If you wander around a second hand book shop and start leafing through old history textbooks you will rapidly notice that history used to be nothing but stories about men with beards and top hats. Looking back on this state of affairs, we can now see that one of the reasons for this is that people naturally tend to gravitate towards stories that interest them on a personal level. Because of this, bearded men wound up writing books about other bearded men to the point where history became nothing but a collection of stories about bearded men (with or without top hats). This pattern did not change until the demographics of university education began to change and an influx of non-white, non-male students created a generation of non-white, non-male historians who reached professional maturity in the 1960s.
Given that human nature had not evolved and people still tended to gravitate towards stories that affect them on a personal level, this new generation of historians found it difficult to devote themselves to the writing of books about white men with beards. So, instead of writing books about people who looked like pre-War historians, this new generation began writing books about people who looked like them, people who were non-white and non-male. However, because the social forces that determine the shape of history tended to act against the emergence of powerful non-white, non-male figures, historians either shifted their focus away from the West or away from power politics and onto the realities of daily life for disenfranchised folk, the kind of folk that bearded male historians tended to ignore. The result of this second approach was the creation of the movement that is now referred to as the New Social History.
One of the unexpected side effects of social history was its impact upon popular culture. For example, if you look at the speculative fiction of the pulp and post-War eras, what you will find are a lot of stories about square-jawed heroes solving engineering problems and shooting aliens in the face. However, under the influence of second wave feminism and the demographic shift in higher education, more and more women began writing speculative fiction that was in tune with the precepts of social history, fiction that explored gender roles and focused on the lives of the women who did not go out and conquer the galaxy. Pioneers of this sort of fiction include Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ.
While the meaning of the term ‘feminist SF’ has shifted considerably over the years, the connection between women writers and social history has never quite disappeared and, to this day, chances are that if you encounter a work that explores the realities of life for disenfranchised people, that work will be written by a woman or a member of a disenfranchised ethnic or sexual group. This connection even crosses cultural and national boundaries as I would argue it also holds true for the creators of manga.
While creators such as Fumi Yoshinaga, You Higuri and Kaoru Mori all possess very different styles and operate within different literary traditions, all three women share a deep fascination with the grit of social history. Though extremely prolific across a number of forms, Mori is best known for her series Emma and Shirley, which chronicle the lives of English maids in period settings. Mori’s latest project marks something of a departure for its author as rather than telling the story of an English maid, Mori has decided to tell the story of a central Asian bride and her new family. Only two volumes of A Bride’s Story have thus far been translated but even so, the intelligence and devotion of Mori’s work is evident in both her words and her images. A Bride’s Story is a dazzling tour of another world and another culture.
The series begins by introducing us to Amir, a twenty-year old woman from a nomadic tribe who has recently been married into a more sedentary clan. Amir’s status as an outsider to the clan makes her a fascinating choice of protagonist as it allows Mori to introduce us to the world of Amir’s new clan while also showing us the reflection of Amir’s nomadic upbringing in the surprised faces of her new family members. Anchoring this floating viewpoint is the figure of Smith, a western anthropologist whose status as an outsider to both Amir’s culture and that of her in-laws allows us to realise the tensions between these two very different sets of values. By providing us with not one but three separate perspectives on the world of the 19th Century Silk Road, Mori gives us both the subjective insight of how that world feels and the objective distance required to not judge these cultures simply because they are different to our own.
This need to refrain from judging the characters is called upon almost from the first page as Amir is revealed to be the wife of Karluk, a twelve year-old boy. Had this manga been created by a man then chances are that Karluk would have been a kind of aspirational figure in that he is essentially a kid who is about to enter puberty with access to an impossibly gorgeous 20 year-old wife. However, while Mori does allow her married couple a good deal of physical intimacy, it is clear that Karluk is still too young to ‘appreciate’ Amir as a woman and so she serves as a kind of idealised big sister, a figure who is immensely supportive and caring towards her husband but without ever looking down on him or smothering his independence. Indeed, the dynamic of the relationship is effectively that Amir is an accomplished woman and so Karluk is forced to become an accomplished man in order to be worthy of her love. This dynamic is beautifully captured in a scene in the second volume when Karluk stabs a man who is attempting to abduct Amir. Both guilt-ridden and quietly impressed, Amir suddenly realises that her husband is a man and so decides to ‘up her game’ and over-compensates by going out and hunting down a deer in order to prove that she is worthy of his affection. This shifting power dynamic not only ensures that the relationship never feels creepy, it also makes for a deeply affecting and unusual love story.
Though the relationship between Amir and Karluk provides the emotional core of A Bride’s Story, the real meat of the series lies in its exploration of life on the Silk Road.
Much of the series’ foreground is dominated by episodes exploring different facets of steppe life. For example, the second volume opens with a sequence set in the local bakery. Rather than having an oven in every home, the townspeople have one centralised set of ovens that are used collectively to cook bread. As Mori suggests, these collective means of food production turn cooking into a social act that brings the community together. On the one hand, this means that the local women get the chance to socialise whenever they bake but, on the other hand, this social cooking means that the different women find themselves competing to produce more and more elaborately-decorated loaves of bread. Initially, I looked upon this as quite a neat patriarchal trick: have one kitchen per house and the women-folk will only work to impress their household, have one kitchen per village and the women-folk will work to impress the entire village. Thus men get to not only save on the cost of building lots of ovens, they also get the benefits of peer-pressure in the form of better food. However, the more I thought about this phenomenon, the more it occurred to me that it is just as present in the west.
Consider the following: You are invited to dinner at someone’s home. That person not only grows a lot of their own produce, they also make all of their own food from scratch. Now… what are the chances that you will go home at the end of the evening without being told that a) the person who invited you cooked everything from scratch and b) they grew all the vegetables themselves? My guess is that this simply does not happen because if people make stuff themselves, they take pride in it and they share that pride with anyone who will listen. This is human nature. Thus, the fact that Mori’s central Asian women take pride in their bread making is not a sign of their submission to patriarchal values, it is evidence that the stream of human nature flows into many different pools. Steppe women place elaborate designs on their bread and middle-class American people boast about how easy it is to make a cheese soufflé. While middle-class dinner parties may seem like a strange thing to be discussing in a piece about a Japanese comic, the truth is that it is in these little moments that the beauty of A Bride’s Story reveals itself to us. Like many great works of travel writing, A Bride’s Story depicts an alien culture in terms so evocative that it forces us to reflect more deeply upon our own culture. This is a series about exploring the unknown and discovering the familiar.
Mori’s devotion to the minute detail of life on the Central Asian steppe is evident in the amount of work that has gone into the series’ artwork. Much of Central Asian culture seems to revolve around the production of what we in the West would call craft objects: clothes, carpets, wooden shutters and fabrics. Each of these are produced by hand and feature astonishingly intricate patterns and designs, designs that Mori reproduces on every page of the comic. Indeed, a first glance at the artwork in A Bride’s Story reveals composition and character design which, though competent, is actually a little bit dull. There are a few moments of artistic brilliance when Mori tells a story through evocative imagery rather than words but these are frequently hit and miss and a climactic battle scene lacks drama precisely because of Mori’s artistic limitations. However, look beyond the foreground figures and action to the background and you will find some of the most astonishingly detailed and complex artwork ever seen in comics. The eye is naturally drawn to the faces of Mori’s characters but look beyond these simple shapes to the designs on their clothes and you will see hundreds of hours of eye-straining artistry, artistry that proves Mori’s utter devotion and commitment to the minute details of life on the Mongolian steppe.
Mori also does a wonderful job of explaining why we should care about embroidery and how to build a yurt. Her case is made in a storyline involving one of the youngest characters in the clan. Though still a child, this character is approaching marriageable age and so the women of the clan take her under their wings and begin to work on her as a potential wife for another clan, a clan whose power and prestige might be joined to that of Amir and Karluk through an arranged marriage. Evidently, one of the things that can secure a profitable union is the skill of the potential bride. Suddenly aware that little Tileke has been running around without showing much interest in anything womanly, the women-folk of the clan decide to encourage her to sew. Unfortunately, Tileke refuses to sew anything other than stylised hawks. In order to encourage her to broaden her horizons, the women of the clan explain why these kinds of skills have value.
Mori presents the people of the Central Asian steppe as functionally illiterate. While Smith occasionally mentions languages and books, it is clear that the people of the clan never read and seldom (if ever) write. As a result, knowledge is passed down orally and through learned skill. When Tileke claims to not understand why she needs to sew, the women of the clan pull out a collection of embroidered tapestries and show how different levels of skill produced different levels of marriage and how different levels of marriage resulted in more or less enjoyable lives. The clan’s store of tapestries is not just a collection of valuable craft objects, it is also a history of the family as the different objects show who was a good seamstress and who wasn’t and how particularly good seamstresses evolved the family’s store of designs, thereby adding to the potential skillset of future generations of women. This is a powerful metaphorical image for the evolution of culture and how the fortunes of families can change over time. Far more than mere beautiful objects, the tapestries and shutters depicted in the pages of A Bride’s Storyare the sum total of generations of work by very accomplished women. We should care about these objects because generations of women lived and died for these objects. Indeed, the story of Tileke learning to sew stands on its own as a powerful argument for the social approach to history.
With so much of the series given over to detailing Mongolian culture and the relationship between Amir and Turluk, it is perhaps unavoidable that many of the secondary characters can seem rather thinly drawn. Indeed, there are times when Mori simply resorts to the use of stock characters as in the case of the bumbling anthropologist Smith and the spunky matriarch. However, woven around these cookie-cutter creations are some beautifully low-key moments of human insight. For example, when Amir first visits the town’s ovens, she makes friends with a woman named Pariya whose reputation for cheekiness has thus far resulted in her remaining single. Mori portrays Pariya as someone whose personality has been called into question so many times that she is crippled by self-doubt. However, rather than portraying Pariya as a victim of oppressive social values, Mori presents her as someone who simply cannot help but be herself. Indeed, whenever Amir asks Pariya a question, Pariya pauses before shouting out her response. The pause indicates an extended period of self-censorship: Should I be saying this? How will she react if I do say this? Am I being cheeky again? However, despite these doubts Pariya’s forceful personality eventually erupts as though breaking free from social oppression.
The case of Pariya forms something of a test-case for the series’ attitudes towards women. Make no mistake about it, the women of Central Asia are not in any way feminists and the culture they live in is utterly un reconstructed. These women are born into a set of expectations and, no matter how awesome they may be, they are not permitted to question the validity of these expectations. As a result, the series shows us women making the most of what are really quite shitty and depressing lives. There is something deeply tragic in Pariya’s skill with baked goods… here are objects of art that will be simply torn up and shoved into a bearded face. She will never be hailed as an artist and she will never open her own boutique bakery. She will live and die in the same sort of way that women have been living and dying for centuries on the Asian steppes.
Given Mori’s obvious love of the culture, it would have been easy for her to issue a blank cheque to her Mongolians and to embark on some misguided piece of cultural relativism whereby we the audience are expected to forgive the Mongolians for their unenlightened views. However, rather than falling into this trap or the trap of high-handed moral outrage, Mori steers a delicate path towards understanding that lionises these accomplished women while also making it clear that their lives are kind of awful. This awfulness is evident in the plotline where Amir’s old family decide to kidnap her in order to marry her to a more powerful clan. Similarly awful is the fact that this more powerful clan have a reputation for beating unruly women to death.
Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story is best apprehended as a piece of historical and geographical travel writing in which a modern Japanese woman travels to early 20th Century Central Asia and explores the details of its culture. Like any piece of literature written about one culture by a member of a different culture, there are questions of morality and appropriation that need to be asked. Mori mostly answers these questions by celebrating life on the steppes while acknowledging quite how shockingly alien and unfair that life could be. While a lot is made of the ethics of depicting alien cultures, my feeling is that travel writing, like all forms of writing is always produced from a particular perspective. Objective truth is the sole preserve of the hard sciences. As such, we should look upon A Bride’s Story as an impression of a particular culture filtered both through the eyes of a Japanese women and through the demands of the Japanese comics scene. Would real Mongolians enjoy gently burgeoning and chaste love stories? Would real brides be so impossibly lovely and accomplished that their clan would not hesitate for a second before fighting to the death in order to defend them? Possibly not but Mori’s stories are beautifully told and sensitively embedded in a culture that she clearly both loves and respects. At the end of the day, if you want the truth about the Asian steppe, go and visit it yourselves… just don’t expect to encounter any gorgeous 20 year-olds with devoted 12 year-old husbands.
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.