The Next Wave
This year’s Anime Expo and San Diego Comic-Con brought a flurry of announcements for manga-philes, a legion of new titles of every stripe and style marching our way. As I was wandering through the swelling manga shelves at a local bookstore today, it occurred to me that I can barely keep up with the titles I’m reading now.
Obviously there are worse problems in the world. The notion of too much good reading material is kind of ridiculous when I put it down on paper. But if even a fraction of this next wave of releases is as appealing as the stuff I’m reading now, I’m going to have to add a library wing onto the house.
If the packet of previews I received from CMX is any indication, things are destined to become rather dire. Because these three books – Emma, Empty Empire, and Omukae Desu – all have a lot going for them.
(Quick disclaimer: These reviews are based on photocopies of galleys, so I haven’t seen the finished product and can’t comment definitively on production values.)
Kaoru Mori’s Emma was a rather unusual experience for me. I’m used to manga where the appeal of the protagonist drives the appeal of the book as a whole, but in the case of Emma, there’s less of a direct connection. It’s more like the charm of Emma the character mirrors the charm of Emma the manga.
Emma, a housemaid in Victorian England, is quiet, lovely, and a little bit mysterious. So is the manga built around her. While many manga-ka are eager to fully articulate the inner lives of their characters, carefully outlining their thoughts and feelings, Mori has an enticing tendency to withhold and understate. She peppers Emma with small gestures and silences, leaving it to the reader to intuit their meaning.
In a very funny, illustrated afterword, Mori’s editor bemoans the fact that she spent a full page having Emma put on her glasses. “That’s an important action,” Mori insists in response. She’s right. It’s moments like that that drew me in and made me want to know more.
Emma is beautifully illustrated. A serious Anglophile, Mori painstakingly researched her setting, and the results are immersive and often exquisite. The script can seem a bit modern at times, though not so much that it’s an enormous distraction.
Oh, and there’s a plot. Emma is a housemaid with a distressing past. She’s smitten with an upper-class young man who used to be in the care of her employer, a retired governess. Their budding attachment poses problems due to differences of class.
But really, for me, it’s all about watching Emma put on her glasses or look out at the night sky. It’s about the wry smile on her employer’s face, or Emma’s fingers tracing the lace on a handkerchief. It’s about the quiet, bittersweet moments that Mori captures so well.
Naoe Kita’s The Empty Empire rests squarely in Moto Hagio territory. It’s all about the intersection of science and identity, though it’s wrapped in somewhat more conventional fantasy-adventure trappings.
It stars Rose, the youthful clone of the revered Emperor Idea. Idea has died, and his handlers took the desperate step of creating a copy to hold on to order and power. But in spite of Rose’s many similarities to Idea, he has none of Idea’s memories or his regal temperament.
Rose rejects the notion of being forced to fill Idea’s shoes. He insists he isn’t Idea, though he doesn’t have a clear notion of who Rose is. He bristles when people draw comparisons or treat him as they would have the late ruler, but he’s powerless to chart his own course. It’s an interesting dilemma, watching Rose struggle against what everyone around him assumes is his genetic destiny.
He does have a few allies. There’s Eiri, the scientific genius who developed the empire’s cloning technology but refused to use it. He was devoted to Idea, and he’s intrigued by Rose, though he’s able to distinguish between the two as individuals. Eiri’s ward Ririka is a tough (though cute) little number. Her parents abandoned her, and she’s built a familial relationship with Eiri and passes the favor along to Rose.
But ultimately Rose doesn’t have any choice but to engage with the legacy of Idea. He can try to separate himself, but there will always be people – friends and foes – who will view him through the prism of his predecessor.
The Empty Empire looks like a standard manga fantasy. There’s imaginative design for characters and settings, and at times it seems like the entire nation is populated with willowy beauties of both genders. But Kita’s story has a lot more layers than the conventional aesthetic would suggest.
Meca Tanaka’s Omukae Desu doesn’t have the visual familiarity of The Empty Empire. Tanaka’s illustrations are flavored with a scratchy, scruffy, low-fi charm that perfectly suits the quirky characters and story.
Madoka Tsutsumi is in the thick of college entrance exams when he comes upon an altercation between his dead neighbor and a man in a bunny suit.
Did that sell you yet? What are you made of, stone? Oh, all right.
Nabeshima, the bunny impersonator, works for a cosmic bureaucracy. When spirits of the dead dawdle on the way to the afterlife, employees are sent to find out what the hold-up is. Nabeshima is a spirit himself, but the firm employs mortals to help out, offering deferred payment in the form of a free pass to heaven.
Tsutsumi is reluctant. He does have entrance exams, after all. But he’s a decent guy, and his natural instinct is to help people clear up whatever unfinished business is keeping them from moving on. He’s also able to host spirits in his body without any of the detrimental effects that are often associated with that process, so Nabeshima is eager for Tsutsumi to sign up. Tsutsumi does, meeting other employees along the way and having a variety of low-key adventures as he brings peace to the recently deceased.
Tanaka presents this material with just the right blend of comedy and sentiment. An old man gets to see his first grandchild; the bureaucracy schedules mortifying theme months to raise employee morale. The balance never tilts too far in either direction.
If I were to complain about anything in this volume, it would be that the main story occupies only about two thirds of it. Fortunately, Tanaka’s stand-alone tales are as winning as his ongoing work.