Desert Isle Keeper
Emma - Manga Classics
Although I enjoyed and recommended Udon Entertainment’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (part of their Manga Classics line), a few issues held it back from DIK status. Happily, these issues have been resolved in their second Austen adaptation, Emma. Fun, fast-paced, and visually engaging, Emma is a great adaptation that made me see the original in a new, clearer way. Austen fans and newbies alike should make a place for it on their keeper shelves.
Emma Woodhouse is pretty, privileged, and clever – but in matters of the human heart, not quite as clever as she thinks she is. After successfully matching her governess with a local widower, Emma decides she has a gift for romance. Over the cautions of her brother-in-law George Knightley, she takes up matchmaking in earnest, with targets including the starchy vicar Mr. Elton, her impoverished, sweet friend Harriet Smith, and charismatic but careless Frank Churchill. But Emma’s overconfidence could spell unhappiness, not just for her targets, but for herself.
While some speech has to be modified in order for the story to flow, the adapters have preserved significant quantities of Austen’s original dialogue. They don’t just keep iconic lines like Knightley’s “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,” but also ordinary conversations, such as Frank Churchill’s petulant declaration, “I do not look upon myself as either prosperous or indulged. I am thwarted in every thing material.” There are a few slips (characters declare on several occasions “This is great!”, which is jarringly modern amid the adapted dialogue) but nothing like the glaring misuse of titles in Udon’s previous Pride and Prejudice. I also appreciated the use of thought bubbles to help us get inside Emma’s head – one area where film adaptations of Austen, which I usually enjoy, can sometimes fall short.
Austen is complex and there are many potential readings of her books, but the manga strongly emphasizes one of my favorites: Emma as a romance in which the hero’s influence helps the heroine grow into the best version of herself. Each of the supporting characters reflects back to Emma a person she might end up like: Mr. Elton, if she indulges her snobbish tendencies, Frank Churchill, if she is insensitive and immature, or, in the best case, Mr. Knightley, who is a gentleman by action as well as birth, using his social standing and wealth to make those around him comfortable and content. To do this in just 304 pages, it has to marginalize some other readings: Austen’s darker themes, such as the waste of female intellectual capacity, are omitted in favor of a lighter, fun read. Still, it’s nice to see a manga adaptation with a thematic reading, not just one which tries to cram as much original plot into as few pages as possible.
Signature characteristics like Harriet’s frizzy hair and Jane Fairfax’s cool eyes make the characters easy to distinguish. While Mr. Knightley doesn’t look quite as I pictured him (he should be a little bulkier, and goatees are not typical for the time period), the energetic and puppyish Frank Churchill is spot-on. The artist deftly adjusts the illustrations of characters like Elton, whose charming smile becomes a sneer in the second half of the book, once we know more about him. I loved the fashion, which the artist uses to underscore characterizations. Whereas class (as in taste) and social class go together in Emma’s elegant and expensive-looking dresses, wealthy but coarse Mrs. Elton wears over-wrought hairstyles, makeup, and gowns. Poor, ordinary, and kind Harriet wears plain dresses with simple lines. I did question Emma wearing her grandmother’s old 1700s gown to the ball scene, which I think the artist may have done to make the scene stand out visually in a book with so many dresses. I could not find any evidence of that in Austen.
I could go on to praise other aspects of the art, such as drawings of the various estates, Emma’s whimsical picture of Frank Churchill and Harriet in romantic knight/maiden medieval garb, and chatterbox Miss Bates’s endless dialogue bubbles. To be more efficient, I’ll just say that the art does not just illustrate the original story. It enhances it. And that is exactly what an adaptation of a work should do.