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EDITOR'S NOTE: Everybody be sure to welcome Rachel! She's a fantastic writer I'm bringing in to offer some unique perspective on all this crazy stuff we love so much. I'll let her introduce herself, now...
As an all-around pop culture writer and complete anime novice, it has finally dawned on me that excluding an entire genre of television is not only unfair; it’s a detriment to me! As an avid fan of all things sci-fi and awesome, how can I fully appreciate PACIFIC RIM this summer without having seen NEON GENESIS EVANGELION? And so, with a fresh mindset, I now set out on the lofty task of exploring all that anime has to offer, diving headfirst into the unknown world of giant robots, alternate dimensions and schoolgirl up-skirts...
...and then Tom sent me EMMA: A VICTORIAN ROMANCE for my first foray into that world.
I was under the impression that this was yet another Jane Austen adaptation. OK. The lady’s made a lasting mark on literature and paved a way for female writers, but there’s no denying she recycles her stories a little bit. Still, there have been some fantastic film adaptations of her work, from the ever-faithful PRIDE AND PREJUDICE miniseries that gave us a young, shirtless and seductively grumpy Colin Firth (thank you, Mr. BBC), to an absolute classic, Amy Heckerling’s endlessly-quotable 90's relic, CLUELESS.
Since CLUELESS is clearly the only adaptation of EMMA that anyone needs to see, I had my reservations about an anime version. Luckily (or perhaps, unluckily), EMMA: A VICTORIAN ROMANCE is in no way connected to the book. Though the story takes place amidst a similarly class-fueled romantic drama (in Victorian England, no less), Emma lacks any of the wit and charm that comes with an Austen novel.
On the surface, our leading lady has all the trappings of an Austen heroine. As a maid in an upper-class widow’s household, she’s a mousy little thing who reads by candlelight in her attic room. Underneath those giant spectacles lies a pretty face just waiting to be noticed. Enter William Jones, a fumbling gentleman who crashes (literally) straight into Emma, and her heart. A former pupil of the widow, Mrs. Stowner, William spends his days finding excuses to run into Emma.
Obviously, family expectations and class issues ensue. William’s father and siblings all expect him to marry well, and well in this case means another painfully sweet girl, Eleanor Campbell. Poor Eleanor is that girl, the one who just can’t take a hint. Whether William is buying a parasol, teaching her to play tennis, or simply having a conversation with her, Eleanor sees pretty much any friendly gesture as a sign of true love.
Emma, William and Eleanor are all so dull and polite that each episode drags at a glacial pace. One episode summary best describes the banality of this show: "William teaches Eleanor to play tennis." Seriously. That’s pretty much it. EMMA: A VICTORIAN ROMANCE is sapped of all the fun, flawed characters that its genre usually relies on, leaving only an empty story and a lilting minuet.
The one saving grace is Hakim, the daring Indian prince who’s also set his sights on Emma. (Why anyone would fall for this wet mop of a heroine is anyone’s guess, of course.) A friend of William’s from his travels abroad, Hakim gallivants around London atop a petulant elephant, surrounded by a silent harem of dancing girls. He dares to do what William cannot, and causes quite a ruckus in the Jones’ stoic household. His crush on our lead offers the intrigue of a love quadrant (trapezoid?), and he’s by far the only remotely-appealing character by the season’s halfway point.
It’s a shame that the story is so tedious, because the design of the show is remarkable. Based on the historical romance manga by self-proclaimed Anglophile, Kaoru Mori, EMMA’s art matches 1895 flawlessly. From teapots and doilies to carriages and overflowing street markets, Mori’s London is a meticulously-crafted, fully-realized world.
Unfortunately, that design does nothing to distract from EMMA’s mundane storyline. Everything is nice and neat and simple, even when it’s supposed to be complicated. EMMA: A VICTORIAN ROMANCE is not just sapped of intrigue - - it’s a total snooze.
Rachel Heine is an anime novice, film buff and food blogger based in Los Angeles. She writes and edits for arts & culture online magazine, Buzzine, and runs her own personal blog at PopandSizzle. Follow her Twitter: @RachelHeine