Otoyomegatari (Volumes 1–2): Kaoru Mori

OtoyomegatariHere is a thing you maybe don’t know about me: I like clothes. More specifically, I like fabric. I am the kind of person who gets excited when she is given a ticket to the Textile Museum of Canada (Thanks, K.!). And I’m not talking about clothes as in fashion (although I do enjoy fashion), I’m talking about clothes as art, fabric as a thing of beauty to enjoy and caress. (There is nothing wrong with caressing a particularly beautiful piece of fabric. Or a particularly beautiful book for that matter. It is a natural expression of love for an inanimate object. Quit laughing.) I grew up around fabric. My mom made all our clothes when we were kids, and I spent a lot of time just watching her. For Christmas when I was nine, I got my first sewing machine, a thing I had spent months begging my parents for. There has never been a time in my life where a stack of fabric wasn’t threatening to topple over from at least one shelf.

So with all this new knowledge about me and my brain in mind, it should come as absolutely no surprise that I picked up Otoyomegatari. I had been reading about it here and there before and after its publication in English as A Bride’s Story, but to be honest, I wasn’t really that interested. It sounded fine, probably a decent read, but the mountain of books waiting to be read by me is approaching Everest-like heights, and new candidates have to really wow me if they have even a hope of being added to the top. And the story of a twenty-year-old woman married off to a twelve-year-old boy in 19th-century central Asia did not sound like a wow-me kind of thing. 

But then, noodling around in a bookstore on my last trip to Japan (a different one from where I came across the latest est em. I spent a lot of time in bookstores), I saw that it was published by Beam Comics. Which pushed it up from “fine” to “hmm, interesting”. Beam publishes a lot of stuff I like: SOIL, practically everything by Naoto Yamakawa (I’ll write about him one day, but it will mostly be lamenting his lack of work in English when he is so clearly deserving of a wider audience). So I picked up the display copy and started flipping through it. And the first page is the main character Amir dressed in the most elaborate, detailed outfit of gorgeously textured fabrics. And then there is just page after page of people dressed so unbelievably beautifully, with so much thought and planning given to each line in each scarf and skirt. And then there are the rugs!

So I bought it. Just Volume 1 because I was still feeling like it could not climb very high up Mount Book. And story-wise, it is pretty much what I expected: a decent read, but it does not wow me. Amir is sent off from her nomadic tribe to marry Karluk, who is still a boy. They live with his family and learn to love each other as the book progresses. His family is kind and cares about her, so there’s no evil mother-in-law type stuff going on. And the story is very good in that Amir is such a capable woman and is not in the least bit shy about it. She is quick to take off and shoot down a bird or a rabbit with her bow and arrow. She bakes bread and sews and takes care of household chores with equal talent and determination. She is has an easy smile, makes friends with just about anybody.

I think my problem with the story is that she’s too great and too easygoing. I’m sure that being sent off at a “Christmas cake” (= old maid) kind of age to be married to a little boy would not be easy, and yet she is happy with everything. One of the few times she shows anything other than easy strength is when Karluk falls ill and she fears he might die (and presumably her fate if he should die). I know that given the times, she’d be ready to be married off to the benefit of her tribe, and wouldn’t really struggle against that destiny. And she does show a desire to impress and a nervousness about her age, a natural thing given that she is so much older than the usual marrying age. But I feel like she’d at least show a little more uncertainty about the whole thing, and about finding her place in her new family. Instead, she mostly impresses said new family with her myriad of skills and good-natured charm.

Amir and Karluk
I didn’t want to break the spine scanning, so apologies for the blurry bit in the middle.

The story is well written, and a very easy read, though, so like I assumed from the start: decent, no wow. But the art! I seriously want to know how Mori drew all these glorious fabrics. To the point where I wish she had included a bibliography or something. I could stare at images like the two-page spread of Amir and Karluk relaxing among rugs and pillows all day. Mori clearly has a deep understanding of how textiles move, how they fall, how they sit. Everything looks so natural, but watching Amir move, you can see that her clothes must be well worn when you see how smoothly they fall against her body. Anything that heavily embroidered would move more stiffly if it was new. I have no idea if she considered that when she was drawing or if it is a happy coincidence, but the effect remains. There is a real sense of texture in the textiles she decorates her pages with. So ornate, so breathtaking.

And so I ended up reading Volume 2 and regretting the fact that I wasn’t able to grab Volume 3. I just want to see more of those boots she wears and figure out just what they’re made of, and how it would be possible to make something like that. Yes, I am so many kinds of nerd.


  1. Please write about Yamakawa Naoto. I only read his コーヒーも一杯 series and they were pretty good.

    1. I’ll definitely write up something about Yamakawa’s work. He’s been one of my favourite artists for years. The コーヒーもう一杯 series is great, but he also has several other collections of stories, and he recently released a book about Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the author who is the namesake for the Akutagawa Prize.

  2. A book about Akutagawa? I don’t think my Japanese is good enough for that =P

    Btw, I read your translation for the Japanese Earthquake Charity Literature. It’s really cool that you did that.

    1. 頑張って!You can probably read it if you give it a go.

      And I was just really glad to be asked to take part in the Waseda charity project. It’s been frustrating to be all the way over here and not be able to help recovery efforts.

      1. Thanks for the encouragement. I think I am in a stagnant plateau of learning Japanese now. It’s time to read Japanese version of children books like Roald Dahl or Michael Ende to refresh myself.

        About the charity project, did you get to choose which author’s work to translate?

        Oh, btw, if you find my English a bit strange, please bear with it since it’s not my native language. =P

      2. Everyone reaches that plateau of language learning. It’s tough to get past, but worth it. Keep trying!

        I did get to choose which author to translate, from the group of authors selected for translation by the editors. I really loved the Enjoe Toh story, so I wanted to translate it, but it had already been assigned to another translator. Fortunately, he had to leave the project and I was lucky enough to be asked to take up the translation. It was insanely challenging and I loved putting that puzzle together. I hope I was able to convey the complexity of Toh’s ideas in English.

        And I had realized that you were not a native English speaker. But no worries! I understand you just fine.

  3. Yes, I will. =)

    How much time did you need to complete the whole thing?
    Don’t worry. I think you did a great job. I really enjoyed reading the story.

    I don’t really follow the news of Tohoku’s recovery progress but I believe they are trying the hardest there. Most of my friends refused to visit Japan in the mean time due to fear of radiation, which was why I finally went alone last month.

    Oh my. I hope whatever it is that gave me away is not too embarrassing. I studied English in school since I was little, but I have always felt that it’s not good enough.

    1. I worked on the translation on and off for a month, I think. But it was a volunteer thing so I just did a little whenever I had some extra time. And I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. I really like it and I think Toh is an incredible writer.

      Things are going slowly with the recovery in Tohoku, but it is happening. Unfortunately, there’s just so much to do.

      And there is nothing wrong with your English, by the way. It’s way better than any of my second languages. I just noticed a weird turn of phrase once or twice, and my experience teaching English all those years ago made me think that those were the kinds of turns of phrase that a non-native speaker would use.

  4. You will probably know the answer, so I guess I will ask it here.What is the name of those..sewing..thing(?) the woman are always doing? You know, for their husband, or for a purse and things like that, they are always doing that with a neddle. I apologize for my ignorance on this matter and thanks if you can answer my question.

    1. Hmm, I’m not sure I know what you’re asking about. But is it maybe embroidery? That’s needlework that’s done on a variety of different things. Hope this helps!

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