear his intentions are pure and truly only wishes to observe and study.
The events of this volume are fairly mundane: hunting trips, a woodcarver working on his wares, a trip to Karluk's uncle, etc, and the tone is decidedly casual. What makes these events interesting is how we learn bit-by-bit about our cast from these events, through their interactions (both in frame and in the background) and from the casual moments of humor. The only hint towards a larger, darker plot comes near the end of the volume, when Amir's brother comes looking for her so that she may be married off elsewhere. The situation is resolve, but the tension does not quite leave, leaving a dark shadow on these otherwise sunny slice-of-life events.
The world and cast of A Bride's Story feels very fleshed out and realistic, in part because Mori skillfully uses the ordinary actions and interactions of their day to explore personalities and shifting relationships instead of simply filling the time until the the plot gets going. It takes a skillful writer to pull such a thing off without making the volume dull, and luckily for us Mori is a very skillful, subtle, and complex writer.
ART: DID I MENTION I LOVE KAORU MORI? BECAUSE I DO. Why? Because her artwork is nothing short of exquisite. There is just so much detail in every panel. Most of our cast wears clothing full of texture and embroidery and wear elaborate pieces of jewelry, and their houses are draped in equally elaborately patterned rugs, draperies, and carved wood pieces. Even the animals in their herds are distinct, down to the last sheep. Praise must be given to Mori and her assistants for not only drawing such beautiful details, but keeping them consistent from panel to panel. Those details also clearly demonstrate what a history nut Mori is, and the level of research and effort she put into the setting of her story.
Her character designs do suffer a bit from looking similiar, with the same enormous eyes and simple mouths, but thankfully those designs are still very subtly expressive. This is an extremely useful thing, because there are many moments where characters express so much just through subtle shifts in their eyes or body movement. Also, they can at least be distinguished by those well-detailed costumes. The panel and page layout is straightforward, but that's OK because the panels are nice and large to let those details shine.
Mori's art goes a long way towards fleshing out the world of A Bride's Story, as a lot of time and research went into getting the details of Amir's universe just right. It also helps to build upon the relationships and interactions she has written through the subtle expressiveness of her cast.
PRESENTATION: Yen Press really went all out to make this series look good. First and foremost, it's hardbound, a rarity in the manga world. It has a slip cover with color images (Amir on the front, a family scene on the back stretching onto the back flap) over a handsome brown cover with gold print on the spine. They also included Mori's notes, which are a sort of combo of omake comic and cultural notes, including a family tree for the Eihons which is very helpful to have.
In all seriousness, this series is incredibly well-crafted and I look forward to every single new volume. I'm curious to see where the story will take Amir and company, and I only wish Yen Press could release it faster than one volume a year.
This series is ongoing, with 4 volumes published so far. 3 of those 4 volumes have been released and are in print, with the fourth coming in early 2013.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!