Kaoru Mori is, perhaps above all else, consistent. That consistency, both for the high quality of her works and her particular fascination with women, have earned her manga a well-deserved reputation as a must-read for anyone interested in the medium.
What particular fascinations, you ask? Well, maids, for one. Let’s start with maids.
One of the first things that becomes apparent in any examination of Mori’s work is that she certainly has a thing for maids—namely, historically accurate Victorian ones. Though the adulation might not be as sexual in nature as a fetish, in light of her love for floor-length skirts and high collars, she’s undeniably passionate about them.
Mori got her start creating doujinshi (self-published works) under the self-explanatory penname Lady Maid. When she was later scouted by publisher Enterbrain! and began serializing her first non-doujin manga Emma in 2001, it also featured a maid as its protagonist. Add the fact that she would later return to Shirley, the manga she had started as Lady Maid, and that many of her one-shot stories feature maids, and her fascination becomes undeniable.
It’s not just the uniform that interests Mori either. It’s everything surrounding Victorian era maids. Mori wrote that her first impression was “having a young woman who was in charge of everything was great!” in her commentary on the first chapter of Shirley—a series that follows the daily life of its eponymous thirteen-year-old maid, who works in the home of café owner Ms. Bennett. This appeal shows perhaps more strongly in Shirley than anywhere else.
There is a great deal of attention and care paid to the minutia of the young maid’s work. Whether it’s delivering a wallet her mistress forgot or struggling to close windows during a storm, one gets the impression that Mori simply has a genuine fascination with maids of that era and their duties.
This fascination carries over into her other works. Emma, a Victorian romance between maid Emma and young aristocrat William, devotes less time to meticulous depictions of household tasks (on account of having an actual plot) but still features an intelligent, competent, and thoroughly admirable maid as its protagonist. Even Mori’s goofy one-shot about a butler and maid searching for a master—through the method of home invasion—doesn’t skimp on the details of the uniform.
Mori’s dedication to historical accuracy doesn’t just apply to maid uniforms. She has a love of place that shows through in every line of her impossibly detailed, exhaustively researched settings. The Victorian England of Shirley and Emma seems to be her first love, with recreations of many actual locations in London such as the Crystal Palace and Covent Garden. Mori even went so far as to hire a historical consultant for later volumes of Emma to ensure accuracy.
However, her most striking settings might be those of A Bride’s Story, which follows the daily lives of a number of young brides or brides-to-be across 19th century Central Asia. The manga shares Shirley’s dedication to depicting the step-by-step processes of daily life, only instead of housework, A Bride’s Story devotes whole chapters to embroidery, hunting, food, war, and—of course—the marriage traditions of half a dozen societies, all in gorgeously illustrated spreads.
Mori’s love and respect for the setting is clear. It’s very nearly an anthropological document, considering the extensive list of references at the back of every volume. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say there’s no one else in the manga medium, possibly in any medium, who does period pieces the way she does.
Perhaps the one area in which Mori’s works break from strict adherence to historical accuracy is in their depictions of romantic relationships. Though one might expect a certain amount of sexism based on the time periods in which A Bride’s Story and Emma are set, they’re largely absent, with relationships instead being characterized by a tender warmth.
There are glimpses of patriarchy here and there, such as when Amir’s family wants to break her marriage to her new husband Karluk for political reasons in A Bride’s Story, or when William’s aristocratic family refuses to so much as consider letting him marry a member of the lower classes. However, the relationships the series focus on are by and large happy and healthy.
There are moments of initial awkward fumbling—these are stories about young couples, after all—but they always eventually settle into a comfortable balance. Furthermore, with both parties holding a great deal of respect and affection for one another, the couples always feel as though they’re on equal footing.
Even cases that could easily fall into risky territory are handled with an expert touch. For instance, Amir (20) is eight years older than Karluk (12) when they first marry. It’s the sort of age gap that might easily get shot down outof hand as “problematic,” but Mori does not fetishize their relationship, nor does she characterize either member as taking advantage of the other.
The fact that they steer clear of physical intimacy for a long while helps—Mori tends to keep typical displays of romantic intimacy to a minimum in general, and avoids anything sexual almost entirely. But more than that, it’s the simple fact that they’re always written as two young people who like each other and are gradually falling in love.
However, it’s not just heterosexual romantic relationships that interest Mori. She’s always put a great deal of care and attention into relationships between women as well.
In A Bride’s Story, the relationships between the brides and their male partners may receive top billing, but they’re treated as no less important than those between them and the other women in their lives, whether it’s friends or family, blood-relatives or in-laws. This is the case in her other works as well. She simply enjoys depicting the relationships women form, whether familial, romantic, or otherwise.
The relationship between Shirley and Ms. Bennett might be the most complex of the relationships she’s depicted, by virtue of being one of the main focuses of the manga. It’s hard to put a name on what kind of relationship they share; first and foremost they are maid and mistress, but they also sometimes seem like older and younger sisters, or mother and daughter, or even just friends.
One could even read Shirley’s clear admiration for Ms. Bennett as young love. Suffice to say they’re important to one another, and Shirley captures not only the appeal of having a cute, earnest young maid, but the appeal of serving as a maid to a beautiful older woman.
Mori even brings in a lesbian relationship: the “marriage of sisterhood” featured in A Bride’s Story. It’s rare enough to see romantic relationships between women in works that aren’t specifically marketed as yuri, let alone in a historically accurate depiction, and the inclusion of a different sort of bride was a welcome surprise.
It’s also worth noting that this is perhaps the most implicitly erotic relationship present in Mori’s work. While it doesn’t break the trend of eschewing depictions of physical intimacy, this only serves to highlight the level of chemistry present between the two women, conveyed through looks and framing. If the heterosexual relationships of A Bride’s Story are about the pleasant awkwardness of young love, the lesbian one is about the realization of budding desire.
This is perhaps the crux of Mori’s oeuvre: she really, really loves women, in every possible meaning of the phrase. She loves strong, intelligent, competent female protagonists, she loves the ways in which women care for and support each other, and she loves to draw women who are cute or beautiful or cool.
Sometimes she likes to draw them in swimsuits, or bunny girl outfits, or naked. Her one-shot collection, Anything and Something, is filled with this sort of appreciation. While this might seem like a jarring contrast to her usual work, appearing to cater to the straight male gaze, Mori has always been an artist who draws the things that capture her enthusiasm.
One of those things just happens to be the female form, and the shorter, context-light format of one-shots allows her to indulge in this in a different way than her longer works. Moreover, the women these bodies belong to are presented first and foremost as people—whether they’re the mysterious proprietress of a bunny girl club or a woman reminiscing to her husband about their honeymoon.
Kaoru Mori is a mangaka who has achieved wide success and critical acclaim writing about the things she loves, whether it’s maids, lush historical settings, tender and caring relationships, women as a whole, or—most often—all of the above. Perhaps this is why her work is such a pleasure to read: Mori’s enthusiasm for the material fills every page, and it’s impossible not to be pulled along.
While her work may not be the most ambitious in terms of narrative, the stunning art and detailed research—to say nothing of the sheer delight of reading them—more than makes up for it. If you haven’t discovered her work yet, both Emma and A Bride’s Story are licensed in English. I highly recommend giving them a try. You’ll be swept away before you know it.