Reviewby Nick Creamer,
A Bride's Story
Laila and Leily's wedding has arrived, but it's not looking like the twins will be taking it peacefully. There's robes to sew and gifts to arrange and food to prepare, and through all of it, the ladies of the day are expected to sit quietly and just wait to be married? No, that won't do - for Laila and Leily, it wouldn't be a wedding worth having at all if they didn't get to sample the food and run around and generally make royal nuisances of themselves. Elsewhere, life continues as usual for Karluk and Amir, as the two grow closer in their own married life and work through their daily routines. There's always something more to do, but somehow each new adventure still feels like home.
The twins' wedding has come at last, and it seems like no one is more excited for the occasion than Kaoru Mori herself. As the first half of this fifth volume proceeds from wedding preparations to ceremonies to intimate moments between the brides and grooms, Mori is given a perfect opportunity to lean into Bride's Story's traditional strengths. These chapters are full of intricate, often wordless depictions of traditional rituals and tasks, lively crowd scenes evoking the bustle of busy inner-village life, and sweeping panoramas drawn up in beautiful detail.
As the chapters of Bride's Story spool out, it becomes more and more clear why Smith has become such a key viewpoint character for the series. Smith is essentially a stand-in for Mori herself, sharing the author's fascination with the details of life and the meaning in every small gesture. This time, as opposed to earlier chapters' focus on woodworking or baking, we get a variety of wedding-focused vignettes. One sequence graphically depicts the dressing of goats for the coming feast, while another focuses on dressing the twins for their ceremony, with the story all the while sprinkling in compelling facts about the meaning in each action.
This fascinated sociologist's eye, combined with the easy humor of the twins, makes these early chapters feel like classic Bride's Story. If there's anything lacking here, it's that Mori's perspective can unsurprisingly come off more as observer than intimate, creating a slight emotional distance - but when the brides' husbands-to-be arrive, even that issue vanishes. There's a charming rapport between these four, and the sequences of the unruly brides sneaking out of their own wedding are both funny and relatable. Though the bond between the brides and grooms was set up in a bit of a hurry in the fourth volume, here it's given much more room to breathe, and the story is stronger for it. Laila and Leily's wedding is suffused with warmth and laughter.
After the wedding, volume five finally jumps back to Karluk and Amir, for a series of chapters that demonstrate Mori further experimenting with the freedom of Bride's Story's loose narrative format. Given room to breathe, Mori's visual skills carry the book away entirely. One chapter dispenses with panels entirely, instead relating one entire day in full-page spreads that make great use of negative space, set to light narration that comes across almost like poetry. Another chapter opens with hurried panels of clattering hooves giving way to a two-page spread of open sky, offering a strong example of Mori's understanding of manga storytelling. Bride's Story isn't just beautifully drawn, it also possesses a masterful understanding of panel economy and visual pacing, and is confident enough to even go on occasional experimental tangents (like the no-panel chapter). It's as if Mori is using a vague story frame to just celebrate a setting she loves and stretch her own visual storytelling muscles, seeing what she can really do.
That description also points to what could likely be considered the greatest flaw of Bride's Story - the fact that its experiments often don't add up to a greater emotional narrative. The manga is beautiful, but its vignettes can also come off as inconsequential - there's almost no forward momentum in either the narrative or character development, so each chapter has to be its own reward. These chapters are pretty and charming enough to succeed as their own rewards, but I can't help but wonder how much stronger these visual talents would seem if they were being applied to a story as purposefully crafted as every lovely drawing.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A
+ Laila and Leily's wedding gives Bride's Story a chance to demonstrate its classic strengths; the second half is rich with its own kind of visual poetry.
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