"Otoyome Gatari" (A Bride's Story) is no longer a bridesmaid. After earning second place in manga honors in 2011 and 2013, it clinched the Manga Taisho 2014 top prize earlier this year.
"I feel honoured to be chosen by the voters for my work," manga artist Kaoru Mori said at the award ceremony on March 27. The award is chosen by manga lovers, including bookstore shop clerks and teachers.
Set in Central Asia in the 19th century, the manga depicts the lives and customs of people in an area unfamiliar to Japan, which makes the manga appealing as a travel story.
The first thing that catches the eye in this manga is the neatly-drawn pictures with great attention to detail. Mori said she paid many visits to the National Diet Library and museums to learn about Central Asia, such as embroidery work on clothes and carpets as well as intricate workmanship on ornaments.
"I became interested in Central Asia when I was a middle or high school student and saw crafts from the area at an art museum," she said. "I wanted to draw these things carefully and in detail. I'd be happy if readers felt like they had travelled around countries they've never visited when they read my work."
The grand scale of the multilayered story is also attractive.
The characters are led by Amir, a 20-year-old woman from a nomadic family who marries a boy from a settled family who is 12.
Other characters include Talas, who is forced to remarry after her husband's death, and the twins Laila and Leily who live in a fishing village by the lake and dream about a happy life. While young wives appear as the main characters, there is no single heroine in the story.
Traditions and customs of each region are expressed through the eyes of a British man who travels around Central Asia while doing research in the area. Tribes get involved in bloody conflicts over the right to pastures and other properties. Behind the feud is the Russians' advance southward.
"Conflicts do occur at times through cultural and ethnic differences. But in each and every region people live their daily life, and people's feelings, such as love, are retained. That's also something I wanted to describe," Mori said.
Her previous work, "Emma," which was set in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, revolves around a romance across the class divide. Even if the characters' positions in society are different, their feelings as people are not different. "Otoyome Gatari" carries on the universality of that theme.
The manga, published by Kadokawa Corp., now has six volumes. According to Mori, it will be complete at 12 or 13 volumes, which means the story has just about reached the midway point.
Surprisingly, Mori has never been to any Central Asian countries. "As I've gained some basic knowledge about the region, there must be something I could learn if I go there now," she said, expressing desire to visit the region.
Strong 'otaku' colors
Wataru Oba, editor in chief of the manga magazine Harta that carries "Otoyome Gatari," says a strong so-called "otaku" colour is one of the reasons for the manga's huge popularity.
Apparently, some of the readers strongly support the situation surrounding the married couple Amir and Karluk, who are aged 20 and 12. Karluk grows up as a man under the wings of his older wife.
Works by Mori are not all about "moe," or situations where readers have a crush on a character.
"Mori-sensei possesses an aspect of an otaku similar to intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s, who were very curious individuals," Oba said, pointing to Mori's eagerness to learn about crafts and the history of Central Asia and skillfully incorporate them into her work.