Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Bride's Story; A Manga Series by Kaoru Mori

"Acclaimed creator Kaoru  Mori (Emma, Shirley) brings the nineteenth-century Silk Road to lavish life, chronicling the story of Amir Halgal, a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her. Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori’s pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heartwarming slice-of-life tale that is at once both wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the rich characters she has created."
From Yen Press, the English-language publisher's web site.

Kaoru Mori's exquisite depiction of culture is, for me, the most compelling part of the still ongoing series A Bride's Story.  Created in Japanese, volumes 1, 2, and 3 have recently been published in English, and volume 4 is forthcoming in 2013.  A French translation is available as well.  Mori apparently specializes in historical fiction, and is most famous in the West for her award-winning series Emma, about a young maid in Victorian England.  A Bride's Story is set in an unnamed area along the  Silk Road, and in volume 3 it becomes clear that we are close to Russia.  In case you, like me, only have a fuzzy idea of where the Silk Road lies, here's what YoYo Ma's Silk Road Project has to say about it:

"The historical Silk Road comprised a series of land and sea trade  routes that crisscrossed Eurasia  from the first millenium B.C.E. through the middle of the second millennium C.E. The intersections among people from diverse cultures along the way promoted an unprecedented sharing of commodities, ideas, arts, sciences and innovations."

My husband Doug thinks the story is probably set in Mongolia or Kazakhstan, so I'll go with that.  It's a bit frustrating though--Mori seems to have done a huge amount of research, considering the intricate, almost photographic detail of the art.  Would it kill her to name the people she's depicting?

In volume 1 of A Bride's Story we meet Amir, an adult woman, and her husband Karluk, who has probably just hit puberty.  Some reviews have mentioned a discomfort with this, and I can see why, although it is clear that they have not consummated their relationship yet.  I think the difference in ages makes an interesting twist; this is obviously one of many cultures where marriages are arranged in terms of tribal alliances and not necessarily personal preference, but stories of older men and younger brides are more common.  Amir's a strong protagonist; she's an expert horsewoman, a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and is pretty resourceful with a stewpot.  The story shows a tremendous respect between her and her young groom;  although Amir and her adjustments to a new family are a focus in the series,  we also see Karluk struggling a bit to grow into his adult role as husband.

In some ways Karluk is still a child. 

Amir and Karluk relaxing together. 

Amir's amazing hunting skills. 

Looking good on a horse. 

The things we women will do to impress a man...

In volume 2 we see Amir's rather boorish male relatives arrive to take her back, hoping to ally themselves more strategically by marrying her off to another, more powerful family.  Amir refuses to go, now making a deliberate choice to remain with Karluk and his tribe, who unhesitatingly fight to keep her in one of the saga's more exciting turn of events.  (It's partly exciting because they don't look like they'd be such good fighters.) In volume 3 a western linguist and anthropologist, Mr. Smith, becomes a more major character and takes over the point of view for a time, taking us away from Amir and Karluk in his wanderings and adventures.  Some people have complained about the the meandering, picaresque storyline, but I think that's a little unfair;  we haven't read the whole story yet.  Besides, my favourite parts aren't necessarily the ones that further the action.  I think the best parts are the ones that highlight things like handing down traditional skills and crafts through the generations (woodcarving, cooking, embroidery).  We're really shown not just how intricate and meaningful the work is, but how long the skills take to master.

A young boy learns carving at the hands of a master artisan. 

A full-page close-up of a carving in progress.

The teaching process. 

A Bride's Story depicts material culture with loving attention to detail every step of the way, but it also depicts family culture with great sensitivity.  Amir's marriage literally takes her away from her birth family and into a new extended family community.  Unlike Amir's birth family, her marital family seems very warm and supportive. I enjoyed meeting all the characters, from the children to the elders.  I really loved the scene in book 3 where Tileke, a young girl who only likes embroidering hawks (embroidery is very important here, as you may have guessed by the clothing illustrations), is shown patterns associated with her maternal ancestors many generations back.  All the women gather to pass on their family heritage and inspire a member of the youngest  generation with their personal and collective memories.   There is certainly a power structure in this family, but it seems based on respect and it doesn't feel like anyone's being squashed.   This stands in contrast to some other families we see peripherally, where family power structures are used to benefit men at the expense of women.  Mori's not afraid to show us the range of experience possible in the culture she's depicting, but so far at any rate, her storyline emphasizes the positive.   I'm looking forward to following the rest of this series as it unfolds.
Amir's new family.  

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