In this new editorial series, I will be exploring creators who make good use of the visual nature of their chosen art form, be that anime, manga, or video games. The ability to get across detail in a story without the use of words improves a story tremendously. It transcends language, making the art more accessible to everyone regardless of the author’s ability to express their thoughts verbally. I intend to feature artists, stories, productions studios, and directors who are particularly adept at making use of the fact that their medium is, in the end, a form of visual art.
First up – A Bride’s Story (Otoyomegatari) by Kaoru Mori
Few mangaka are as adept at fine detail as Mori-sensei. Best known for her earlier historical romance manga, Emma, she is famous for the extensive research and realism of her designs and backgrounds, as well as being one of the largest contributors to the maid fetish culture in Japan. With Otoyomegatari, licensed in the US by Yen Press as A Bride’s Story, she takes us on another journey back into history with another time and place that fascinates her: The Silk Road in late 19th Century Turkic Central Asia.
The first two volumes revolve around a new bride named Amir, a 20 year-old woman who is from the semi-nomadic Halgal family, who marries a man 8 years younger than she from a family who have been village dwellers for a few generations, Karluk Eihon. Many people see the age gap, and the 12 year-old age of the husband, and think there is something fishy going on in this story. Is it some sort of shota fetish manga? A 12 year-old married to a 20 year-old? By modern standards that seems just wrong. Interestingly, by the standards of the time it was also wrong. Amir was far too old! Most women in that culture were married around the age of 14 or 15, with brides even younger not uncommon. In fact, there is a precious scene, where Karluk, who has been celebrating with his Uncle and is a bit drunk, tells Amir in a charming and earnest way that he has never, even once, wished that she were younger!
The story is slice-of-life, with very little over-arching plot. There are a couple of complications tossed in along the way, but the majority of the chapters take us through the daily lives of the young couple and their family and friends, introducing various aspects of Silk Road culture, such as embroidery, wood carving, the differences between nomadic life and village life, or baking. Through the slice-of-life tidbits, however, the relationship between the newlyweds develops.
Initially, Amir seems like more of a big sister than a bride to Karluk. He is, after all, 12 years-old and not really old enough for a man-and-wife relationship even by the standards of the 19th century Silk Road region, where marriages might take place that early, but children weren’t expected until at least the age of 15 or 16. However, Amir’s bold personality and odd behavior, from the perspective of her new city dwelling relatives, impact Karluk in ways that clearly indicate that he is a young man who is deeply smitten with his new wife. And who wouldn’t be? Amir is one of the most beautifully drawn women in all of manga!
As the story goes along, it introduces a major crisis for our newlywed couple: Amir’s family intends to take her back, since no child has been conceived, to marry her to another clan that they are in conflict with. They have no other women of marriageable age and three brides they have sent to the clan have all died, at least one from abuse it seems. Karluk’s family and the whole village band together to protect her, though Karluk, being too young, is sent to be with his wife, much to his dismay. In the end, Amir’s uncle, who is the leader of her clan and considerably larger and stronger than the young Karluk, manages to get onto the second story balcony where Amir is and tries to take her away. Karluk flies at him with a kick, then takes a dagger and buries it in his thigh, knocking him off of the balcony. Karluk also falls, but catches a tree branch while Amir’s uncle falls to the ground.
After this, Amir is obviously uncomfortable around her young husband, shying away from his touch and seeming to avoid him, even going so far as to sleep as far away from him on the bed as possible. Mostly this is shown through facial expressions and posture. Everyone seems puzzled by this, some of them speculating that she has grown to dislike Karluk. When Karluk asks her outright if she dislikes him, she denies it vehemently. Later she goes out hunting on horseback and returns with a deer.
They had discussed eating venison, which Karluk had never had, and she wants to cook it for him. Only Karluk’s grandmother seems to understand the real reason for her behavior: She is looking at Karluk, as the grandmother says, with the heart of a bride now. In other words, she sees him as a man: a strong, capable, potentially dangerous, and desirable man. She is now slightly disconcerted by his touch, but she also has a desire to please him.
The chapter ends with one of the most amazing stretches of
dialog-free storytelling I have ever “read”. In it we see Amir eagerly serving him at the table, then in the evening the two share time together with Karluk playing music while his bride dances for him.
When she sits next to him and teasingly takes his hat and puts it on her own head, it leads to an awkward moment. Then Karluk lunges at her and begins to tickle her and they end up rolling on the floor laughing and embracing.
The chapter concludes with his parents looking up during their bedtime preparation, listening to the commotion made by the young bride and groom, and then kissing each other. In both cases, it seems the natural result of a beautiful evening spent together after a special meal, prepared with love, given the ages and relationship state of the two couples involved. Without a single word in nearly five pages of manga, Mori-sensei has managed to clearly show how their relationship has progressed in terms of Amir’s feelings for her young husband, as well as how far they have to go in terms of maturity and the ability to express their love as adults. It is radiant, beautiful, heartwarming, funny, and brilliant. A truly excellent use of the visual nature of manga to tell the story in a way that is impossible with dialog alone.