Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Emma (manga, vol. 9) by Kaoru Mori

You know how I said I probably shouldn't buy any of this series, because there was a good chance I'd never get it all, and then my completist soul would scream in agony? Yeah, I said all that because it had been ages (a year ago, according to my blog posts) since I read the last Emma volume. I had forgotten how incredibly good this series is, even when nothing much is going on. Maybe especially when nothing much is going on. I'm back to wanting to own as many volumes of this series as I can find at a reasonable price.

This is the second of three final volumes that contain only side stories. The main story ended in volume 7. Although I liked volume 8 well enough, the side stories weren't really to my taste.

That isn't the case with this volume. I found 3 of the 5 side stories to be fantastic, and the other two to be okay. I think Mori's "okay" is better than some manga author/artists' "good," though.

As I have done in the past with anthologies, which is what this basically is, I have no plans to list read-alikes or watch-alikes - it's just going to be synopses and commentary. If you haven't read the first seven volumes of Emma, it's possible you might still be able to enjoy this volume, but you'd probably miss out on a lot, because Mori doesn't bother to include reminders of who everyone is and how they fit into the story. Do yourself a favor and read the series in order.

(Little nitpicky annoying thing: Um, isn't the family Emma used to work for the Molders/Moelders? Whoever wrote the back cover description for this volume was not aware of that, because he or she referred to them as the Merediths - which isn't even close to being a German name, by the way - not once, not twice, but three times.)

Now, on to the synopses and commentaries.

"Erich and Theo" Synopsis:

The Molders (the "o" should have an umlaut, but I don't know how to type that in Blogger) spend a nice afternoon in an area near the woods and, when they head home, young Erich is unaware that he has accidentally left Theo, his beloved pet squirrel, behind. Erich and his family can't go back for him until morning, so Theo has to spend an interesting and somewhat dangerous night on his own.

Commentary:

I love this story! Part of that may be due to the fact that Theo reminds me a little of the pet rats I've had. Theo's reunion with Erich was so cute - if you've ever lived with and loved an animal that's at the bottom of the food chain, you know how awesome it is when that animal comes to trust you as much as much as Theo trusts Erich.

Even if I hadn't owned rats before, however, I think I still would have enjoyed this story. There are lots of lovely, wordless pages showing Theo exploring a little area of the forest and meeting (and evading) other animals. I found myself worrying about the little guy, who was just one mistake away from becoming some bigger animal's lunch. I also couldn't help but smile when Theo did little squirrely things, like gnawing wood off a tree, finding and burying an acorn, and grooming himself. Mori not only did a fantastic job of drawing Theo (my favorite panel is the one where Theo is relaxing on a tree branch), she did a fantastic job of showing him acting like a real animal.

This was a sweet story, tied, I think, with "Friendship" as my favorite story in the volume.

"On Wings of Song" Synopsis:

Wilhelm and Dorothea have a quiet morning in bed, reminiscing about their first meeting and their married life. By the way, these two have been married for 8 and a half years, and they're still hot for each other. Go, them!

Commentary:

This is my third favorite story in the volume, after "Erich and Theo" and "Friendship."

Since Dorothea spends a good portion of this story baring her naked breasts to the reader, I couldn't help but be reminded of a bit in the main story of Emma, where Emma is in Dorothea's room and blushes over her new mistress standing around naked and apparently not being bothered by those around her in the slightest. There was a bit in volume 1 of Hetalia that mentioned that Westerners are less concerned about nudity than Japanese people - I have wondered if Dorothea's unselfconscious nudity was due to this impression, and Emma was acting as a stand-in for Japanese readers, or if Germans and English people actually had such differing views about how the lady of a house should feel about being seen in the nude, even if only by servants.

Anyway, Dorothea and Wilhelm have always been one of the most lovingly sexual couples in Emma, even though, if I remember right, most of the passion between them is indicated through nothing more shocking than kisses, facial expressions, and body language. I was never very sure how old their children were, but I was still surprised and pleased to learn that this very much in love couple has been married 8 and a half years. Considering the number of relationships in Emma that are either lacking in love (Eleanor's parents) or severely damaged (William's parents), it's nice to see a couple that has worked out so well.

I loved getting to see how Wilhelm and Dorothea first met, and I really loved that Dorothea and Wilhelm don't remember the same "first meeting." They fall in love with each other and make a family together, despite each of them thinking at first that the other was occasionally a little odd. Although some men would have been shocked and outraged by a young woman acting the way Dorothea does when Wilhelm first meets her (she was riding like a man, full out, with her hair flying unbound behind her - an absolutely gorgeous panel), Wilhelm instead becomes interested. I'm glad that, even as young Wilhelm occasionally says things that confuse Dorothea, young Dorothea occasionally says things that confuse Wilhelm - the mustache bit is hilarious! I'm not sure that Wilhelm looks any less scary with a mustache, and, personally, I think he looks hotter without one.

I would have loved to see more of Wilhelm's courtship of Dorothea - I imagine it was full of wonderful moments, and I'm sure young Dorothea was an absolute spitfire. I was glad for the few panels showing the progression of Dorothea and Wilhelm's marriage. It's not a representation of their whole marriage - you don't see the birth of their children, how they end up in England, that sort of thing, just random moments that are more about the emotions of their marriage (touching each other, enjoying ordinary moments, dealing with sadness together) than anything else. Mori is incredibly good at these kinds of quiet moments. Her artwork is strong enough and expressive enough to stand up to the kind of scrutiny that wordless pages invite.

I wasn't as enthused by the bit at the end, with Wilhelm singing, but then I'm rarely enthused by attempts at incorporating music into manga or graphic novels - song, in my opinion, is something that's only really effective in a medium that includes actual sound. That's a personal preference, however, and it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of this story.

"Friendship" Synopsis:

Hakim and William meet each other for the first time, as young children in India. While William's father talks business with Hakim's father, William tries to make friends with Hakim by teaching him how to play tennis. Hakim is a bit standoffish at first, what with being second in line to the throne and probably not used to playing with boys his own age, and it probably doesn't help that he and William don't even speak the same language. However, it isn't long before the boys have established a friendship that transcends the language barrier and continues into their adulthood.

Commentary:

Earlier, I said that this story was tied with "Erich and Theo" as my favorite in the volume, but I think this one might actually be just a little bit better than "Erich and Theo." One of Emma's weaknesses (not a big one for me, but possibly a big one for readers who are more sensitive to such things) has always been in its portrayal of Indian characters. Hakim's servant girls were lovely, silent, and impossible to think of as real people with lives outside of hanging out around Hakim. As for Hakim... Don't get me wrong, I love Hakim. He's funny, playful, and, although I never found him to be a believable rival for Emma's affections, his behavior around Emma was fun to watch. But he never seemed to be a real person, just a foil for William and an over-the-top example of Indian-ness (it was common for him to bring an elephant with him whenever he went to visit William).

In this story, Indian-British relations come up a bit, and Mori actually attempts to ground things in reality. Although I wasn't quite sure what to make of the results, I still found it very interesting and would have loved to see more.

The meat of the story is the establishment of Hakim and William's friendship, so the focus is mostly on the two boys trying to communicate and play together effectively. Even with a translator, it's not easy at first. Hakim is a bit daunting, but William is too friendly and determined to let his behavior put him off. It's an absolute joy watching these two boys become friends, and the bit at the end, where Hakim and William bicker together after William loses and says they should play again, is wonderful. As their translator says, a translator is no longer needed - they only just met, and they still can't speak the same language, but they already know each other well enough to understand each other and argue together. It's sweet.

Like I said, Indian-British relations come up. While the main part of the story is going on, Hakim's father and William's father are discussing business, only taking a break to watch Hakim and William's first real match against each other. During the match, Hakim's father says, "No foreign nation has ever governed India for long. Your country is, as it were, a traveler passing through. Eventually, you will leave. But after your sojourn is over...how will you see us? As friends? Or..." A subtle change in his expression indicates that he is pleased that his son and William are enjoying playing tennis, a sport played by those who are "usually close friends who play for enjoyment" (William's father's words). I'm not sure how he necessarily feels about Britain, though. It's a fascinating moment. As usual, Mori has me wanting to minutely examine facial expressions and dissect nuances in conversation. Hakim wasn't necessarily a simple character throughout the series, but this side story makes me wish Mori had done more with him. I wonder, did Hakim's father ever hear about Hakim's interest in Emma, an English maid? If he did, did he think anything of it?

Unfortunately, after this side story the volume gets a bit weaker.

"Shopping Together" Synopsis:

Alma and Polly (two servants in the Molders/Moelders household) have the day off and spend it shopping together. Actually, Polly does most of the shopping, agonizing over what she wants to buy for herself and buying all the things the other servants asked her to buy for them and gave her money for. Alma mostly just window shops, content to follow Polly's more energetic lead.

Commentary:

On the one hand, I'm glad for the side stories involving servants from the series. The servants in the Molders household definitely aren't like Hakim's servant girls - these are real people, with lives outside of the work they do. On the other hand...I have yet to read one of these servant side stories and really like them. This one is no exception. It's nice enough, and it wouldn't surprise me if Mori set the story up just so she could draw lots of shops and things to buy - as usual, her artwork is fantastic - but the story itself doesn't really grab me. In the Molders household, the servants I find most interesting are Adele and Hans, neither of whom have gotten their own side story yet. I hope they do.

One question: who's Maria? Alma sees her walking with a man, and it's clear that both Alma and Adele know who she is, but I can't for the life of me remember her. Is she a former servant?

"Three Singers" (parts 1 & 2) Synopsis:

This 2-part story focuses on three singers/actors: Louise, a beautiful woman who loves cats and who'd like to retire and concentrate more on her singing; George, a good-natured and nice guy; and Alan Burgess, who thinks his fans like him for his looks alone and would like to get better at singing so that would no longer be the case. Alan is secretly in love with Louise and plans to tell her soon. Unfortunately, Louise is in love with George.

Commentary:

My synopsis makes this story sound more dram-filled than it actually is. Although Alan loves Louise, he doesn't try to win her away from George. In fact, since he hadn't yet told Louise how he felt, he was actually relieved that he found out about Louise and George before he made a fool of himself. It was still painful for him, but I expect he'll get over Louise soon enough. Actually, it seemed like George knew a whole lot more about Louise than Alan did - the fact that George knew about Louise's love for cats should've clued Alan in to what was to come.

In her afterword, Mori writes that she wanted to do this story, even though none of the main characters appear anywhere else in Emma (although Mori does sneak in a cameo appearance by Eleanor, and possibly William, although it's hard to tell from behind). She may have wanted to do the story, but it suffered from featuring all-new characters. Because she couldn't rely on reader knowledge of the characters in previous volumes, Mori had to both establish all the characters and tell the story. It's not really a bad story, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch of a lot of Mori's other side stories.

There were some things I really liked about this story, however.
  1. The prostitute Alan met. At least, I'm pretty sure she's a prostitute. Anyway, it's really cute that she decides to go to one of Alan's shows, and it was a nice touch to have her sitting near Louise's maid. If Mori were to ever write more about these characters, I think it might be interesting to see a romance develop between Alan and that woman. I don't know that it could necessarily end well, but they both seem like nice people. I loved Alan's reaction to realizing that she was in the audience, and I thought it was sweet how the woman seemed so happy that she knew Alan, who would be playing a count (which she automatically assumed meant he was playing an important part - I think this might possibly be the first time she's ever gone to the theater).
  2. Louise's maid, Amelia. She looks stony-faced and a little scary, but she's totally on Louise's side. I loved the flashback showing her at Louise's very first performance - she got into an altercation with several people who had been talking about how terrible Louise was. Amelia is awesome. She even talks Louise up to Alan's lady.
  3. Again, Mori does a marvelous job drawing animals - I loved the kitten Louise got as a gift. So. Cute.
Extras:

There's a 3-page manga afterword, with a little bit of information about each side story. As usual, Mori portrays herself as a fangirly spaz, which makes her skill at drawing quiet, beautiful moments all the more impressive. The volume also includes a character age ranking, which displays pictures of almost all the characters in the order of youngest to oldest. I found some of the ranking to be somewhat unexpected. For instance, Hakim is the same age as Emma, and both of them are younger than William.  I had expected them all to be the same age. Eleanor is younger than all of them - not surprising, since she always came across as naive and immature, although I hadn't realized she was quite that much younger than William. Hans is the same age as Alma, and they are both older than Emma or William. As far as maturity goes, Emma and Hans seemed on the same level to me, while one of the reasons I liked Hans better for Emma than William was because he was more more mature than William. It wasn't much of a surprise to discover that he's older than William.

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