Emma: A Victorian Romance



Watched via fansubs/DVD



PLOT: Emma: A Victorian Romance is pretty much what it says it is, Victorian romance about Emma, so there you have it. In all seriousness, Emma (as I will now call it) is a Cinderella-type story of a smart and kind young maid falling in love with nobility. In this case Emma falls in love with eldest son of the Jones family, a high class merchant family looking to marry into gentry status. Actually, the more I think about the storyline, it’s kind of like Jane Eyre, only without the crazy wife in the attic.

What I liked about the story was that both characters attempt to do what is considered best for their station. The story doesn’t jump straight into an odd Romeo and Juliet-type scenario. Rather the two keep finding themselves confronted with each other, and fate seems to take over until the two can decide what is best for themselves.

The first season cuts off at a huge cliff hanger, which was super frustrating as I wasn’t 100% certain there would be another season. Even with the second season I felt that this adaptation of the manga still wasn’t totally complete. The beauty of the original manga is that there are tons of great secondary characters and side stories tucked away. The author, Kaoru Mori is marvelous at freezing time and capturing the essence of the moment. These subtle nuisances were sadly missed in this media format.

Even though the anime cuts out a lot from the anime, it still does an excellent job of bringing Emma’s world to life, especially with the characters.

PLOT: Emma’s a maid to a retired governess, Mrs. Stowner, and one day a past pupil of Mrs. Stowner’s, William Jones, comes to visit her. When opening the door, Emma doesn’t see William and hits him in the nose with the door. Though they’re both embarrassed, they also see how cute they are and immediately fall in love.

So, a pretty cliché setup, right? It gets even more traditional when you bring the fact that William’s from a merchant family that wants to marry into a higher class, meaning he already has a fiancée lined up. However, despite all of the cliché Victorian trappings, Emma still does a great job of standing on its own.

Each season has its own strengths, since they both progress very differently. The first season goes at a slow pace, letting the viewer bask in the delicately-recreated Victorian England and the charming characters. The second season, which came a bit later and is from a different studio, focuses on wrapping up the main plot of the series, so it moves at a quicker pace while still bringing in the many new characters who appear in the manga. The change in pacing can be confusing when transitioning between the seasons, but there’s enough of a continuity in characters and mood to keep the two seasons feeling like a part of the same whole.

I enjoyed the second half more. While the manga does take its time, it does so artfully. The first season just feels like it’s filling up space to ensure a certain cliff hanger by the end.

SETTING: The setting for Emma is of course Victorian England, or at least the romanticized version where maids are beautiful and charming, there are no hardships outside of love, and there are tons of good looking rich men to marry, that England. Setting takes a huge part in directing the flow of the plot. Because of the era and location, Emma and William Jones (her beau) are destined to remain apart. Emma worked for an elderly woman, who once was a governess to William. When her boss unfortunately passes away, Emma is forced to leave in search of employment as William is unable to offer her a position in his house, as maid or wife.

Fortunately Emma becomes a member of the staff of a German immigrant family, the Molders. They take a liking to Emma and often treat her above her status and take her along on trips as a handmaid. I really enjoyed the dynamics of the Molder family and the interactions between boss/employee. Of course this relationship is highly romanticized as well, much like Downton Abbey.

SETTING: Emma sets out to recreate Victorian England for its viewers, and its does an excellent job of highlighting those little details that get fans excited, like how houses would actually be cleaned at the time. Great attention is paid to most details of how the settings look, to the point where it feels a little weird watching the show in Japanese. However, the show takes some creative license with the class relations, perhaps because the original manga-ka doesn’t really know how English people interact. The result is still watchable, but there’s definitely a niggling feeling that everything’s too rosy and perfect, even when William’s arguing with his family about whether or not he can marry Emma.

Really, the setting of Emma is best used to note interesting facts of the Victorian era—the manga-ka is an Anglophile, after all—, but take everything else with a grain of salt. This isn’t a terribly accurate version of Victorian England, but it doesn’t really need to be for this kind of escapist romance.

CHARACTERS: Kaoru Mori is a mastermind when it comes to characters. Because of that I hate to say it, but Emma is quite the Mary Sue. She’s so quiet and demure that it’s hard to see her true personality. In the manga her headstrong determination and spirit had a chance to shine through, but in the anime she just seemed like a doormat.

I love a good romantic pairing, but if I really think about it, William isn’t much better as a character either. He’s an obstinate eldest child who is used to getting what he wants. Luckily he transforms over time, first to do what is right for his family, and then again to do what is right for himself. So maybe that negates the first transformation… Either way, William grows up, and becomes man enough to be worthy of a wife.

The secondary characters are golden. I only wish we could have really gotten to know more of them over the span of both seasons. There are a couple of oddities, such as William’s friend Hakim Atawari, an Indian prince who acts as a foil to William, and who also has the hots for Emma. He’s thrown into the mix a bit too casually to be era specific.

Then there is Eleanor, William’s “fiancée”, who gets dragged along throughout the series. She’s cast as the “bad guy” in a sense, but by the end you can’t help wishing her the best, so long as it doesn’t get in the OTP’s way. If I had the space I could go on and on about each character and how wonderfully they were crafted, but I’ll just leave it there.

The secondary characters really are the strength of this show, as they cover a wide range of personalities and help you understand just how difficult the romance between Emma and William is for everyone else involved.

CHARACTERS: I find almost all of the characters in this series to be wonderfully charming and well-developed, but Whitney does have a point that Emma’s a Mary Sue. She’s still adorable, and I can’t help but root for her, but she’s just a little too good at her job and composed during everything. It would’ve been nice to see more flaws in her character, but I think that’s difficult for Kaoru Mori when it comes to her protagonists.

William, on the other hand, feels a little more realistic to me. He’s ernest and well-meaning, but he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spends a good deal of time struggling with his desires, and at times he decides he’ll follow along with his father’s wishes instead of pursuing Emma. William ends up stirring up a lot of trouble for those around him, but he feels like a child who doesn’t know what he wants and takes too long deciding. I can still sympathize with him, but he hurts some of my favorite characters in the process.

For example, my favorite secondary character is Eleanor, William’s fiancée, who never gets properly told to stop mooning after him. It’s easy to feel for her, just like it’s easy for feel for the butler whom Emma kind of strings along in the second season. William’s siblings also bring a lot of life to the series and help the viewer understand how a marriage between William and Emma would actually affect their family. None of that keeps me from rooting for them, but it definitely helps in creating an appealing story.

I really liked how much I grew attached to William’s family, and how that then made me concerned when I saw how Emma and William’s relationship may ruin the lives of his family. I love that there are two believable sides to this story.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: I wasn’t totally sold on the animation. Granted, I’m not really sure what the studio could have done differently, while still retaining the right mood. I just get so tired of the watered down color palettes that are used for every single slice of life series. The manga had exquisite cross hatching and detail, with water color covers, so of course the series has to look water color to fit the formula. I’d have liked to see them tap into the richness of value that the manga has. They could have at least used some blacks here and there to make a marked distinction between foreground and background. Everything just gets so muddy and unfiltered that it’s hard to read visually.

The character designs on the other hand were well adapted for the medium. Sure they got simplified, but they work well in 3-dimensional form. Actually, if I look past the color choices, the animation is still very good, especially for a slice of life/romance series. There are a couple of times people look a bit crazy off model, but for the most part everything moves seamlessly.

This series did a great job of capturing how England looks, especially the first season. I also think the soft color palette works here, considering the romanticization of Victorian England and the central themes of romance.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Unlike Whitney, I wholeheartedly love the animation in Emma. The first season, in particular, does a wonderful job of capturing the nuances of Victorian England, like the signage on carts and how the streets would look. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bizarre things like Hakim riding elephants through London, but the animators do a great job of lovingly bringing all of these details to life. It feels like they all caught the Anglophile bug from Kaoru Mori. The second season also has a nice animation, but it feels a little more rushed, just like the plot. I wish this series would’ve been given more budget and more episodes to properly finish it out without rushing anything, but it’s still good the way it is.

The character designs are interesting to compare between the two seasons. The first season pretty closely follows the manga’s designs, especially how the characters were drawn towards the beginning of the manga. The second season, though, sharpens everything a little, adding to the slight confusion when moving between the seasons. The art’s at least more consistent in this second season than in Haruhi’s, which means that, once you’ve gotten used to it, you should be fine while watching Emma’s second season.

OVERALL: I hate to be a jerk, but I can’t help but say, it was good, but the manga was brilliant. In fact, the biggest reason I watched Emma was because I just wanted to spend more time with the characters. I think I could have just as easily re-read the manga instead. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the anime, but I feel that for a shift in medium, there has to be something that surpasses the original. Off hand I can’t really think of anything the anime adds, that the manga doesn’t already do, and sometimes do better. In that regard, I have to say, if you had to choose, definitely pick up the manga instead. If you can, still watch Emma, especially if you are a victorian romance fan, and like Downton Abbey.

The anime has beautiful music, and it corrects a few of the inaccuracies that popped up in the manga. :P

OVERALL: I really, really love the anime for this series since it does such a nice job of lovingly bringing Emma and William’s world to life. The first season, in particular, pays attention to every detail from the manga, which makes the season a joy to watch. Yes, Whitney’s right that the manga is much better as far as art, characterization, and plot, but the anime still provides a good version of all of these things, and it adds in movement, color, and music. Considering that the manga’s out of print and ridiculously hard to find, as well as how good the anime is on its own merits, I definitely think it’s worth tracking down. I can’t promise that Emma will appeal to people who love Victorian dramas, considering its Japanese influences, but it’s an excellent anime if you like a slow-burning romance.

FINAL SCORE: (8/10) FINAL SCORE: (9&8/10)

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