Saturday, May 2, 2009

Emma: A Victorian Romance - Season One (anime TV series)

Season One contains the first 12 episodes of this 24-episode series. I remember reading somewhere that Emma: A Victorian Romance had a somewhat rocky time of it in Japan - Studio Pierrot is responsible for Season One, but couldn't do a second season (I know I read an explanation for that somewhere, but I can't find it right now). Luckily, Asia-Do picked it up and finished things up with a second season (which I have yet to watch and can therefore not yet write about). It's a really, really good thing there's a second season, because this first season ends at a point that just feels like viewer betrayal.

I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual. This anime takes place in Victorian England and focuses on Emma, a young maid, and William Jones, a member of the gentry. When William goes to visit his former governess, Kelly Stownar, he meets Emma, Mrs. Stownar's maid, and is instantly smitten. He meets up with Emma often as she takes care of daily errands, talks to her, gives her gifts (or at least tries to), and even visits the Crystal Palace with her. Although Emma only really has eyes for William, William's most persistant rival is his friend Hakim, an Indian prince.

William and Emma are sweet and cute together, but then reality starts ripping ragged holes in their romance. Eleanor Campbell, the daughter of a viscount, begins to fall in love with William and mistakes some of his actions and kindnesses as signs that he perhaps returns her feelings. As the season progresses, however, she becomes more and more aware that he cares for someone else - being young and in love, she doesn't mind and is willing to wait for William to turn to her in the end. Eleanor's parents and William's father would all like Eleanor and William to eventually marry - Eleanor's family would benefit from the Jones family's money, and William's family would benefit from the Campbell family's status. If it weren't for William's embarrassing relationship with a maid, everything would be perfect.

Although William becomes determined to defy his father and society and marry Emma, Emma is more pragmatic. Even before she visits the Jones family home and sees firsthand how far removed their lives are from hers, she realizes how difficult it would be for society to accept a cross-class romance like the one between her and William. William is convinced that the two of them will be able to overcome anything. He doesn't listen to his father's hints that Emma might wither under the constant pressure and scrutiny of society life (those who have read the manga will catch and understand the obvious references to William's mother). However, when William learns about Emma's past (she was kidnapped from her dirt poor village, almost sold into prostitution, and kept herself fed by doing odd jobs and selling flowers until Mrs. Stownar took her in and trained her to be a maid), he begins to worry that his decision to be with Emma in defiance of society might just be selfish and harmful towards her.

All thoughts of his own possible selfishness fly out of William's head when he finds out that Emma plans to leave for good and return to the village where she was born. William goes after her and even catches up to her, but it does no good - the season ends with her getting on the train and leaving their romance behind.

Those of you who have read the manga will find much of the anime to be very familiar. However, although this first season of the anime is certainly closely based upon the first two volumes of the manga (with some bits possibly taken from later volumes, although I can't be sure of that), it embellishes certain parts and changes others. While I found the romance between Emma and William to be rather subtle in the manga, the anime is much more obvious about it. Emma and William spend quite a bit of time together and kiss quite a bit sooner than I remember them doing in the manga. Also, anime William is much more assertive than I remember manga William being - he openly defies his father to be with Emma, leading the household staff gossip about his love affair with a mere maid. The gossip gets so bad that lovesick Eleanor finds out about it, which adds a new dimension to her and William's relationship. While I felt bad for manga Eleanor, who suspected there was something going on with William but was too shy and naive to ask him about it, anime Eleanor seemed to alternate between selective blindness and potentially self-destructive devotion.

I think I like Kelly Stownar even more in the anime than I did in the manga, although I thought the "take care of Emma" bit as more dramatic than necessary. That part of the story was sad and dramatic enough without adding an impossible request into the mix. Vivi was slightly less annoying in the anime than in the manga. I constantly wanted to give poor Collin a hug - William tried to give him some attention, but he kept getting interrupted.

In some ways, I found Hakim to be both better and worse in the anime than in the manga. He has a few lines that make him seem slightly more human and less like a cardboard cutout - don't get me wrong, I love Hakim and think he's one of the bright spots of both the anime and manga, but he's not really fleshed out all that well as a character. However, I liked his expressions better in the manga. They were subtle, but they were there. The animators seemed to miss subtlty and just went for expressionless instead.

Considering all the little changes in this first season, I'm interested to see what was done in the second season. I imagine everybody will still end up in the same place, but they can't possibly be getting there in quite the same way they did in themanga.

The series' slow pace may put some off, but there's still lots to like. The characters are enjoyable (always good for a such a character-focused story), the whole season is filled with lovingly drawn historical details, the background music is perfect, and the artwork is gorgeous. Actually, my only complaint about the artwork is that I occasionally found it distracting that the characters were slightly more "faded" than the background. I noticed this best during Hakim's scenes - the color black on characters, such as Hakim's black hair, was never a true black, but rather a very dark gray (like a black shirt that has faded in the wash), which would not have been so noticeable if it had not been for the fact that true blacks did exist in the backgrounds. I admit, that's a bit nitpicky, but it did bother me somewhat.

For those who have certain sub/dub preferences, sorry, you don't get a choice with this series. Nozomi chose to release this as a "sub only" series. I was a bit worried, after my not-so-wonderful "sub only" experiences Media Blasters, but the subtitles for this season of Emma were quite good. I still feel that this series could have had an English dub to rival the original Japanese language track, but at least I don't feel like I wasted my money on bad "official" subtitles. The Japanese actors and actresses were quite good, although I found Kouki Miyata (Arthur Jones) a little distracting. His voice pretty recognizable - I couldn't quite place him at first, though, so I just had this nagging feeling that I'd heard him before in something else.

In my opinion, the extras are a bit skimpy and, for the most part, not that exciting. There's the practically obligatory textless opening and closing (I absolutely love the opening, both the animation and the music), a bunch of the Japanese DVD commercials, some Nozomi trailers, fan thank-yous (if I remember correctly, people who pre-ordered the series got to have their names listed on the DVDs - and there are a bunch of them, listed in alphabetical order by whatever their name starts with, whether it's a first name or username), and a "Victorian Gazette." The "Victorian Gazette" is the most worthwhile of all the extras. It's a 96-page book full of production drawings (character and setting drawings), faux interviews (with Mrs. Stownar, Al, etc.), historical information, faux Victorian ads, a Victorian glossary, and some commentary, comics, and drawings by Kaoru Mori. Speaking as a Hakim fangirl, Mori's drawing of Hakim is awesome. The booklet is very nice and makes up for the pathetic selection of extras on the DVDs themselves.

If you decide to watch the anime before reading the manga, try not to get too upset by the ending of this season, and be prepared to shell out the money for the second season if you'd like any chance at seeing the happy ending romance fans usually expect (although happy endings are not necessarily a given in anime/manga, even romantic ones).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Maria Watches Over Us (anime TV series) - Yumi is a first year student at the Lillian School For Girls, an exclusive all girl's catholic school. She admires Sachiko, who will likely become one of the heads of the student council. When Sachiko asks Yumi to be her soeur (older girls take on a younger girl as their little sister, or "soeur," and instruct them and watch out for them), Yumi finds herself having to figure out the relationships between the girls in the student council and her own feelings for Sachiko. As this is apparently a shoujo-ai series (romance between girls), it's not for everyone. However, those who'd like a slow-paced drama/romance involving a strict social environment might enjoy this series. I have yet to see it, but the many (two or three) ads that RightStuf has sent me have worked their way into my brain, and I'd like to.
  • Shirley (manga) by Kaoru Mori - Ms. Bennett lives alone and needs help with her house, so she places an ad for a maid. The person who answers the ad is Shirley Madison, only 13 years old. Despite her misgivings, Ms. Bennett hires her. Those who'd like another maid manga by Mori may want to try this. I believe this manga takes place during a slightly more recent time period than Emma, so I'm not sure if there will be any cameo appearances made by Emma characters, but you never know.
  • Land of the Blindfolded (manga) by Sakura Tsukuba - High school student Kanade has a secret: when she touches someone, she can sometimes see a glimpse of their future. For years she's believed she's the only person with a secret like this, until she meets Arou, a boy who can see people's pasts when he touches them. Despite differences in their outlooks on life, the two of them grow close and eventually start dating. Like Emma, this is another series that's a bit slow-paced and sometimes bittersweet. Those who'd like another gentle romance with some drama in the mix might like this manga.
  • Fruits Basket (anime TV series); Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya - Tohru had been living with her grandfather after her mother died, but circumstances and Tohru's own desire not to be a burden meant that she ended up living alone in a tent for a while. However, she gets taken in by the Sohma family, who are hiding a secret - certain members of the family turn into animals in the Chinese zodiac when they're weak or hugged by a member of the opposite sex. Both the manga and anime are good - the anime follows the manga pretty closely (except for a few things, and the last episode), but it ends well before the manga does. Those who'd like another story with a slowly developing (and seemingly doomed) romantic storyline might enjoy this title.
  • Antique Bakery (manga) by Fumi Yoshinaga - (There is an anime TV series - and even a live action show? - but I don't think any of that has been legally released in the US.) This series focuses on the owner and employees of a small gourmet bakery. Although the series is often light-hearted and funny, each of the characters has personal issues, painful memories, and more to deal with. Those who'd like another slow-paced character-focused series might enjoy this. Yoshinaga often draws the cakes and pastries and the way these things are made in lovely detail that those who enjoyed the historical details in Emma's artwork may appreciate.

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