Friday, 15 March 2013

Emma, vol. 1 - by Kaoru Mori

I have always thought graphic novels were not serious.  They were for children, teenagers and not more beyond that... Leave it to my friend Carmen to introduce me to a wholly different world, a world that yes, includes all those teenagers, who will not be afraid to show up at a comics convention dressed up as their heros - I know this is normal, but for me, visiting an exhibition next door, quite a  revelation - but will also move into the adult population, only to find there an equally passionate audience (minus the dressing up).

After the Largo Winch initiation, it was time for something softer, something closer to the classic literature I so appreciate.  So Carmen introduced me to Emma, and a major Japanese graphic novel author:  Kaoru Mori.  But this initiation was also for the type of graphic novels:  as I was informed, these are the "true" Japanese manga, which one has to read backwards:  from the end to the beginning, from right to left.  Now, just that change is enough to put me in a good mood and start reading without any prejudice at all!

Does the title sound familiar?  why yes, just like the other famous Emma, this manga is also set in Victorian England, and tells the story of a young English chambermaid, who falls in love with a member of the high society.  Evidently, his family disapproves and a clash cannot be avoided.  A total of 10 volumes captures the saga that ensues and I was surprised to learn that Emma has reached a cult status - given that no monsters, no amazon women, nothing futuristic appears in it.  It is really a piece of classic literature written in manga format (btw, in the above comics convention, I did spot a couple of Emmas...).   

The story itselt is beautifully expressed, either with the limited wording allowed in each picture (another art in itself!) but also with Mori's beautiful drawings.  Each picture may  not be 1000 words, but I marveled at her ability to convey a feeling, capture an expression so well that she did not even need to insert any wording - I would interpret it according to my understanding and the plot would evolve to my expectations then.  Her attention to detail is truly amazing in recreating the settings and the atmosphere of the time and this also relaxed me while reading it.

All drawings are in black and white, with very restrained lines - nothing superfluous, nothing exaggerated, just enough background to be used as a vessel to carry the plot further.  This approach applies to the storyline as well, with no explosions of sentiment, no guns flying around, no violence glorified.  Just plain restrained relationships with a little blushing, a little reminiscing and some very, very discreet anger...

Emma is a masterpiece and an excellent example of how "serious" a graphic novel can be.  I can now understand the awards and the following Mori has received and I'm interested in the rest of the volumes.

To say I really enjoyed reading Emma would be an understatement.  The discovery of such treasures will always amaze me and, while they will not compare to the classic novels I love and cherish, they have opened up a new way of appreciating literature.  And wouldn't such graphic novels serve nicely as an introduction to Victorian literature for a younger generation?


  1. I read this manga and I especially love Wilhelm and his wife. Truly, they are so sweet together. By the way, there's another manga series that I love, set in Victorian England as well - Lady Victorian by Naoko Moto. It's more adventurous than this one, I guess, and less..classic (though it has nothing futuristic or alien in it).

  2. I love graphic novels but haven't read a lot of mangas. I had never heard of this one, but your review makes me want to try it!

    1. As a novice, I don't know whether I should make recommendations - but yes, I fully recommend it!




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