Hugh David asks: why do we get Downton Abbey but not Emma?
Fans of K-On! The Movie’s lovely and realistic vision of London may not be aware that in between that film and Steamboy’s loving depiction of a steampunk-era Manchester and London rests a show that is as accurate as either, and yet is also arguably the most English anime show ever made. Yet it still cannot be bought on DVD in the UK itself. How has this state of affairs come about?
In 2005, well before the current UK TV costume drama revival, Japanese animation was, as usual, ahead of the curve. Victorian Romance Emma debuted on TV, adapting Kaoru Mori’s exquisite 2002 manga into a first season of 12 episodes. Emma begins as a beggar, taken in and scrubbed up by Mrs Stownar, a retired governess who makes her a housemaid in late 19th-century England. But Emma the happy home-maker has her head turned by a gentleman caller, William Jones, a handsome man who was once one of Kelly’s pupils. William and Emma feel an instant attraction, although the path to true love is unlikely to be smooth—William is a member of one of the wealthiest merchant families in England, whereas Emma is a mere maid. As such, the couple might as well be from different worlds, and that’s before William’s friend Hakim, a bona fide Indian prince, arrives and falls for Emma himself.
The manga already felt like a series built by someone who had watched every possible British costume drama ever, but in the best possible sense of homage to them. Emma herself was just different enough from the type of Victorian maid character seen in countless fictions before, given an inner strength and self-belief that suggests her children would follow in the footsteps of the Suffragettes. In that sense she is a more traditional anime heroine, but appropriately written for the setting, and the anime brought her and the setting to life brilliantly.
The understanding and portrayal of the various classes may seem a little on the nose, but are positively subtle compared to current shows on air. Despite the beauty and polish on display, there is enough grit in the mix to remind viewers of how terrible the times were for so many people in England, the sheer grinding poverty under industrialisation and the horrors wrought by urbanisation. If one’s heart is not tugged at by the little match girl desperately trying to make a sale, by the implications of that, then made of stone must your heart be. Emma’s sympathy and understanding of those less fortunate than her is at distinct odds with how many of these dramas choose to wallow in the lifestyles of the rich and famous, ignoring the brutal Victorian reality for millions. In short, it was the perfect series to release in the UK, especially if it could be dubbed locally.
This is where the unfortunate facts of industry life got in the way. With the desire to make a second season the driving factor, the original licensor was asking $30,000 per episode as a minimum guarantee for the US and UK licenses combined. No company could expect to make that back from a show that, in anime terms, was niche. A shame, as with the right dub (possibly via a TV sale to the BBC), the audience for Victorian Romance Emma was much wider than just anime fans. It would be years before a lovely subtitled US release would be made affordably, via taking pre-orders first to reach the production minimum; but no DVD can be had in the land of Emma herself.
Currently, Victorian Romance Emma is only available to UK PS3 and PS4 users to download or stream via the TV section of the PlayStation Network.