Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: EMMA

So yeah...things have been a little quiet on the Test Drive.  Well, the truth of the matter is that I got burnt out.  Life happened and I got so far behind on the Merry Month of Manga that I felt there was no point in trying to get caught up.  I haven't given up on the whole thing, though.  Things will go back to normal, with a review every week.  This week we'll be looking at one of the classics of otaku fetish bait stereotypes - maids!  Today I'll kick things off with what is in my highly subjective opinion the best maid manga on the market.  Considering I've declared my love for the mangaka's work more than once, you all have probably been expecting this one for a while.

EMMA (Ema), by Kaoru Mori.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.

In 1890s London lives Emma, the quiet, pretty housemaid of former governess Kelly Stowner.  One day Kelly receives an unexpected visit from her former pupil, William Jones.  Practically from the moment he collides with her, William is smitten with Emma, and through happenstance the two keep meeting and remeeting, and a romance begins to bloom between the two.  This romance is not without its challenges.  William is the son of a wealthy merchant who seeks to marry William into nobility to maintain their lifestyle while enhancing their social status, something that can't be done by marrying a mere chambermaid.  Worse still, William's Indian friend Hakim comes for a visit, and he too falls for Emma.  Emma, on the other hand, is very conscious of the social divide between her and William, even if her employer quietly supports her cause.  Can William and Emma's love survive in a time and place where social standing means everything?


As always, I do have to get that off my chest so I can focus on the analysis without falling into a fit of squees.

While it's the romance between William and Emma that drives the plot, it often feels more like a slice-of-life story.  Each chapter focuses on a different character, and it fills in either some portion of backstory or establishes their main conflict.  Emma is not a terribly talkative work, and most of what is said is polite and formal.  In this story, far more is said in expressions, small gestures, and in the way one looks at another.  It takes a good storyteller to say so much with little but physicality, and Mori accomplishes it beautifully. 

The characters are all fascinating in their own ways, but there's one thing about them that bothers me: why practically everyone on the block (William and Hakim included) is trying to court Emma?  Sure, we the reader have quite a bit of insight into her because we get to see the casual, almost daughter-like relationship she has with Mrs. Stowner.  We even see a flashback to her childhood that explains how she got her glasses (something that was quite the luxury for a servant girl in the Victorian era).  That doesn't explain why she is so seemingly irrestistable.  Yes, she is pretty and genteel, not to mention modest enough to turn down William's offer of a gift of new glasses, instead asking only for a lace handerchief, but that somehow doesn't seem quite enough. 

At least we do get a very good sense of who William is, someone who is at once shy, awkward, but also wears his emotions on his sleeve.  We also clearly see that his personality clashes with the leadership role his steely, class-conscious father is trying to press him towards.  Hakim's personality is also well sketched, despite his relatively short screen time, as someone who is impetuous, curious, and highly romantic.  We even get a good sense of who Mrs. Stowner is, through the flashback to her own early marriage, her sly, period-appropriate level of snark, and the gentility in her relationships with both Willliam and Emma, treating them both almost like her own children.  Mori creates such wonderful characters for Emma that even the mild conundrum of Emma's desirability cannot spoil the story as a whole.

Mori's signature character designs are in place here, with their highly similar, flat, doe-eyed faces that are always so wonderfully, subtly expressive.  Her attention to detail is also on full display, especially in the costumes and backgrounds.  Her backgrounds are so beautifully drawn and textured that you could almost feel the texture of the stones on the buildings, and she spends the same amount of effort on every little frill and fold of every piece of clothing.  Mori's panel and page composition are quite plain, even conservative, but she uses every bit of space that she can.  She also sometimes slips in clever little tricks, such an early sequence where the panels follow William's gaze as he look upon Emma.  Emma's artwork is as subtle and detailed as its writing, and the two complement one another perfectly.

There's a brief bio on Mori, along with an omake about her research for Emma.  I've often remarked on how much I like Mori's omakes, because there's a wonderfully manic energy to them.  You get a real sense of her enthusiasm for her work and for history, and as a fellow history nut I really appreciate her effort.

Did you expect anything less?  This is an absolute gem of a series, and I desperately wish it was still in print because it is worth every penny.

This series was published by CMX.  All 10 volumes were published, and all are now out of print. 

You can purchase this manga and many more like it through!

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