Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Bride's Story
by Jason Thompson, Aug 15th 2013
Episode CLIV: A Bride's Story
Kaoru Mori's manga are about traveling to another time and place. She loves depicting exotic foreign settings, whether that means Victorian fireplaces and maid's uniforms for Emma (in the bonus material to her anthology Anything and Something) or the clothes and customs of Central Asia in her current manga, A Bride's Story. Kaoru Mori's manga are also love stories. It's hard to think of a better combination than that.
The place: somewhere in Central Asia, among the Turkic peoples along the old Silk Road. The time is the late 1800s, but you wouldn't necessarily know it: here, shepherds, horsefolk and falconers sill live more or less the same way their grandparents lived, except that now there's a British anthropologist hanging around town, taking notes on everything. Women wear elaborate headdresses that cover their hair, men have beards and carry swords. The Eihon family used to be nomads, but years ago they settled down in a small town, and now they are a respectable middle-class family who are able to find a respectable bride for their youngest son.
The bride is Amir Halgal, a beautiful woman from a distant village. At 20 years old in a time and place when most women married at 15, her age causes a bit of gossip. ("At that age, she won't be able to give birth to as many children.") Perhaps another problem is the fact that her groom, Karluk, is 12 years old. When she removes her wedding veil and sees him for the first time, she's surprised at first, and then she smiles; her facial expression says it all. Whether her adoration is more of a romantic feeling, or a motherly feeling towards a cute young boy, it's hard to tell, and Kaoru Mori would never come out and tell us either way. But whether it's a 50-50 mixture or more of a 60-40 split, she clearly loves him.
As for Karluk, he clearly loves her too, but he's a little overwhelmed, and he's shy. He's still just a boy, and his bride is taller than him, not to mention tougher. When he tells her he's never had rabbit stew—it's not a menu item in his village—she happily grabs her bow, jumps on her horse, and goes off rabbit-hunting to bring back dinner for the family. "Hunting fleeing prey…long ago we all were able to do that," reminisces Karluk's grandfather. "The tradition still survives in that girl's village, eh?" Not just a huntress, she also knows the traditional womanly arts; in the evening she embroiders by candlelight.
A boy dreaming of becoming a man, of becoming worthy of an older woman…a woman caring for a boy on the cusp of adulthood…it's a strange romance, on top of the fact that it's essentially an arranged marriage. Apparently at least one publisher (*COUGH* Tokyopop *COUGH*) hesitated on acquiring A Bride's Story because of the age difference between the romantic leads, but rest assured, this isn't That's My Boy. There's no sex or sex humor in this manga, and anyway, if this scenario offends you, you have too much time on your hands. (There is, however, some female nudity, mostly in the bathhouse; Mori draws some of the most realistically curvy women I've ever seen in manga.) The first time Amir and Karluk take their clothes off together, it's to snuggle for warmth sleeping in a yurt, and as he overcomes his embarrassment enough to fall asleep, he thinks of a lamb sleeping next to its mother. At another point, he feels compelled to defend her against those who call her an "old bride": "Not even once have I wished you were younger or anything!"
The Amir-Karluk story is about an unlikely couple becoming comfortable with one another and settling into a loving relationship. There are troubles along the way. Amir's kinsfolk, who see women solely as bargaining chips, come to regret sending her to marry a "snot-nosed whelp," so they scheme to take her back and give her to a wealthier suitor. Azel, Amir's older brother, comes to the house with a group of horsemen, asking bluntly "Has she conceived a child? A couple is not officially man and wife until a child is born." Only the fast thinking of Karluk's grandmother is able to prevent a disaster. But Amir's family doesn't take no for an answer so easily, and it soon escalates into a feud that's not just family vs. family, but village vs. village. Karluk and Amir must fight for their happiness, and Amir's feelings of loyalty to her family are cruelly tested.
At times like these, A Bride's Story is a trouble-fraught romance. But there's a lot of humor here too, and many other characters besides the cental pair. Karluk's nephews provide comic relief: Tileke, the girl who loves hawks; Torkan and Chalg, the troublemakers; and Rostem, the littlest, who's sort of a crybaby. Karluk's uncle Umak and his family are cheerful, hospitable nomads who follow their flocks of sheep, going wherever needs must. Pariya, an easily flustered teenage village girl, is having trouble getting married; all the prospective grooms think she's "too cheeky." Henry Smith, the absent-minded British researcher, is in the background at first, staying as a guest at the Eihon home while recording everything in his notebook. He tries to interview everyone they encounter, while the locals treat him with bemused tolerance ("You had to bring the weird one along too?").
Smith is perhaps a self-insertion character for Mori: Smith wants to know everything about how Karluk's and Amir's people live, and so does she. Mori finds any excuse to draw the little details of daily life, not just things like marriage and hunting and fighting but household crafts like cooking and woodworking. In one chapter Tileke's great-grandmother teaches her about sewing, showing her designs from generations back, remembering each person who sewed them. ("This pattern between the squares is from six generations back. It's done in only two colors, but it's still very vibrant, isn't it? The way to sew these flowers was thought up five generations ago.") Mori's confidence in her art and visual storytelling is so great that she often draws long wordless sequences: 6 pages of Amir hunting a rabbit, 5 pages of an old man carving intricate designs on a wooden beam, 6 pages of setting up camp in a tent under the stars. I don't know where she got her reference material—clearly not just Google Imagesearch—but her detail is absolutely amazing, from elegant fabrics to human characters (young and old), from the rugged landscapes to the animals that dwell in them: sheep, rabbits, foxes, snakes, camels, horses, wolves. Kaoru Mori is such a good artist that I like to imagine that she'd drawn other historical-setting manga: how much better, say, Red Riverwould be if it didn't look like each page had been whipped out in 15 minutes. In the early chapters of Emma, Mori was still learning her craft, but in A Bride's Story, her art is caviar.
Then in volume 3, the story takes a big turn: Karluk and Amir stop being the main characters. Henry Smith leaves town and Mori follows him on his journey to the West. We finally get to see a map showing precisely where the story takes place, somewhere between modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to the east of the Aral Sea. Not all the locals are as friendly to Smith as the Eihon family was, and at one point he is suspected of being a British spy. "Why would anyone just do research for no reason?" an angry official asks him. And it's a good question; the Western scientists and surveyors who traveled into unknown regions "just for knowledge" were often followed shortly afterwards by Western soldiers, eager to carve out territory. In this time period Central Asia was being divided up between European nations, in what was called The Great Game. The rivalry between Britain and Russia is a significant factor in the story. On the road, Smith has a brief encounter with a British woman explorer, an Edith Dunham type who scandalizes everyone with her pantaloons. (I hope she becomes a more significant character later.) He also makes a useful friend, Ali, a caravan guard, a smooth-talking guy who can charm a bald man out of the hat on his head.
And Smith also meets another bride. Singulars and plurals are a bit different in Japanese than in English, so Otomegatari, the original title of "Bride's Story," could alternately be translated as "The Brides' Stories". When his horse is stolen in a marketplace, Smith accepts the hospitality of Talas, a beautiful young widow who lives with her aging mother-in-law and helps her keep her sheep. The old woman tells Smith their story: Talas was married to her son, but the boy died young, and now the two women have no family and no one left but one another. The old woman wants to find Talas a new husband before she dies. Smith is charmed by Talas' beauty, and finds himself contemplating the possibility, against his better judgment of the vast cultural differences between them. Could he be a proper husband to this foreign woman? Can he, previously a comic relief character, become a proper romantic lead? Is this an unrealistic dream, a fairytale, or is this love?
Eventually the story moves on, and volume 4 introduces another pair of young unmarried women: Laila and Leily, two tomboyish twins who live in a fishing village on the Aral Sea. (Their story is more comical than tragic, although hopefully they don't live long enough to see the Aral Sea dry up into a desert by wasteful Soviet-era agricultural practices in the late 20th century: today the sea is shrunk to a tiny fraction of its former size.) A Bride's Story develops into something of a travel narrative, going from place to place along the Silk Road, meeting new characters, watching their loves and losses, then moving on. Luckily, we never entirely lose touch with Amir and Karluk, even while we join Mori on an epic tour of Central Asia. I wonder if an American writer would have been able to write a story in this time and place as well as Mori does, or if an American would be burdened by cultural baggage: thoughts of the quagmire of modern-day Iraq and Afghanistan…a predisposition towards either mourning a "noble" way of life that today is lost, or criticizing and picking apart a "backwards" people.
Mori elegantly avoids both problems and takes a different path. The societies she depicts are certainly patriarchal, but not necessarily much more so than 19th-century Britain. (And of course, each village's customs are different; I wonder if we'll ever see a manga about the Mosuo people of Southwestern China, a matrilineal people who don't have permanent marriages, where men and women just temporarily shack up?) Husbands and brothers and fathers may be cruel or kind, but like the title says, these are women's stories: stories of womens' triumphs and tragedies and jobs. In one great sequence, two families get together to discuss a marriage contract, and while the men stare each other down, grumpily negotiating the bride price, the women of the two families take off their veils and eat and drink and laugh and have a great time in the next room. As characters, Mori's Amir has a lot in common with Mori's Emma; they're both female characters who have traditionally subservient female roles, but they transcend their roles by sheer Wonder Woman awesomeness that makes everyone respect them. This combination of feminism and traditionalism, this Superwoman/superwife/supermaid, obviously fascinates Mori, although perhaps it's something that could only convincingly exist in a exotic land, in a faraway time.
This English edition of A Bride's Story is sumptuously printed in the hardcover editions by Yen Press. Mori's art is some of the best I've ever seen in manga, as detailed as, say, Katsuhiro Otomo but much richer and more expressive. The romances are engrossing; usually I'm cynical about love stories and don't want things to go well for the romantic hero and heroine, but here, time and again, I'm crossing my fingers and really hoping the characters will find true love. This is a great story, or set of stories. I don't entirely know where Mori's travelogue is going, but I could look at it for hours, and I'd follow it anywhere it goes.
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