After reading the complete manga on which Emma is based, I’m rather surprised at how disappointed I was with the manga. The anime makes some substantive changes, and with two (or three, depending on taste) exceptions they’re very much for the better.
It’s interesting to note that the first two books of Emma cover the entire first season of the anime; the subsequent five—one of which is extra-thick to boot—cover the second season. This says something about how slow the anime is for the first season, taking its leisurely time establishing the main characters, their innocent, halting romance, and the people around them. For those who prefer a somewhat punchier story, the manga will be preferable in this section—it certainly feels more lively. It also makes a difference that when you spend three pages on Emma taking her glasses off and getting ready for bed, you can skim past it in a few seconds; that takes quite a bit longer in real-time onscreen.
Personally while I liked the somewhat livelier manga pacing, I did appreciate the mellow, wistful feel of the anime. The other substantive difference is that the anime spends noticeably more time establishing Elanor (and William’s siblings), which gives you a better hook into them once they become more central to the plot. It also gives Emma and William’s relationship more time to flow along in happily vague terms before reality hits hard, giving more punch to things once they do go bad.
The second season is quite similar to the manga through about book five, but takes a drastically different path at that point. This is where I would say the anime also does a much better job with the characters. The manga introduces a kidnapping plot, travel to America, and then a comparatively slow non-segue into a real relationship in its final two volumes. Now, if you’ve only seen the anime, your reaction might be like mine when this was mentioned to me: “Kidnapping plot?! Say what?”
The thing with the anime version is that it is romance and drama, not melodrama—it maintains a remarkably grounded, real, and oh-so-British feel right through the big extremely-indirect showdown with the Campbell family. It never once resorts to histrionics or cliche plots—there is indirect political scheming and business dealing in addition to very low-key manners of the heart. The manga, in contrast, pulls out most of the penny dreadful stops, tossing in a kidnapping, several tearful, screamy scenes, and and oddly drawn-out wind down that is caught somewhere between epilogue and finale. This isn’t inherently bad—there’s emotional impact to a lot of it, and I like the firmer emotional connection to Emma’s friend Tasha—but in contrast to the anime, and indeed the rest of the manga, it seems overblown.
The anime, in place of this physical separation—and the implied emotional separation—goes with a much more real segment of Emma merely avoiding William, which in a way is actually more effective from the standpoint of an emotional connection you can empathize with.
The other interesting change is more subtle; because the manga doesn’t put any effort at all into establishing any alternate romantic tension, there’s really no question at all how it’s going to turn out. Elanor, in the anime, really does have a substantial amount of innocent appeal, where she’s rather underdeveloped in the manga; Hans is barely even present in the manga, let alone any kind of romantic rival. Since in the anime both Emma and William have appealing alternate options, you wonder if maybe they couldn’t just move on and forget their feelings for each other. Thus, when the two big emotional scenes—which again are far more low-key than the manga—roll around (first the ball where they see each other again, and then the fire at the end, which is a minor event much earlier in the manga), they have much more impact. You feel the repressed heartache and share in the elation that much more when you aren’t entirely sure where things are going.
On the same note, the manga is quite explicit almost from the start of the post-Emma period in which William is playing perfect son that it is, indeed, an act. The anime doesn’t tip its hand near as obviously, leaving you wondering if maybe William really has moved on, again heightening the impact when he lays eyes on Emma—the shot of him coming to meet her in her room afterward is quite good in the manga, but more powerfully romantic in the anime, where you suddenly feel the repression much more strongly.
The end is also quite a bit different; the manga choses to leave things on a relatively clear path—and oddly chummy with the two parental women in the story—but very much unfinished, while the anime builds to a much more traditional moment-of-truth crescendo, followed by a brief, far more satisfying epilogue. While I appreciate the up-in-the-air nature of the manga’s tack, the end seems to trail off more than grip as finale, since it already hit the big moment several chapters earlier. While you can also call the uncomfortable point at which William’s relationship with his father and siblings is left realistic, it honestly feels more unfinished, like Mori (the author/artist) didn’t want to bother figuring out how things work out. Then there’s that it has gone much farther in establishing William’s father as a villain, having had a somewhat-willing part in Emma’s kidnapping, which it doesn’t follow up on at all. There’s also the peril that, when you establish a much more blunt villain, lacking any denouement at all seems unsatisfying; in the anime, since Campbell’s plot is distant and comparatively abstract, you can accept a somewhat low-key, political foiling of it and the related implication of his shame as comeuppance. In the manga, if he’s going to do something blatantly criminal like have thugs kidnap a woman and haul her off to America, you rather expect a little more than it just not working as backlash for it.
The manga does do one thing notably better, which is the relationship between the two older couples in the story, William’s parents and the Molders (oddly changed to Meredith in the CMX English manga translation). The latter, being German, are more openly romantic and attached to each other than the British characters, something the anime implied but didn’t really show in any detail. This would have taken no extra screen time, so it was an unfortunate omission. I also much preferred its handling of the absentee Mrs. Jones and her husband’s relationship. Both versions make clear that they are still husband and wife, but that she lives elsewhere due to being unable to cope with stifling society. Where the manga does eventually show them talking and doing things together (and her with her younger children) on occasion, she pointedly stays away from all of the above in the anime for no particular reason that is explained. Given that the change wouldn’t have taken any time or interfered with any of the story, this was again an odd change.
There were three other bits in the final portion of the manga that I liked very much that didn’t make the anime. One couldn’t have carried over; having Emma’s confident determination to get back on her feet after being dumped penniless in America was a nice bit about her personality—almost enough to offset her being rather weepier and emotionally weaker in the later parts of the manga relative to her quiet strength in the anime.
The second also would have been difficult to work into the different plot flow of the anime, though from a symbolic standpoint it was subtly beautiful: William finally takes Emma to get a new pair of glasses. Since it had been established that she was attached to her glasses despite not being able to see all that well with them anymore, having her relent and allow him to replace them (or at least the lenses) with ones that let her see the world—and, as the manga depicted it, William himself—more clearly was a symbolic acceptance of wanting more for herself, and taking a further step away from the past and into a new life. Maybe it comes of knowing what it’s like to have a too-weak glasses prescription, but I kept wondering when she’d get that dealt with, and it was a powerful enough image that it would have been nice to have worked this into the anime somehow.
The third was a wonderful, almost wordless scene with Elanor being drawn out of her melancholy by three Indian girls her wacky sister brought back as retainers, who go about miming her facial expressions. That could have worked in the anime—and in fact, due to her being a more substantial character there, would have probably had more impact—but I can see why it was left out both for time and that it avoided introducing more than a quick bit of her sister traipsing off to India. Monica’s doting-if-wussy husband was a fun aside that also would’ve broken up the flow.
The manga also established a nice language barrier between the German Molders family and their original household staff and the new English hires, but it would have been too complicated to handle the same in the anime without either bilingual actors or a lot of contortions to keep you up on who was speaking what language when—square speech bubbles are rather easier.
Looking at the manga itself, the art is simple and unassuming, but has a very nice feel to everything—both the reserved-yet-elegant character designs (you really have to love Mr. Campbell’s face) and the pleasant, true-to-life backgrounds (uncommonly detailed compared to a lot of shoujo manga). The art improves somewhat through the run of the manga, and it’s surprisingly pleasing to the eye for something that isn’t in the least bit flashy or obviously eye-catching. The character designs and soft-yet-lived-in feel of the environments carried through well into the anime, though the manga somewhat surprisingly had a lot more nudity. (Exclusively, as you might guess, Mrs. Molders and some of her German household staff, what with their improprietous, unashamed dress and bathing habits—the same thing was established in the anime as well when a single scene in which Mrs. Molders showed more skin than the entire first season combined, but without any actual nudity.)
(On the topic of uninhibited Germans, there were a couple of bits with two of the more reserved Molders maids that seemed to be hinting that one was unsuccessfully flirting with the other; I’ve chosen to assume it was just them being chummy in their aloof way so as not to introduce a bucket of additional shoujo stereotypes, but I am curious what the original intent was.)
In all I did very much enjoy the manga, and some of the different directions it took the characters in were as pleasing as experiencing the scenes that were the same again. That said, the sharp melodramatic turn it takes toward the end seems so much less grounded and realistic than the early parts that, while enjoyable, it just doesn’t feel like it fits properly. The slightly more traditional, yet also more reserved, realistic, and British, finale of the anime has both more tension and a more satisfying conclusion, and frankly fits quite a bit better with the rest of the setting, story, and characters. The manga gets a slightly hesitant recommendation, while the anime I can speak of with far less reservation, and given its improvements with the tension, I’d recommend watching it first if you want to enjoy both. It’s nice, I must say, when the animation team actually brings something better to the table rather than taking something away.