In the class-conscious world of Victorian England, a maid for a modest household finds herself the object of affection for a man far above her station.
From this simple premise comes a charming and understated story, one put together with great attention to both period detail and the intricacies of human behavior. It’s proof you can make a great anime without resorting to imbuing the characters with ridiculous powers or blowing things up.
- A simple story told with great tenderness and observation.
- Great attention to period detail.
- Not a flashy, fast-moving story (but it doesn't have to be).
- A potentially distracting comedic-relief supporting character.
- Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
- Animation Studio: Studio Pierrot
- Released By: Enterbrain, Inc.
- Released Domestically By: Nozomi Entertainment / The Right Stuf International
- Audio: Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-7+ (some mature concepts)
- List Price: $49.98 (DVD)
A society with a place for everything
England in 1895 was a place of strictly-divided class lineages. You knew your station in life and you stayed within it, as a way to ensure the greater social order was preserved—no small thing, given the general messiness of the 19th century, with all its wars, revolutions, and anarchic upheaval.
Emma is a woman who has never really questioned her place in this scheme. She was born in a wretched little village by the sea somewhere in Yorkshire, and as a little girl was snatched away from there only to be sold into a brothel. After escaping, she very nearly starved on London’s streets until finding employment as a maid for an older woman, Kelly Stowner, who also provided her with literacy and a degree of culture. To be thought of as a dependable maid in a good household is the most a woman like her can hope for. Anything above that is simply out of the picture.
All of this changes as two major upheavals work their way into Emma’s life. The first is a chance encounter with a man above her station: Willam Jones. His life is also governed by expectations: he’s to keep the family business running, marry someone of the same class, and otherwise make sure all the gears of his life continue to mesh. They meet one day, quite by accident, at Miss Stowner’s house—there’s a bit of physical comedy when she mistakenly opens the front door right into the bridge of his nose—and from that moment William’s smitten with her. She’s clearly flattered by the attention, but she of all people knows full well this sort of thing, the love of a man from a “good family” for a maid, has no future.
The second is the fact that Miss Stowner is dying: not all at once, but by degrees, and when she is gone Emma will have to go somewhere—and if not into William’s arms, then back home to an existence several grades below the one she’s leaving behind.
An unhurried experience
Emma starts with this charming premise, then explores it with the patience and attention to detail common to all the best stories. It’s less about whether or not these two people, who clearly deserve each other, end up together, than it is about how they go about trying to be that way.
It’s not social expectations that prove most troublesome for William and Emma. It’s the hearts of others. William has a woman he’s more or less expected to marry, the shy and furtive Eleanor. She, too, is under pressure to marry because of her family’s disintegrating financial prospects, although her feelings for William are genuine. He might even be happy with her, but he knows, without being told, he’d never be able to live down the prospect of turning his back on Emma.
Other little details also move things forward. Mrs. Stowner was once William’s governess, and perhaps the closest thing she had to a son (with Emma, by extension, being the closest thing she ever had to a daughter). From the beginning she quietly nudges them together, even when society as a whole has a vested interested in ensuring they never get too cozy.
I like a show that takes its time and uses the accumulation of little gestures to make its points. It’s a welcome contrast to shows that try to bludgeon us over the head with characterization—not that this can’t be funny in a farcical way (see: Arakawa under the Bridge), but most of the time it’s merely irritating. Here, though, things unfold in an unhurried way, with small details mattering as much as larger ones. Even the show’s design—muted pastels and earth tones, along the lines of Mushishi—is part of the approach.
Attention to details
Most impressive in Emma is the way the England of the time has been recreated, note-for-note, in ways both big and little. The show’s source was a bestselling manga by Kaoru Mori, who let her Anglophilia seep into every frame and populated the story with tons of well-researched details about daily life. Much of that has been retained here, even if only as bits in the background: little things, like how a meal is made; and big things, like the “Crystal Palace” built in London that says a great deal about that era’s ideas about its future.
The show’s big flaw is with a comedy-relief character—William’s friend from India and former classmate, a prince named Hakim, who seems to have barged in from an entirely different anime, maybe Black Butler. Whenever he shows up, the story goes into a goofy tailspin: he brings elephants with him wherever he goes (yes, even places where it’s logistically impossible to bring one), and has his own crush on Emma as well. But it’s a testament to the story that even a character as fundamentally unruly as this can’t completely derail things, and he goes from being a silly rival to a striking contrast character for William. There is a decision he makes near the end of this first season of the show whose motives—once he says what they are out loud—are just what William needs to goad him in the direction of his instincts, the consequences of which are explored in more detail in the second season of the show.
Another possible criticism of Emma is that it’s slow. Granted, by the standards of a show like Fullmetal Alchemist, not a lot happens, but Emma’s built on a different scale and scope than that show anyway. There’s nothing flashy about it, but none of it needs to be, and the result is an understated masterpiece.