Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Hiroaki Samura's Emerald and Other Stories
In this collection of short works, two women in the old west outsmart the men in their lives, schoolgirls chatter about everyday life, a mangaka lives a dream, and a young girl finds a strange new life in post-World War 1 Europe, along with several other stories.
Some might find it strange that the author of Blade of the Immortal has a deft hand with tales about high school girls talking about nothing in particular or tender emotional tales of life in post-World War 1 Europe, but Hiroaki Samura proves that he is an adept at these and other topics in this recent offering from Dark Horse. Originally titled Sister Generator in Japan, Hiroaki Samura's Emerald consists of a combination of short-shorts and longer, more involved pieces that cover a wide range of topics and styles, all held together by Samura's delicate yet gritty artwork and subtle depth of emotion.
The title story is an easy standout, although it is not actually the strongest in the book. A Western in the style of Charles Portis' True Grit, it follows two seemingly disparate stories about an outlaw woman named Rosalie and the daughter of a rancher named Sara. Between them Sara and Rosalie must face down men who would do them harm (this is more of a danger to Sara) using their wits when the men would use their guns. The way the threads of the tale come together is both impressive and interesting, as is Samura's message about brains over brawn. The bleak feel of the setting helps to set the mood and overall it seems as if this story would have been right at home in a pulp magazine in the 1950s.
Despite its top billing, however, it is not the story that sticks with the reader the longest. That honor goes to “Brigitte's Dinner,” a strange, sad little tale about a young girl starving on the streets on Europe in 1919. When she is picked up by a stranger, there seems to be cause for alarm, and Samura keeps us guessing for most of the story as to what will become of Brigitte. Ultimately the story takes on a folkloric quality about kindnesses, relationships, and what is worth living for. While it appears that there is no way that it could possibly work out, Samura handles the story gently, carefully guiding the characters towards resolution, with the last two pages being especially well done. Many of the same techniques are used, both in text and image, as in “Emerald,” but the result is a more moving story. Possibly this is simply due to the difference in genre; in any event, “Brigitte's Dinner” strikes a note that is difficult to forget.
The bulk of Emerald is made up of lighter fare, including an eight part mini-series called “The Uniforms Stay On.” These short chapters follow Niuko and Sachi (and occasionally Limi) as they wander around in their school uniforms and talk about Stuff. Their topics range from Korean cultural invasion to moe to food additives to starting a band with a slight edge of self-awareness that gives the stories a bit of a satiric feel. The girls at several points make comments about being in a manga or writing to the publisher, which could have been overly cute but manage to come off as merely amusing. While there isn't much that is remarkable about these stories, they are still fun to read, provided that you do not do so in one big chunk. Other lighter stories include an autobiographical mahjong story, some loose illustrations, and a story about a less than adept love song.
The book is rounded out by two stranger tales that do not fit comfortably into any specific genre. “The Kusein Family's Grandest Show” is an uncomfortable piece about a troubled father/daughter relationship with strong S&M themes that treads close to ground some readers may recognize from the 2012 anime Sankarea. It is mixed with elements of the absurd with the end result that one doesn't quite know what to think. The same holds true for “Shizuru Cinema,” a story that is both about the “what was” and “what might have been” in a man's life. It's abrupt tonal shift three-quarters of the way through brings it down, but it is nonetheless a strangely fascinating piece.
Perhaps “strangely fascinating” is the best way to describe Samura's book. It has no real unifying themes or features other than Samura's art, which can get crowded at times, but it is consistently worth reading. Dark Horse's translation is nicely readable (though it lacks any cultural notes in the end) and overall Emerald makes for a unique reading experience. So whether you are a fan of Hiroaki Samura's work, a fan of seinen manga in general, or just looking for something a little off the beaten path of English language releases, Emerald is a volume that is worth checking out.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Both “Emerald” and “Brigitte's Dinner” are especially well done, there's a little bit of everything in the book, making it far from a homogeneous read.
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