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Manga Moveable Feast: Emma

The Manga Moveable Feast started a month ago, when a bunch of manga bloggers who Twitter back and forth to each other all agreed to read and review the same book.  This month the book on the examination table is Kaoru Mori’s series Emma.  

At the time Emma was named as one of 2008’s top ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens, only volumes one through five had been released.  Both Robin Brenner and I served on the committee and we were both wildly enthusiastic about the series.  We thought we’d take this opportunity to re-read the series, only this time we’d get to see how the story ends.  Would we still think it’s great for teens?

Since Brigid Alverson has already written reviews for volumes one through seven (the main storyline), we’ll link to hers by way of providing a synopsis.

Emma, vols 1-10
Kaoru Mori

Rated: T+
CMX, September 2006-December 2009, $9.99 each

Both Eva and Robin own their own copies of the series.  Yep, they like it so much they bought it.

Eva: So, my first question is, given the fact that there is full frontal (female) nudity in this book, something that could rightfully raise eyebrows in many communities, why do you think this is a teen series?

Robin: For me, at least, full frontal nudity of this kind is not a barrier to a series that appeals to teens nor does it negate the appropriateness for teens.  
The entire story, from beginning to end, works as a period romance.  I know, intellectually, that this series was originally run in a seinen (adult men’s) magazine, and that explains why there is such explicit nudity. At the same time, I think of the images as more akin to works of fine art than the more provocative sexuality seen in manga.  Have I seen a couple of teenage boys giggling over volume four?  Yes.  Does that bother me?  No, not at this point. 

Obviously it is up to the individual library and community where they shelve the title.  I’ve had many librarians, who’d only read the first couple of volumes, and who were charmed by it, exclaim, "Oh, I can add this to my middle school collection!" I immediately had to tell them that wasn’t likely to fly, and explain why.

Eva:  For me, the nudity served as an illustration of how completely dependent upon their servants the upper classes allowed themselves to be. When they say they were dressed head-to-toe by the servants, they meant head-to-toe. There were no secrets in big houses.

Robin: I agree. I also think it underscores that idea that gentry of that time were not uncomfortable revealing themselves to their servants. It was their servants job, and it was not as awkward as we might think because they did not know any different. Given the amount of clothing the women had to work their way into, they needed all the help they could get!

Also, I do think that the fact that most of the nudity is Dorothea highlights her particular personality.  She is more outwardly sensual than other ladies within the story, and she obviously enjoys how she looks and her effect on her husband.

There’s a part of me, personally, that believes that no teen should be ashamed of their body, and if we continuously imply that it is something to be covered up when you’re bathing or getting dressed, then we’re sending an odd message. This book, as with many manga, just treats the nudity as incidental. That should not be so difficult to defend, although I do understand that people may be concerned about its appearances in the series.
Eva:  I think the explicit nudity is further example of the amount of research Mori did when creating Emma.  There is as much detail about when they, both the servants and the masters, are "off duty" as when they are on.  Dorothea flirting with her husband in the privacy of their room shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Emma and William are also quite sensual when left alone.

I think there’s also a difference between nudity that’s sensual and nudity that’s sexual.  Emma never crosses the line between teen-tempting and adult-titillating.

Robin: I completely agree. I think that the short story about Wilhelm and Dorothea, and their first meeting, all told while they’re lying in bed in the morning, is incredibly sensual, romantic, and tender all at the same time. Certainly, you can tell she’s naked, and likely he is too (they are married, after all.) But at the same time, there’s nothing actually explicit about that scene, and the emotions evoked are the true content.  Mori may be including nudity because the series was published in a men’s magazine, but she is not falling into the usual tropes of fan service and exaggerated sexuality and anatomy.

Eva: Exactly. While I think this is for older teens, I do think it’s well-suited for a teen collection, except in the most conservative of areas.

Robin: I do feel that it appeals to a wide range — adults and teens — but I also think that the nudity that exists in the story is not something that should prevent it from being in a teen collection.  CMX rated it Teen Plus (i.e. Titles with this rating are appropriate for an audience of 16 and older. They may contain partial nudity, mild profanity and more intense violence.), and I think they’re right to rate it thus.  As you say, it’s for older teens. I would place it wherever your library has older teen materials.

Eva: In your notes, you mentioned the stereotypical way non-anglo cultures were treated. Primarily Hakim, but you also mentioned the kidnappers. Did you want to expand on that?

Robin: I was discussing Emma with a local manga reader, someone who was taking my recommendations on titles to read in exploring more of the genres of manga. I had recommended Emma to her, and she herself is Indian. She was put off by the characterization of Hakim and his young ladies, and looking at it again I can’t blame her. The treatment of those characters definitely veers into almost Victorian orientalism.  They’re mystical, sensual, brash, and alluring.  The women, especially, never seem to speak.

Eva: Don’t you think that might be deliberate, though?

Robin: Oh, I think it may well be deliberate, especially given how much research we can see Kaoru Mori did with the series. Nonetheless, it may catch readers unawares.  For me, it did not bother me enough to put the series down, but I did appreciate having it brought to my attention.

Eva: I can see how a younger reader might be surprised by the portrayal of Hakim and his dancing girls.  But I think his character introduces a much needed chaos into William’s life.  His entire world is changing, both personally and globally and Hakim is the visible change.  He gives William permission to shake up his world and if it weren’t for Hakim, there is a good chance William would have chickened out and let Emma get away. And then Hans (Hans! We love Hans!) might have had a shot.

Robin: I don’t think there’s so much concern about the role Hakim plays.  He is integral as the instigator for thinking outside the box. I think in this case it’s more a larger issue. There are not exactly a whole pile of Indian characters running around in either manga or comics in general, so as with any minority representation, it gets frustrating when the only characters you see reinforce outdated stereotypes.

Eva: True.

Robin: As I said, I don’t think it’s an aspect that will negate the series for all readers, nor do I think it was willful. I could just understand where this reader was coming from in feeling disappointed.

Eva: Was she able to enjoy Hakim as a character at all?

Robin: To be honest, I think the ladies bothered her more. I don’t know that she continued the series.

Eva: I ask because pretty much all of the characters in this story were playing a "type."  None of the characters in this story were unusual or new, including William and Emma.  It’s how Mori wrote/drew them that is so extraordinary.  Even the dancing girls, as stereotypical as they are, steal every scene they are in.

Robin: I agree that there are a lot of expected character types. I think Hakim gains more depth as he goes, as do almost all of the side characters. Part of Mori’s talent is that she doesn’t just leave stock characters as what they seem. She peels back the layers and shows you the human, fallible face behind every mask. In a society where appearances mean so very much, she does a brilliant job of showing those touches of humanity in small gestures and pauses.

Eva: I think many of the strongest scenes in the book are the wordless ones. Emma may be my new go-to book for why the artist in a comic is as important as the writer and why a book isn’t as successful when the words and the art don’t work together.  Her artwork is so fluid. The scene where Emma and William embrace and slide to the floor works like film, and the lending library is so detailed, as a reader I can almost hear the swishing of skirts as the patrons move across the floor.

Robin: As when we were chatting about this earlier, I completely agree. The cinematic style is beautifully rendered, and I think her sense of timing and pacing is really what shines in those scenes. She knows just what to show you, and how slowly, to really get across the importance of a clasped hand, or a touch on the cheek. The hesitations make the embraces that much more overwhelming when they finally happen.

I also appreciate that she knows when to give you piles of details but also knows when to draw back. She obviously adores the period, and relishes adding in all sorts of details to make it authentic. However, she is well aware that the characters and plot are still key. She needs to have a reason to show the details, and avoids just dumping in scenes to be like, "Look! It’s Victorian London! Aren’t they quaint?"

A question for you is this: one of the major selling points for Emma, to me, is that it’s a strong manga to offer readers who are dubious about manga as a format.  The clean layout and precise artwork make it a far less intimidating title visually, and the classic historical romance draw in many readers who still believe that most manga is samurai and schoolgirls.  So, my question is there: has Emma been successfully converting readers to manga?  Do you have a sense of who reads it — is it the manga fans?  Romance fans?  Both?  Neither?

Eva:  I’ve had the opposite experience.  When I’ve shown Emma to non-manga readers, they flip through it and don’t see what they expect to see.  They want to see speedlines and big eyes, and when they don’t they aren’t sure what to do.  Instead, Emma works for me as the perfect transition manga for teens and adults who know there’s more out there manga-wise beyond the usual vampire/ninja/high school comedy they’ve been reading, but don’t know where to go next.

I think what Emma has been successful in doing is converting casual manga readers into lifelong manga readers.  Both male and female readers have asked me about Emma because they’ve heard about it from a friend.  Or they’ve stumbled across it while browsing the collection and been attracted to its sophisticated look.  You’re right, it is less visually intimidating, but it is in no way simple or easy.  The reader has to have his or her brain engaged while reading Emma to be able to see beyond the basic romantic storyline.  

Robin: Very good point!  Emma is a wonderful series for readers graduating from the stereotypical fare — the time it takes to absorb and appreciate Emma fully certainly exemplifies the strengths of the format and the diversity that manga has.  I love startling people when they realize that such an intense, detailed Victorian romance was actually created in Japan.

Another comment that I think librarians in particular might want to be aware of — one of the most exciting things about Emma, in terms of purchasing, is that one, it’s only ten volumes long, and two, it is complete!  As an investment for a whole series, it’s a winning one, and it  showcases the strong serial nature of manga and yet wraps up quickly enough to not break the bank.  Mori knew the story she wanted to tell, she told it, added some asides, and was done.  If only all major manga creators has that sense of their stories.

Eva:  If we’re adding purchasing points, I’d add in that Emma will work extremely well within the school curriculum.  It ties in beautifully with English literature studies, the history of the Industrial Revolution, and Victorian life and times.  What a great way to bring graphic novels into the classroom.  Summer reading list, anyone?

Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.


  1. Michelle Smith says:

    What a great discussion! I have nothing to say besides nodding in agreement a bunch of times. :)

  2. Danielle Leigh says:

    Yeah, I’m in agreement with Michelle. This was really fabulous and that it was about on of my favorite manga of all time makes it even better.

  3. Eva Volin says:

    Thanks, ladies. There is so much to talk about in this series. Robin and I barely scratched the surface.

  4. themooninautumn says:

    This conversation was really enjoyable! Thanks a lot for having it. I think I’m going to pass it on to my local library in the hopes that they’ll pick up the last five volumes. :) (They shelve it in the adult graphic novel section at our libraries.)

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