A Bride's Story
[graphic series]
by Kaoru Mori

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Otoyomegatari (or The Bride's Stories)
translated by William Flannagan

Japanese / English volume releases:
  A Bride's Story, vol 1: 2009 / 2011
  A Bride's Story, vol 2: 2010 / 2011
  A Bride's Story, vol 3: 2011 / 2012 (forthcoming)

Enterbrain: Tokyo
Yen Press: New York

graphic novels

192 & 192 pages October 2011

Romance in Central Asia

A Bride's Story, vol 1 - Kaoru Mori One of the pleasures of science fiction and fantasy is reading about characters in imaginary worlds and cultures with unfamiliar customs. The height of this kind of art is to draw the reader into a different society to the point where they can not only be moved by the experiences of characters in that society, but see their actions as making sense in their own terms, however strange they may be in the reader's terms — an artistic simulation of the process by which an anthropologist makes sense of an unfamiliar culture, or a linguist begins to think in a new language. But, as these comparisons suggest, it's not only fantastic settings that can provide this special pleasure. Fiction based on anthropology or history can do the same — as in Mary Renault's novels of ancient Greece, for example, or Rudyard Kipling's Indian stories.

Kaoru Mori established herself as a manga writer and artist with stories in just such an exotic setting: Victorian England. In A Bride's Story, she turns to one that's just as exotic to English and American as to Japanese readers: the Turkic lands of Central Asia in the Nineteenth Century. England is a distant presence — one of the secondary characters is a young Englishman — and Russia a potential threat, but neither of them is a source of conflict within the story.

Manga is, of course, a visual medium as well as a literary one, and Mori's visualization is one of the great pleasures of A Bride's Story. To begin with, she has a keen eye for the material culture of the people she portrays. Houses, clothing, horse tack, weapons such as her heroine's bow and arrows, even loaves of bread, are all shown in specific and painstakingly researched detail. Beyond that, she conveys a strong sense of the landscape that surrounds them, its vegetation, and its animals, in scenes of travel, herding, and hunting. She shows her characters as having the same sense, incorporating plant and animal motifs into their textiles and woodworking. The reader gets the sense that Mori's own pleasure in these designs was one of her inspirations for undertaking this work. Finally, her portrayal of her characters is vivid and lively. The faces are drawn in the proverbial "big eyes, small mouth" style, but not in its more exaggerated forms; they have the effect of stylization rather than caricature. And the full-length portraits emphasize the characters' physical action, and thus involve them with their surroundings.

The central characters of this series are, naturally, a Central Asian bride, Amir, and her husband, Karluk, in an arranged marriage, which is itself one of the alien customs. Many American and European readers will expect the resulting story's primary conflict to be between the woman's desire for freedom of choice and her socially imposed duty as a wife. But Mori's going somewhere less predictable. Her narrative shows not only that Amir and Karluk want to be married to each other but, quite convincingly, that they genuinely care for each other. But that desire, in itself, is a source of conflict, because of an even more alien cultural element: Amir is twenty years old, and Karluk is twelve. This in fact is the focus of two different but intertwined conflicts: On one hand, Amir's physical attraction to Karluk, her desire to have his children, and indeed her passion, against her unwillingness to make demands on him; on the other, Amir's and Karluk's bond against the feeling of Amir's relatives that they wasted her on a useless marriage, and that taking her back would let them get greater political advantage from marrying her to someone else. Mori ties the two plots together ingeniously.

The external, social conflict gains complexity from another aspect of the historical situation: Karluk's family are town dwellers, but Amir's are still nomads, and she is an exotic figure not only to the reader but to the townspeople. Mori shows this in the first episode, where Amir learns that Karluk has never eaten rabbit, and promptly gets out her bow and rides out to hunt. One of the story's underlying themes is the tension between human nature and human culture; Amir is repeatedly shown as an embodiment of "nature". To the townspeople, this seems to reflect her nomadic background, and her in-laws occasionally comment on the nomadic way of life as more natural, but it's not that simple: Amir's family of origin have their own culture and their own politics, in whose name they make demands on her.

This theme of "naturalness" is wonderfully expressed in Mori's artistic style. Her most characteristic images of Amir show her in action — hunting a rabbit or a fox, standing on a horse's saddle to scout the landscape, or rescuing a strayed lamb. At the same time, other images convey her emotions and those of other characters, often wordlessly, through subtle expressions and gestures. Much of the story is told by implication and indirection, and emerges gradually over repeated readings — or at least it did for me, though a reader more perceptive than I am might grasp it more swiftly.

Surrounding the two central narratives of A Bride's Story are any number of subplots and secondary characters, giving the reader a detailed portrait of an entire family and culture. It's not for nothing that a scene in the first chapter shows a family of a dozen and their English guest Smith sitting down to dinner together, and talking about what they can afford to buy on market day. There are constant hints of more going on past the edge of the frame. The reader gets the sense that Mori has fallen in love with her setting; she brings it to life the way the best fantasy and science fiction writers bring their imaginary worlds to life.


© 2011 William H. Stoddard

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