DRAWN & QUARTERED
The Virtues of Emma
Being that most "shoujo" (girls) manga are aimed at teenage girls, most such series that have come to America usually revolve around school situations, with lovesick teens wondering if he "loves me, loves me not." The seven-volume "Emma," by Kaoru Mori, branches out into a more unusual yet not unknown situation, delivering a far more fulfilling and mature story than most others in the genre.
The title character in "Emma," set in Victorian England, is a maid working for retired governess Kelly Stownar. One afternoon, one of Mrs. Stownar's former pupils -- young William Jones, oldest son and heir of the wealthy Jones family -- drops by unexpectedly for his first visit to his old teacher in years. He's instantly smitten by the beautiful Emma, and already starts plotting how he can spend a little time with her -- even immediately offering to buy her a gift, ostensibly as a gesture of respect for his governess.
Master William isn't the only one enchanted by the genteel maid. Emma has any number of suitors, as evidenced by the mass of love letters that arrive for her regularly. She even catches the eye of Hakim, an Indian prince who's on a "short" visit to his good friend William and who wastes no time in asking Emma to marry him.
With the young maid growing fonder of William despite -- or, more accurately, because of -- his eccentricities and enthusiasm, the series' course is at first like any other romantic story. But there is one big obstacle that sets "Emma" apart from others: The couple soon find themselves being squeezed by the suffocating English class structure that, as William's father Richard puts it, divides one England into two countries -- that of the peasants and that of the gentry and nobility.
As life proceeds for them both, we see more clearly the vast gap that separates their worlds: Emma's days are filled with the mundanity of grocery shopping, scrubbing, cooking and serving tea to guests, daily and with no off time, while William's are a luxurious flurry of visiting lords and ladies, attending balls, going for carriage and horseback rides, and escaping work duties as much as possible in between.
We see the social battles that William and Emma will face, the spiteful whispers of supposedly fine ladies and the sometimes grave consequences of the couple's decision.
Among the many complicating things is Miss Eleanor Campbell, the daughter of a viscount, who is obviously in love with William, leading to some equally obvious planning by the social-climbing Richard Jones as he works to get his family accepted more fully by the aristocracy.
This is no teen romance with adolescents trying to overcome their own insecurities and inner demons. Here, the couple is ripping into the very fabric of society, a creation that is often more tightly woven and uncompromising with the inertia of thousands of people and generations of tradition.
The stereotypical uprightness and gentle virtue of the era as shown through the main characters give "Emma" a calm dignity that is often foreign in contemporary shoujo manga -- there is no teen hyperactivity, no whirlwind of cliques and cat fights. Such gentility is made more vibrant by author Mori's beautifully detailed artwork -- from roadways to house interiors, from corsets to hairdos -- and the inclusion of actual period items that show her passion for and extensive research into the Victorian age. In the face of this, we can't help but hope that somehow, some way, it will work out for William and Emma.
Our belief in a simple freedom we take for granted -- the freedom to be able to love whomever we choose and to spend our life with that person -- and the unjust lack of that liberty here make us admire the young couple and gets us cheering our hardest for them. And Emma's down-to-earth modesty gives us the sense that she is an incredible young woman indeed, aside from the fact that her many hopeful suitors include members of the upper class despite her status as a maid.
"Emma" has its share of spot humor and silliness, as any good book should. But all told, it is not a happy story. As Mori puts it, the ending of "Emma" is "safe" rather than satisfying, realistically unresolved rather than sappily "happy ever after." So many threads are left unfinished, so many people are left devastated and never find their own resolution, and so many are left still vowing to never accept William and Emma's love. No one comes out unscathed, and at the end not everyone comes to terms with the blows dealt by the cruel unfairness of love and a rigid, unforgiving society.
"Emma" was published stateside by CMX and finished its main seven-volume run earlier this year, although CMX is promising an eighth book next year with short stories focusing on some of the minor characters. It was also made into a 24-episode anime, the first 12 of which were released stateside by Right Stuf in June. The first part of the anime is made much longer with the addition of numerous scenes that extend the courtship between Emma and William and the young heir's unintentional relationship with Eleanor.
The television version makes use of long stretches of silence and slow-moving animation at times -- perhaps reflecting the many wordless scenes in the manga that rely only on well-placed people and items, detailed facial expressions and deliberate movements -- but it never makes you impatient. Instead, it builds things slowly, allowing you to fully take in the beauty and pain of an impossible love. And you'll never miss the fact that there are no dubbed English voices.
The final 12 episodes that comprise Season 2 are scheduled for an October release by Right Stuf.