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At the tail end of the 19th century, in merry old London, a young maid named Emma meets the heir apparent of a bourgeois family on the steps of her master's house. Her master, aging ex-governess Mrs. Stownar, was once young William Jones' tutor, and when he reluctantly comes to visit the testy old lady, he is surprised to be instantly smitten by her lovely maid. Emma, equally smitten, spends their courtship in quiet bliss, only to run smack into the impenetrable social divide between her and his upwardly-mobile family. William's father is determined to marry his eldest son into the nobility—the opportunity for which arises when Eleanor, the naive daughter of a viscount, falls for William. With such an eminently eligible lady at his disposal, no one approves of William's association with “the help,” with the possible exception of Mrs. Stownar and his best friend and rival for Emma's affection, the free-spirited Prince Hakim of India.
Mention of the word Victorian conjures images of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. Add the word “romance” and suddenly it's visions of Jane Austen or Harlequin-style bodice-rippers. Either one is reason for trepidation when stepping into the five-hour commitment required by Right Stuf/Nozomi's box-set release of Emma: A Victorian Romance's first season. Luckily for all, Emma is neither sweaty exploitation nor tea-party snoozefest, but rather a gentle real-life romance that sports a surprising streak of social conscience and a knack for emotions that are no less powerful for slowly insinuating themselves on, rather than sucker-punching, viewers.
If Emma had a weakness, it would be its setting. Not because of the types of tales it inspires, but because of its obsessive fidelity. It's tempting to name Victorian England, rather than Emm>a or William, as the real star of the series. As the sepia-toned opening image fading into color suggests, the anime is determined to bring a bygone era to life, and for those not tolerant of its meticulously detailed slice-of-life approach, it can sometimes resemble a study in Victorian life more than an anime series. Carefully-researched details vie with the plot for attention, while the restraint of Victorian society renders the characters quiet and uncommunicative. So alive and carefully realized is the city—bustling with cabs, buses, and Londoners of all shapes, sizes and social strata—that Emm>a and her fellow cast members could easily slip into obscurity behind a nerdy obsession with historical veracity—especially whenever William starts gushing about the minutiae of London history.
But they never do. To view Emma as an excuse to indulge in historical obsessions is to grossly over-simplify a series where setting and characterization are inextricably intertwined. The little details of Emm>a's duties as maid aren't just anally accurate—check out the leaves she sprinkles on the carpet before sweeping it—they, and her execution of them, are also integral to who she is. The series isn't above stark juxtapositions of the opulence of the aristocracy and the abject poverty of the working class (Emm>a's past is simply heart-breaking), which lends real substance to the social barriers that separate Emm>a and William. William's quirks of character manage to give life to perhaps the dullest example of masculinity, the perfect Victorian gentleman, while Emm>a's strength of character quietly shines through the enforced subservience of her station.
And therein lies Emma's genius: forming intensely lovable characters beneath the restraints placed upon them by their stuffy cultural milieu. Characters are built with meaningful glances, stolen moments of private emotion, and indirect action. The central romance grows quietly, incrementally, until one genuinely wishes for Emm>a and William's happiness, even as it becomes ever more obvious that the series is too mature to dabble in “love conquers all” clichés. Even Hakim manages to overcome the rank Orientalism of his stereotypically wild behavior by quickly becoming the voice of reason in Emm>a and William's courtship. Who but a churl could argue with his assertion that “you love her and she loves you. So what else matters?” The real surprise, however, is Mrs. Stownar. All wry wit and razor-sharp instincts, she steals every scene she's in, and for all the romance, it's her relationship with Emm>a that ultimately proves to be the aching heart of the series.
This is the first in Nozomi Entertainment's sub-only box-set blitz of highly-anticipated fan-favorites (if you don't count Super GALS season 2), and if the Aria and Maria Watches Over Us sets follow suit, then fans have much to be thankful for. The series is spread over four discs in a solid, elegant thinpak box and sprinkled liberally with extras, most of which fall into the “nice but uninteresting category” (trailers, promos, character profiles). The clean opening and ending provide a chance to enjoy a pair of instrumental pieces from Kunihiko Ryo's understated period score, but the real catch, extras-wise, are the liner notes.
If you could call something so elaborate by such a simple name. Nearly a hundred pages long and handsomely printed as a faux-Victorian journal (called the Emma Victorian Gazette), it includes everything from “articles” written about the events of each episode, to four-panel gag comics by original manga author Kaoru Mori, a glossary of Victorian terms, and exhaustive notes on the dress, manners, places, transportation, and architecture of Victorian London. Plentiful production sketches with their accompanying explanations allow a new appreciation of the love that director Tsuneo Kobayashi and his team of animators poured into the series' crisp visuals and simple yet startlingly attractive characters—more than enough extra appreciation to forgive them their somewhat sanitized take on London (even the rats are kinda cute) and their very occasional clunkiness when animating action scenes. As if the well-placed tracking shots and Emm>a's cascading night-time locks weren't enough to put one in a forgiving mood.
As for forgiving Nozomi for forgoing an English dub, that's a more complicated issue. Some dub fans may lament the loss of a potentially excellent dub—the opportunities for a deeper understanding via English dialects abound—while others may well breathe a sigh of relief that no one was given the chance to produce some fake-accented, plummy monstrosity. Either way, Nozomi's decision is a sound one financially, both for them (the sales potential of Emma isn't terribly high) and for you (at a slim fifty bucks, it's a steal).
And ultimately, it's a blessing that something as pleasantly mature as Emma was released at all in today's ever-narrowing anime market. Anyone who can make it through the series' slow emotional boil, pregnant moments of silent portent, light, soft humor and pitch-perfect, forlornly hopeful conclusion, and still grumble about its presentation is in serious need of hug therapy. The rest of us don't need it. We have Emma.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A gentle, subtly-played cross-class romance that succeeds despite being set in roughly the same era as Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Stownar kicks butt.
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