I reached the final episode of Emma recently, and thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. The first season is among the mellowest anime I’ve ever seen; an entire episode can be occupied by a single date or an outing and corresponding conversations. Traditional shoujo—in the sense of unrelenting melodrama—this series is not. It is, rather, a fine romance. Not weepy romance, or tragic romance, or flowers-in-the-background and sparkling eyes romance, or romantic comedy—real, live romance about real-seeming people with low-key personalities having a low-key, romantic relationship.
Certainly, it’s got the Victorian England thing going on. I won’t call it 100% historically accurate, but there’s a noticeable effort put toward the setting, class issues, and the general sense of reserve and propriety. Among the best things in this department are some episodes that show each of the two romantic leads—Emma, a very reserved, hardworking maid, and William, the eldest son of a very wealthy merchant family—going about their daily lives. Emma’s day consists of cooking, cleaning, going to market, and generally doing menial, manual labor. It’s neither glorified nor overdramatized—she does hard, dirty jobs along with things more fitting with the maid image, but it’s never depicted as being some sort of cruel burden.
William, on the other hand, does work, but he also attends lavish, opulent social events, lives in an estate with suitably upper-crust leisure activities, and certainly never gets near a household chore. The series will show one then the other to drive home just how different their lives and social positions are without insulting either, or even being particularly harsh to judge the fact that such a difference exists.
Not that it’s forgiving of the class striation; William’s family may be rich, but they aren’t born into it and are correspondingly looked down on by many of the “ruling class” that shares the same social circles and level of wealth. Overall it paints an interesting picture of an era not entirely unfamiliar but definitely old-fashioned—the “two Englands” that William’s father warns him of—without getting into any sort of history lesson or overplaying the class warfare angle. I can’t say for sure how accurate it is, but it appears well-researched and believable so far as my knowledge goes. There’s also some nice background flavor showing how the upper class tend to be considerably more reserved and concerned with propriety than the poor, which is good as an illustration that Emma is just very quiet, not necessarily representitive of the average commoner.
The class angle—a wealthy, if not titled, man and servant-class woman in love—provides the bulk of the drama. There’s never much question about whether they have feelings for each other, but the class divide is obvious and painful, and no one around William is willing to even consider such an inappropriate marriage—among the upper crust, marriages are still very much a contract between families, with romance being a pleasant side effect if it happens to occur. Each has a second romantic interest, both of whom are likable characters and, for all outward appearances, a far better match.
Again, it’s a very, very low key affair—it’s less direct competition as “well, this alternate choice wouldn’t be so bad, and he/she may grow on me.” Almost no histrionics whatsoever. In fact, there’s one mildly tragic scene near the end of the first season that could have cut loose with some more raw emotional drama, but instead cuts to silence and lets the emotion show on the characters’ faces rather than having them wailing and screaming—I rather liked that in keeping with the mood.
The second season spices things up a bit all-around, and is where things start fraying around the edges from an emotional standpoint; Emma ends up working for a rich German family who have somewhat less of a sense of class propriety and more of a taste for romance than the British upper crust (those Germans and their scandalous ways!). There’s a scene with the lady of the house in her nightclothes in the first or second episode of the second season that easily exposes more skin than the entire first season combined, and that’s about as close to any sort of eroticism as the series ever gets—the romance is of the most pure kind (not to say that there isn’t chemistry between William and Emma, but the times were more innocent and they are both very reserved people when it comes to such things).
On that note, one of the things I particularly appreciated is that Emma is extremely quiet and private—she simply doesn’t talk about her feelings to other people, nor are we ever let in on any narration past the most basic comments to her diary at the beginning or end of an episode now and then, which only serve as foreshadowing. This leaves you with very little past subtle hints what, exactly, Emma is thinking as she goes through the difficult decisions over how to deal with her feelings versus a situation that, apparently, just can’t work. This leaves a whole lot more drama in the air than there might otherwise have been—I honestly wasn’t sure where the series was headed through a good part of the middle ground, be it low-key tragedy, a tale of love lost and other loves found, or a story of love overcoming all obstacles. The series easily could have done any of the three and had it work, nor was I certain which it was going to be until relatively near the end.
I will say that years ago I read a review of Remains of the Day which commented that while the British do reserved/repressed romance well, Americans like something popping loose at the end, and Emma satisfies on that count. The first season keeps the lid on pretty tightly, but the second opens cracks in the armor and lets a little more passion show through.
Points, incidentally, to Yuumi Touma—that would be Urd’s voice—for turning in a uniformly great performance as Emma: Reserved, pleasant, and with just enough emotion showing through her composed exterior to make you believe that there is, indeed, a lot going on in her head that we just don’t hear.
In the end I can say without reservation that this was one of the most pleasantly romantic—again, actual romance—anime series that I’ve seen. It’s simultaneously sweet, cute, and mature—they are adults, not children—as well as mildly dramatic and tinged with reserved suspense, all set in a sunny but believable Victorian London with an undercurrent of class struggle. Definitely worth your time if you like reserved emotions and genuine romance.