Emma by Kaoru Mori. Published by CMX. Retail: $9.99 2/7 Volumes released in English. Series complete in Japanese. Rated T+ (teens and up; female nudity in a matter of fact manner, mild sexual references, kissing) . A-
Note: I feel distinctly uncomfortable addressing a frank letter to a Japanese mangaka. It’s so… Ugly American. So I will be addressing readers for the most part in these reviews so that I don’t have to be so circumspect.
One thing you’ll discover if you read much manga is that accuracy in setting isn’t something that really concerns most mangaka, if a story is set outside Japan. But there are exceptions. Emma is one of them.
Admittedly, there are a few things used here and there that are slightly anachronistic, such as having a model airplane in a few panels well before the first one ever flew, but they are used to make the story a little more colorful and are not major plot points so they don’t bother me. It’s the feel of the story I love.
I opened this manga expecting a lot of the typical Japanese trappings for romance. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find something that felt very British to me (I’m an American, so I admit that it might not feel that way to the Brits.). The pacing, the main characters, the detail in the artwork, especially the drawings of London, and the period feel (1896) are all well done.
The romance is a nice one as well. Both Emma and Mr. Jones feel very like they must have been: a maid trying to become better than she is but knowing there are some boundaries she should not cross, and a rash young man who has fallen in love and won’t listen to reason about those very things. I love how they try to do what’s right by society’s rules, but unhappiness, and awareness of what they’re missing eventually overwhelms them and brings them together again. In the end there are no magical answers for the two of them, even though they do get some unexpected help along the way. Their relationship felt real to me.
This is a romance for older teens, so it has its share of emotional romantic moments, such as here, where the h/h are reunited at one point (panels are read right to left, top to bottom).
But it also has more than its share of quiet reflective moments, such as a lovely but sad chapter where Emma goes through the motions of cleaning her mistress / teacher’s house after the older woman dies. There’s very little dialogue but it says plenty: One thing that may genuinely bother readers concerned with authenticity is the most colorful and lively character, Hakim Atawari, Mr Jones’ best friend, an Indian prince. Everything about Hakim is fantastical, especially his free and open interactions with British upper class society. However, he brings such life and fun to it, that I for one do not care about his authenticity. I have learned to view such things as windows into the Japanese mind and to enjoy them as they come.
Other readers however, might prefer to have those windows closed when they’re reading about Victorian London. But to me, it’s one of the things I like best about Emma (and manga in general), comparing it to what I know of history, and pondering why things were interpreted such a way through a Japanese lens. And Hakim is just charming.
So unless you’re one of those readers from the Regency list for whom mention of a spoon made of a certain metal alloy at the bottom of page 87 when that particular metallurgy wasn’t introduced until 1825 which is decidedly not Regency just ruined the whole book for you, then you should be able to enjoy this romance despite the few things that might be off. Because seriously, for manga, this is very well researched, and very true to its times.
Right now only the first two volumes of the seven book series are out in English. I have already read all seven volumes from the Japanese, and can assure you that it belongs on a romance list. I think this story is one of the most accessible for Western lovers of romance, and urge anyone interested to pick up the first two volumes and give it a try.