Review: Emma, vols. 4-7

EmmaEmma, vols. 4-7
By Kaoru Mori
Rated Teen Plus
CMX, $9.99

Emma started out slow in the first few volumes and really started getting interesting in volume 3. In the second half, the series escalates into a full-blown Victorian romance, complete with wild adventures, rapturous emotion, and the pageantry and snobbery of the English upper classes. At the same time, manga-ka Kaoru Mori has grown surer of herself and her subject matter, and her art has become more ambitious as a result.

Set in 19th century England, Emma chronicles the romance of William Jones, the eldest son of a wealthy family, and Emma, a prim maid whose quiet exterior belies hidden depths. The biggest obstacle to their romance, of course, is the difference between their stations, which gives even the most sympathetic characters pause.

The course of true love never runs smooth, at least not in fiction, and in these four volumes the reader watches Emma and William reunite, pull back again, struggle with obstacles thrown in their path by others, and ultimately (spoiler alert!!) triumph. The third point in the inevitable love triangle is the young and ditzy Eleanor, who pursues William unaware of his greater passion for Emma. Eleanor’s strong-minded sister and evil-viscount father throw in lots of extra complications, and the below-stairs drama of maids and grooms adds counterpoint and humor.

Mori also delves into the backstory of William’s family: The Jones family has money but no noble blood, so they are still outsiders, invited to parties but subject to snide comments behind their backs. That outsider status causes rifts within the family and adds to William’s father’s determination that his son not throw away everything he has worked for by marrying a maid.

DownstairsIf there is a flaw in this series, it’s the pacing: Things often seem to hang for a few chapters, with little plot development, and then the action ramps up again. In a lesser book this would be more noticeable, but Emma is really an immersion experience. Much of the enjoyment of reading it comes from simply watching the characters go about their business, whether in the drawing room or the scullery. There are nights at the opera, shopping trips in London, and several voluptuous bathing and dressing scenes. In fact, the little bits of business between the main plot elements are some of the best parts of the book.

As far as the romance of William and Emma is concerned, the series has a perfect ending, but Mori does leave a few loose ends dangling. Even at the end of the series, Emma remains an enigma—where did she get her upper-class bearing, not to mention her knowledge of French? Eleanor’s botched pursuit of William is resolved nicely, but Emma’s suitor, the dark and dangerous-looking Hans, simply disappears. Mori has developed a rich cast of supporting characters, and I was hoping to learn more about them; hopefully the three volumes of Emma side stories that CMX plans to publish next year will hold some of the answers.

William's inkstandEmma first appeared in a seinen magazine in Japan, and Mori nods to her male audience in subtle ways. Her gaze dwells lovingly on William’s haberdashery: His shoes, the writing paraphernalia on his desk, even the way his carelessly folded jacket falls onto a chair. Beyond that, the story shifts frequently between William’s point of view and Emma’s. The leading male is often a cardboard character in romances, but William has real emotions. It’s easy to see that this manga was written to be read by men as well as women.

While Emma certainly has a gripping story, the art is the real draw. It’s interesting that Mori, who had never been to England when she started the series, can evoke Victorian England so well. It’s an idealized version, to be sure. The rooms would be much smaller and darker in a real Victorian house, and people didn’t parade around naked as much in the days before central heating. But that’s poetic license. The atmosphere Mori creates, from the busy streets of London to a close-up of a filigreed inkstand, is convincing and inviting.

Generic Emma faceHer one weak point is faces. Almost everyone in Emma has the same face, and it’s a strange one: an underdeveloped nose that appears to be melting into the smooth curves of cheeks and chin, a tiny mouth that is often just a single line, and some of the oddest eyes in manga-dom. The eyes are big, and they have the requisite highlights, but viewed from the side they appear concave. Emma’s German employers and their staff have more distinct features, but among William and his circle, I sometimes had to look closely at details of the costumes or hair to figure out who was who.

Mori clearly enjoys drawing the female figure, and some of the panels, such as the nude scenes later in the series, look like they could have been drawn from life. Her figures have a solidity that is unusual in any comics, manga or otherwise, and their movements seem natural and relaxed.

Each panel of Emma is as detailed as an illustration in a Victorian picture book, and Mori’s technique even mimics the parallel-line shading of old engravings. Yet the meaning never gets lost in the detail. She uses toning to subtly to set off single areas of shade and keep the hatching from blending into a single unreadable web, and particularly in the below-stairs scenes she uses the flowing black curves of the maids’ uniforms to punctuate the scene and draw the eye forward. Mori breaks her story up into many little panels, often fitting six or more onto a page, but the art never seems crowded; even the small panels are clearly composed, and they often have a monumental feel despite their jewel-like size.

Reading Emma is like stepping into another time and place. While the story alternates between breathless and listless, the little dramas of everyday life in Victorian times lift this book from good to great.

This review is based on a complimentary copy and galleys supplied by the publisher.

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  1. I loved this series, and regularly reread it :)

    A few things though. Emma’s bearing and education are resolved very early on (volume 2 i think it was). After Kelly’s death and Emma’s departure William learns of her past from Al.

    Emma was kidnapped to be sold to a errr house of ill repute we’ll say :) but she ran away. Eventually she was picked up by one of Kelly’s friends. Kelly decided to to take her as a project, she wanted to see just what education could make of a person, and trained Emma up.

    You have to remember that Kelly was a governess to a high class family, so bearing, and teaching french would of been part of what she taught. So when sher taught Emma, she was taught these as well.

    I don’t think Hans was ever a possible love interest for Emma to be honest. the depth of love she felt for William was to often shown in various ways, both small and large.

    Also, i kind of got the impression that while he liked Emma, he had his eyes on someone else. It was the anime that made him more of a potential love interest.

    I agree the pacing could of been a bit better, but to be honest the story is enticing you kind of get aborbed into it and forget the pacing.

    Mori’s art work is stunning though. the depth and lengths she went to to get things as close to perfect as she could were just astounding.

    I can’t wait for Shirly to be released in December, shame she didn’t make a series out of that story.

  2. I do remember the backstory from volume 2, but I really thought there would be more—that Emma would turn out to actually be the daughter of a noble family who somehow ended up in a poor household—something like that. I guess I have read too many real Victorian novels.

    As for Hans, I haven’t seen the anime but it was clear in the manga that he was at least noticing her. It seemed like Mori was setting it up for him to make a move, and then he never did. But I see your point as well.

  3. Having Emma become some lost noble would of been overkill i think, not to mention to convienient. suddenly going from maid to having a silver spoon would of made things to easy. Not to mention the excellent ending we got would have had to be changed.

    I also don’t see how it could of tied in properly with the established back story from volume two. It would of been to weird to go from being a noble to being in a slum on the coast with her aunt.

    To be honest i love the fact she remained a maid through out, that she still has to work at everything to become his bride, rather than waking up and finding she’s really already a noble.

    As for Hans, to me i could never see it as a relationship beyond anything than friends. I thought he seemed more interested in Adele. But i also think it’s part of his personality that would of prevented him from making a move. He wouldn’t of made a move unless Emma showed an interest in him, which she never did.

    The anime is great, but it changes alot of the manga, which i felt was a bit much. For example Hans becomes a definite suitor for Emma, and practically hits her over the head with his affections in the later episodes. Emma also seems to have problems choosing between the two, something she never had in the manga. Not to mention they cut out an entire arc of the manga :(

  4. Oh, i also highly reccomend you read Shirley when it’s released in december. It’s only a fe chapters long, but i love the story. Emma also makes a cameo appearance :) in one of the omake chapters.

    I really wish she’s carried on and made Shirley into another series. Manga as vibrant as this are rare.

  5. I can’t wait for the side stories! This manga at first seemed like an OEL manga to me, because of the small panels, unusual art style and because it so realistically portrays Victorian England. The manga-ka really did her research, even if she did idealized it a bit. I only noticed it was manga when I saw the author’s name. But whether or not it’s OEL doesn’t detract a bit from its quality. I enjoyed it immensely.

    One point on the art. Only later on did I make a connection of it to old-school manga. Perhaps it’s just me, but it really did feel slightly like Case Closed art, noted because its art has a distinct old-school style different from shonen right now, and Doraemon (it’s a series of Japanese child “moral” stories with a character like Mickey Mouse, only very very funny and enjoyable. In Asia, everybody knows him. Everybody. The panels were like Doraemon’s too.)

  6. I don’t think the art is idealised TBH. Mori hired a victorian history specialist to help her design the the streets and stuff. From what i’ve seen of some real victorian places she’s not far off the mark.

    That same historian also went on to work with the animators for the anime aswell. Never really considered it an OEL though, it has a different feel to what OEL’s have.

    Maybe i’ve just read to much manga, but i can usually spot an OEL without knowing who the mangaka is hehe. Also it’s not the only manga done with this type of art, several others were done like it as well. That said it only really seems to work in slice-of-life styled manga.

  7. That panel: “No matter where you go in England, it’s all flatlands…”?

    Oh, how I bloody wish! Only real flatlands in England are East Anglia, Sussex, and maybe Kent. The rest? It’s almost all hills. Even London can be hilly, which is *not* good for my lazy feet.

  8. Sorry, an additional response:

    “The rooms would be much smaller and darker in a real Victorian house.”

    Not necessarily true. It depends on which type the house is and where.

    I ought to read ‘Emma’ to see it for myself, though.

  9. I agree with Cat. You have to remember the only houses we get to see in Emma are those of wealthy families, who could afford the lighting and stuff. The only we get to see a ‘commoner’ house is with Al, and that was done fairly well.

    If you ever get a chance head to the north east of england, there’s an entire victorian theme village there (forgot the name of it), They recreate the times fairly accurately i used to go there a lot as kid.

    As for the flatlands, again you need to remember that during the victorian era the land was fairly flat. A lot of the hills and stuff we have today, especially the london ones, are artificially created.


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