Reviewby Nick Creamer,
A Bride's Story
With Amir and Karluk's village enjoying a momentary peace, A Bride's Story tracks down the unflappable Smith once again, as he finds himself enjoying the hospitality of a very wealthy patron. But behind closed doors, his new patron's wife Anis longs for a greater happiness in her life. Her every need is accounted for, but she lacks true companionship; and so, seeing her distress, her attendant urges her to seek an “avowed sister” at the public baths. There, Anis will find herself enchanted by a mysterious woman, as she enters into a new and marvelous world.
In the afterword to this volume of A Bride's Story, Kaoru Mori mentions how she decided to change her drawing style for these chapters, and adopt “a bit of a lighter touch than I usually do.” This shift is clear in the artwork; in contrast to the manga's usual robust blacks and diverse line thickness, the line width is more consistently narrow here. Whereas prior volumes might devote two-page spreads to shadowed wood carvings, heavy rugs, or a fleet of horses, here the marquee spreads depict a gathering of doves, or, most commonly, a wild garnish of flowers. The delicate and often purely imagined flowers bring to mind a remarkably polished shoujo romance, full of blooming buds and shimmering eyes.
These visual embellishments are appropriate to the subject matter - beyond just the drawings, “a light touch” seems to be the guiding principle of this volume's story as well. Shifting away from the currently settled conflicts in Amir and Karluk's village, this volume returns to Smith's travels, as he enters the home of a very wealthy merchant. But Smith himself actually barely appears in this volume; it's his patron's wife, Anis, who's the protagonist here.
Anis lives a sheltered life within a sheltered life. Though her society already separates women from men and wives from general society (in contrast to the much more gender-mixed regions Smith has previously explored), Anis exists a level beyond that, essentially living as a ghost in an enchanted garden. She is introduced through a beautiful full-page shot of herself covered in a cloak of birds, making for a pretty direct metaphor - Anis is essentially a tame pet, with little knowledge of the world.
Anis doesn't begrudge her husband her isolation, and has no reason to - he tends to her needs, clearly loves her, and when she decides to visit the public baths in order to find an “avowed sister” (a formalized trusted friend, one she can share all her admittedly limited secrets with), her husband has reservations but agrees. There, Anis meets the mysterious Sherine, who reminds her of her very fluffy cat - and it's essentially love at first sight.
The rest of this volume plays out with virtually no conflict, as Anis and Sherine share a few light conversations and then Anis quickly asks Sherine to become her avowed sister. Anis and Sherine's budding friendship is framed in very romantic terms through the flowery embellishments and Anis's warm obsession, but there honestly isn't much chemistry between them beyond that which is wholly created by the art. Both of them are extremely mild people, and Anis essentially comes off as a child in love; you might think this would lead to trouble, but even when Sherine's husband dies, the story manages to come to the kind of solution a child in love might well think up.
There's pleasure to be found in Anis's decidedly mild dilemmas, but the storytelling here certainly can't compare to A Bride's Story's more robust chapters, and the exploration of Anis's social world feels limited by how fairy tale-esque the whole story seems. It feels almost as if Mori were trying to apologize for last volume's high-stakes drama by presenting an entire narrative about a nice and very wealthy lady finding a friend at the bath.
Of course, as far as wealthy ladies finding friends at the bath narratives go, this one is unsurprisingly a very beautiful one. I prefer Mori's more dynamic usual lineart to this volume's consistent delicacy, but the manga is still carefully drawn and regularly beautiful. And Mori's talent for panel flow is still remarkable - in spite of its threadbare nature, the story here is often carried purely on how well the procession of panels conveys Anis's energy and emotions. The bath setting unfortunately gives Mori's talents a bit less time to shine than usual; her character designs are much more simplified and similar than her environments, and when everybody's naked (you probably don't want to read this volume on the train), the limits of her human forms start to show.
Overall, this was definitely a weaker volume of A Bride's Story, a narrative that felt almost like a reflexive backing off from the wonderful high drama of the previous arc. If this was the breather Mori needed, I'm fine with that, but on its own, this is not A Bride's Story at its best.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ Mori's reliably gorgeous art retains most of its luster even when depicting a much narrower story
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