Bride's Story (Otoyomegatari)
Author: Kaoru Mori
Publisher: Yen Press
Brief Overview: Amir is a young woman of a nomadic tribe who's sent to live with her new husband, Karluk, and his family. She's somewhat old to be a bride - she's already 20 years old - and her new husband is 8 years her junior. As they begin their lives together, Amir adapts to her adoptive family's culture and begins to develop feelings of love for her young husband.
Thoughts: I'm a bit of a "follower" when it comes to manga. Though my awareness of what anime series are out there is pretty comprehensive, the manga field is so vast that it sometimes becomes overwhelming. Luckily, I have a network of manga experts who I admire and respect, so when a great majority of them begin to chime in with positive words on a particular series, I've learned to pay attention. The other day I began to hear a lot of praise for this book, a new hardcover release from Yen Press, so I made the decision to pick it up at my earliest convenience. This was definitely the right decision - though I'd been lacking sleep all week, once I picked this book up I wasn't able to put it down until I'd finished it, and by that time it was well past midnight (whoops!).
Before I begin to lavish praise on the book, though, I ought to mention that I was as caught off guard by the age difference between the two main characters as anyone else. Anyone familiar with my writing could tell you that lolicon and shotacon material, or more specifically, the sexualization of minors, is essentially insta-death as far as my interest in a series is concerned, and I'll readily admit that, once I learned of the details of this story, I immediately found myself on the defensive in spite of the praise it was getting across the board. I'm relieved to be able to say that this is one series out of very few which is sensitive enough to handle such delicate material without becoming exploitative or pandering, and part of why it's successful while most other series fail in this regard is that the author's depiction of the culture is so complete.
Amir's and Karluk's marriage, like so many others throughout history, is less about naturally-developing romantic love than it is about political alliances and land holdings. Their marriage is almost like a business transaction between two families, and so the characters' relative ages aren't as important as they might be in our culture where we're concerned with ages of consent (though it's noted by the author in her afterword that the average age in this culture at this time was 15 or 16). While something like this happening would be unthinkable in modern-day Western culture, it makes more sense given the setting and context of the story, something which the author is adept at detailing. This said, I think it's also worth mentioning that this isn't a story which is about breaking free from gender expectations or confronting archaic cultural norms. I think that we as modern consumers of media are probably more used to the idea of being presented with female characters who aren't content to be a "good wife;" anime and manga have multiple examples of female characters who consciously take on different gender roles, who battle their own demons (both external and internal), and who carry entire stories upon the backs of their own heroism. This isn't that kind of story, but that's fine; the strength of the characterization overrides the expectation that Amir present some sort of challenge to her society's gender expectations.
That isn't to say that she's the type of woman who does as she's told and says very little; in fact, it's quite the contrary. Amir is depicted as enthusiastic, outgoing, and skilled in multiple areas. Her temperament is different from that of the other women in Karluk's clan; Amir is quick to think, feel and do, whereas the others are more reserved (though Karluk's grandmother, who hails from the same clan as Amir, can certainly hold her own when she has to). Her skills are also different than that of her adoptive family, due to her different upbringing; she's adept at using a bow and arrow to hunt, cooking food that her husband's family has never eaten and tracking on the open plains. In short, Amir is a likeable heroine, and one doesn't feel sorry for her circumstances despite the fact that they're dictated by social norms which we might otherwise question. Her personality and her age color her interaction with her young husband in an interesting way. Though he doesn't say so, Karluk often seems intimidated by his wife's demonstration of skills and her outgoing personality. This is where Mori's subtlety in characterization comes into play, because it's clear that his feelings are complicated, a result of his difference in age and his fascination with a woman who seems to him to be so confident and self-assured. Though she possesses all these skills, Amir herself is also obviously insecure because, at 20(!), she's considered past her prime as a wife and lives with the weight of having to prove she can still bear children. Through it all and in spite of whatever hurdles initially plague the couple, it's clear that love is growing between the two. In spite of whatever lingering apprehensions we as the audience might bring to the table regarding their disparate ages, somehow it still feels right. It's sweet rather than off-putting, and a fine testament to the author's skill in depicting relationships.
All of this would be good on its own, but the story also benefits from an artistic attention to detail that makes the manga a treat for the eyes as well as the soul. The visual landscape of the novel is a tapestry of fine fabric wall-hangings, richly-patterned clothing and beautifully-textured wood-carvings that make almost every page worth stopping to linger over. There's a side story in which a young boy from Karluk's clan visits a wood carver, and the panels depicting the elderly man at work are fascinating. The texture of the wood is almost tangible, and the scene serves as an interesting introduction to how homes of the time were constructed out of various intricately-carved beams and supports. The clothing that the women wear is embellished with intricate patterns of color and shape and, perhaps even more pleasantly-surprising, the author demonstrates knowledge about how each layer, each underskirt, trouser and vest, are constructed and worn. Even the pieces of jewelry are lovingly-depicted in the finest of detail. When so many manga and anime appear lazy and visually homogenous, it's so wonderful to see one that so clearly displays an artist's skill and research.
Perhaps the best compliment I can give to the book is this; by the time I reached the end of the first volume and the major conflict was introduced - Amir's brother returns to take her back so that she can help solidify a political alliance for the benefit of her birth family - I could feel myself screaming inside, "no! Amir belongs with Karluk's family, you can't just take her away!" My connection to the characters had snuck up on me, even though I had devoured the book in one sitting, and that's probably one of the most heartfelt recommendations I can give to people interested in the novel.
Though I generally trust the manga reviewers whose opinions I follow, I was still surprised by how quickly I took to this story. It strikes just the right balance between visual detail, character development, drama and depiction of an interesting (and perhaps unfamiliar or misunderstood) culture. I'm definitely looking forward to the second volume, which comes out in October.
- The artist's attention to detail on almost every page is excellent. It's easy to imagine the feel of every different texture based on the illustrations.
- The characters are likeable, especially the heroine.
- The central relationship, despite the age gap, is otherwise believable; I was rooting for them in spite of whatever misgivings I might have.
- Some may be too turned off by Amir's and Karluk's age difference (though it should be mentioned that this story component is handled with the utmost sensitivity and lacks even the hint of lowbrow pandering).
Recommended? Definitely. The book is presented in a lovely hardcover edition with a full-color wraparound dust jacket that gives it a very classy feel, something which is reflected by the contents. I can't wait for the next volume.