By Jason S. Yadao
From the Pile is a regular feature in which we profile something at random from our large pile of yet-to-be-reviewed anime and manga. Believe us, we’ve been in this game for several years now and have had only limited space in the print edition to share all our thoughts, so there’s quite a bit of catch-up work to do on our backlog. This time, there’s also a special tie-in for our commentary: this month’s Manga Moveable Feast profile of Kaoru Mori’s Emma and its maid-themed offspring … including today’s profile. So without further ado …
Today’s profile: Shirley (single volume)
Suggested age rating: Teen 13+
As tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. noted in her profile of Emma in 2008, manga artist Kaoru Mori loves her Victorian-era fashion and her maid stories. While Mori was in the midst of working on Emma, though, she also drew an unrelated story, this time about a maid working in turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. That story, released in 2003 in Japan, was Shirley.
The titular character is Shirley Madison, a 13-year-old who shows up one day at the doorstep of cafe owner Bennet Cranley with the hope that she’ll hire her as her maid. Bennet’s hesitant at first about hiring someone as young as Shirley — she meant to include a minimum age requirement in her ad but forgot — but Shirley’s earnestness (and her confidence that she can make a lovely pigeon pate and tipsy cake) convince her to make the hire. (As if there was any doubt by looking at the cover … that ain’t exactly a bunny costume Shirley’s wearing there.)
Several compelling mysteries develop as the story progresses. Here we have a girl, apparently orphaned, who shows up out of nowhere with the skills and sensibilities of a mature maid and takes it rather hard when she messes up. We also have a woman in Bennett who’s still happily independently single at the age of 28, despite the efforts of the obligatory meddling aunt who wants to hook her up with a nice young man. There’s so much potential here for Mori to explore these mysteries further, to really develop and flesh out her characters and their relationships.
And it’s pretty much wasted.
Just when I was getting into the story of Shirley and Bennett, it ended. Or, to be more accurate, their story abruptly stops about 125 pages into the book, the focus veering away to a few of Mori’s other short stories (about maids, naturally). Want to know more about Shirley and Bennet? Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait and see if anyone translates the two-part Shirley story that Mori’s drawing for Fellows! magazine starting April 15. Whether it will tie up the loose ends introduced here is debatable. It makes me wonder about the story’s original Japanese serialization and whether Mori intentionally left the story open-ended or she was forced to stop because she was either too busy with Emma or her host anthology suspended its publication.
In retrospect, I should have realized that the book’s covers were giving me a big clue of what to expect inside. You’ve already seen the front cover at the top of this post; here’s what the back cover looks like:
Meet the maid Nellie, a boy referred to only as the “young master” and his mom, the main players in the completely-unrelated-to-Shirley-and-Bennett short story “Me and Nellie and One Afternoon.” It’s your typical coming-of-age story, where the boy learns about life and death and why girls are cool. “Mary Banks,” in which the titular maid puts up with an elderly prankster as her master, rounds out the book.
What we end up with is a volume in which the first half has unfulfilled potential and the second half has competent and complete (but hardly memorable) stories. I chatted with Wilma while writing this review, and she added a few thoughts: She felt “Me and Nellie” was good, but “Mary Banks” was her favorite story. Those two stories, she said, were better than the Shirley arc in its entirety. She also said something that sums up my feelings quite nicely: “It was okay but not overly great, just more ‘maid’ stories. It was kinda cute and touching, as I remember it. But becuse it was really just about, well, a GIRL, without any real INTERACTIONS, I found it a tad boring.”
Bonus Manga Moveable Feast coverage: While I was chatting with Wilma about Shirley, she also shared a few thoughts with me about Emma vols. 8-10. Those of you who followed the link to her 2008 Emma review will note that she only covered the main story arc of vols. 1-7, which were the only volumes out at the time. The last three volumes contained mostly short stories like those in Shirley, except more explicitly tied into the Emma universe. Yet save for a an appearance in vol. 10 to wrap up the story, Emma hardly appears — an absence that Wilma felt hurt those volumes. “They really had little to do with ANYTHING,” Wilma told me. “I get the feeling that Mori did them just because she wanted to keep drawing Victorian England without having a real story in mind.” So there you go.