Art from anime cult classic Gurren Lagann, including Kamina Simon and Yoko
Some funky-ass art from a kind-of anime cult classic, Gurren Lagann

Anime and manga has a strange sort of reputation in the West. Many will have only heard of a antiquated, gimmicky genre called ‘hentai’ (i.e. kinky Jap porn) within this, if they’ve heard of it at all. But it’s an insult to all the wonderfully talented manga artists and storytellers out there for their work to be dismissed as trashy so quickly.

(I use ‘trashy’ objectively, and based on the assumption that many people see porn as such. I personally have no problems with a bit of smut, as long as it’s well done; or in this case, well-drawn.)

A lot of manga is lowbrow and fan-service – for example there’s what I call the manga version of Twilight, there’s an entire genre of manga for girls who lust after a dreamy romance with pretty boys, another genre about pretty boys getting it on with other pretty boys, and of course a huge proportion of manga page space is devoted to boobs and ass.

But if ‘lowbrow’ stuff isn’t your cup of tea, and you’re wondering why I’m making a case for manga, here’s why: there’s a huge range of more subtle, deeper, and amazingly told stories out there.

The manga I’m going to introduce you to today is called A Bride’s Story – or in romaji (when spoken Japanese is written down in English characters), Otoyomegatari.

Hand-carved wooden panelling from Central Asia. From manga A Bride's Story or Otoyomegatari

Just look at the sheer amount of detail in those carpets^! The patterns are brilliant, and gorgeous, and pretty breathtaking. This manga excels in many regards, but the first thing that really strikes you is the gorgeous handicraft and sheer effort the manga artist has put into this story.

There are moments when you turn from a regular page of fast-paced, but beautifully detailed action…

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…to a full-blown feast for the eyes.

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Is that breathtaking or what? I just want to reach out and touch it. Zoom in enough and you’ll find that you can see each of the manga artist (or mangaka, the Japanese term for a manga artist) Kaoru Mori’s individual line strokes.

Visuals aside, the story revolves around several families who live and cross lives, in 19th century Central Asia.

And with historical stories, it always helps to explore a little bit of the relevant social context.

Central Asia consists of that part of the world that spans from the Caspian Sea (which is east of Turkey) to China. It’s all to the south of Russia, and with the area being as dry as it is, it was difficult for the native people to find a good spot to settle down and farm the land properly.

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The natives would settle temporarily on one spot for a little while until they and their livestock had exhausted all the food the land had to give them. Then they’d move to a new patch of land. That’s where politics on the plains steps in.

One subplot in A Bride’s Story involves this difficulty, where a clan will have exhausted all of their own lands, with the next unsaturated patch of land being in their neighbour’s territory. The problem arises when those neighbours are less than friendly.

So it came to be that the people who managed to survive here were nomads. They mastered all kinds of livestock, with their mastery of horses eventually becoming the deciding factor in their prosperity and military power.

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Literally a sea of horses! Like waves, amongst the hills and grass and plains!

The story is set at a time when technology and civilisation had advanced far enough that the horse-riding clans no longer utterly physically dominated the area. Trade had given the settlers an edge.

The titular main character of A Bride’s Story, a young lady called Amira Halgal, knows how to ride and hunt herself. She learnt it from her family, an extremely patriarchal and traditional bunch who still lead a nomadic lifestyle.

She’s kind-hearted, strong, and despite being wedded off to boy half her age, she grows to love her new home and family very much. Her new home is a settler village that no longer completely relies on horses for a living, and she discovers, as we do, their beautifully crafted houses and the deeply-entrenched traditions and customs.

There seem to be a hell of a lot more girls in the villages than on the plains, too. I guess that’s because constantly moving and living off the land takes its toll on a girl’s health, especially when childbirth would have been a much more dangerous experience.

The mangaka takes us through the customs and traditions of these villagers: from building a house and carving out symbols and patterns in the wood, to the cuisine, to weddings and to dowries.

Marriage is a big deal, and many of these traditions are the vehicle that inevitably lead to marriage as a woman’s end goal in life. As you read you really get a sense of why something as mundane as sewing and embroidery is fundamentally important to a girl’s future.

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Just look at the gorgeous, gorgeous patterns – even just the ones on the sleeves on the ladies’ arms: suitably present, and perfectly understated. Imagine making all of that by yourself, by hand!

I’ve gushed on and on about Mori’s drawing skills, but that’s only one part of the equation. Her storytelling skills are also fantastic.

For starters, you get plenty of stories that are set in historical settings. And often, the only reason the storyteller will have made the decision to set it there is because some readers love romanticising that stuff, and also because it’s the easiest way to get rid of widespread social progress (gender equality, etc), so that the main character(s) stands out from the crowd just by embodying characteristics that are deemed normal today.

A Bride’s Story is as historical as you can get. The setting isn’t a plot device – it’s the main attraction.

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Being set in a specific time, rather than just a vague era as most historical stories do, Mori uses trends from the time to show Central Asia at a time when globalisation was just beginning to take root, and vastly different cultures were beginning to infiltrate each other.

For example, almost everywhere you go you hear about the ever-growing Russian threat. Some of the more warmonger-y clans have even acquired firearms (their most powerful weapon up until then were bows) in a trade deal with the Russians themselves.

Then there’s Mr Smith, the English explorer. He first appears to be a part of Amira’s new family, and frankly it’s with a lot of skill that Mori manages to make him blend in just enough not to stick out like a sore thumb, whilst using the subtlest of clues to signal to the reader that he’s not from around these parts.

Mr Smith's gear otoyomegatari a bride's story kaoru mori
Mr Smith’s explorer-y gear

There’s an awful lot of good things to be said about this manga, and it really blew me away. It may not be for the restless, or if you’re looking for a romance that sweeps you off your feet and makes your heat beat rapidly, this isn’t for you either.

But it’s just so beautiful. The art just makes its own case for itself.

And the characters are all really honourable and likeable, even in the social dilemmas that life throws at them. Amira has to choose between protecting her old family, or her new one. Mr Smith has to choose whether to maintain an social scientist’s distance from his subjects, or throw his lot in with a new culture he has come to love and understand and potentially risk his life.

Most of all, this manga is one of the rare ones that really bring you an understanding of the way of life on the steppes. There’s always an awful lot of work to do just to survive: no lounging about on the sofa, and no time to sit still and do nothing. For women there’s always either yourself or your daughters to wed off. For the men, they had to manage their lands and their territory wisely, and be mindful of politicking and power.

If that’s not enough to convince you then it’s also the singular most interesting way I can thank of to learn a little bit more about a culture that few know about. Not only will you appear smarter, but you will lower the risk offending anyone from the region. Only in January a journalist at the New York Times made a serious typo and resulted in the imagining up of a whole new country in Central Asia.

Definitely worth a read. And more than worthy to be the first instalment in my case for why manga isn’t as weird as you might think it is.

 

Back in the mid-2000s, I was an extremely acne-riddled, frizzly-fringed, gluttonous and stubborn girl. I’m still many of those things, but some of the sharper bumps of me have been planed off since, and I like myself a lot better nowadays. I’ve grown up a little.

But going back to before I grew up, there used to be this one word I’d use over and over and over again – a word that I overused so much it started to backfire on me, though I started using it as a trump-card defense tactic.

The word was ‘unique’. I had a special MP3 player when everyone started to listen to music on the schoolbus, during the iPod boom. It’s an odd experience seeing everybody within the four walls of a high school schoolbus holding the same product in their grubby hands, only to know that the one you hold in your own is different, outdated, and generally seen as inferior. It looked a little bit like this:

Creative MP3 player no longer in production
© Sum Sze Tam

It seems odd that I am spending so much time and words to describe a trivial, fleeting set of memories. But I was really, really sensitive and defensive – proudly so – of this MP3 player back as a tween. “I might not have an iPod,” I’d say. “But at least my music player is special. It’s unique.”

(And hell, would I really enunciate those italics.)

Eventually, those among my friends of a drier wit got tired of me being so adamant about this, and in their good-natured way would start to tell me that they too thought I was special. Special needs, that was.

Looking back, if I’d used all that time spent on telling people how special or unique I was on something more productive I might have gotten an extra leg up the employment pool-ladder I’m struggling to latch my ungainly feet onto right now. But I’m not not proud of the old me – it was the perfect preparation for other bits of me to get to where I am now. I’m proud that it was once a part of me, but I’m happy that it’s no longer there.

Looking back even more, I wish I’d taken a hint or two from old mid-2000s Sum Sze. Because in trying to become a better writer, a better journalist, a better everything – it’s taken me a long time to come back all the way full circle to realise that the secret to being good at creative stuff is to be unique.

Here are some examples:

  • The magazine I up until recently used to edit had great content – but amongst our best was an extended trip up to Bangor (that’s in North Wales) to interview an ex-ghost therapist. Or exorcist, as some people have called him.
  • The newspaper I help to produce has had some amazing stories this year – and amongst the best are those about our students’ union, their misbehaviours, and our students.
  • My partner has won quite a few national awards for his journalistic work, but some of his most widely recognised pieces are about his own experiences of homelessness, or mental health issues.

What all of these have in common is that they are exclusive in some way. Nobody else could have reported on any of these things better than these people, because they were in the best position to do so. Quench is the source of all things weird, wacky, and things that take a lot of words to express; that applies to the ex-ghost therapist story. Gair Rhydd is the official informant and unofficial scrutiniser of all the bodies that affect the student population. And though my partner is not the only one to have experienced such a harrowing lifestyle, he is one of the only ones who has the technical capability to make others understand how that life feels.

If you’re a social theory geek (like me), think of it as a bit like Bourdieu’s theory of capital, habitus and field, except it doesn’t necessarily apply to the individual.

So, in order for myself to become better at this stuff, I just have to be more unique. Great.

Where to start?