It’s getting to the point now where Karluk and Amira are getting dangerously close to becoming one of my favorite manga or anime couples of all time. I don’t know how it’s possible for Mori-sensei to make a pair so incredibly cute and preposterously sweet without it becoming intolerable. But then, I also didn’t know how she managed to make a romance about a 20 year-old and a 12 year-old romantic and warm without it being remotely awkward to read. All I know is that I love this couple and I’m counting the days until we see them brought to life on screen.
Honestly, with Otoyomegatari I often feel as if I should just shut up and let the pictures do all the talking. Not only does the beauty and exquisite detail of Mori’s artwork need no interpretation, but she manages to convey so much about the emotions of her characters through her images. It’s a rare skill to say the least, and the merging of visual and literary brilliance in this series is what makes it so special.
What we saw in this chapter is something that was sure to happen sooner or later, but the test was in how Mori would be able to pull it off. There’s no getting around the fact that the age difference in this relationship is a big deal, but she’s never made any attempt to – she confronts it head-on and manages to perform one of the greatest high-wire acts in manga history. For all his maturity and courage, Karluk still faces the reality every day that he’s a boy married to a beautiful woman, and has been less than the complete husband he feels she deserves (though obviously through no fault whatsoever of his own). We’ve seen some hints of Amira’s views on this, but what we haven’t seen much of – until this chapter – was Karluk facing down the issue head-on.
I think almost as much as the near-wordless chapter featuring Amira’s thoughts about Karluk (“Sometimes she wishes he’d grow up just a little faster”) the panels in this one speak for themselves. Amira loves Karluk deeply, but still as a mother or a big sister – she worries over him constantly. Karluk loves Amira just as deeply, but rages internally at what he sees as her inability to recognize him as a man. This is quite natural of course – Karluk isn’t a man, not yet, and neither of them is remotely in the wrong here. Yet the disconnect is real, their feelings are real, and while a function of the physical realities of their relationship those feelings still represent a hurdle (one of many) they’ll have to surmount on their journey towards a true marital relationship.
I think (as usual) Mori-sensei nails pretty much every aspect of the drama here, and there are several elements I especially love. First of all, the way Karluk’s passage is framed through universally relatable events like having his height measured along with the other children – he clearly wants to, yet he’s just as clearly embarrassed that he does. Amira’s blush (remembering her own thoughts from the aforementioned chapter, to be sure) at seeing how much he’s grown. Karluk’s decision to stand his ground based on the innocuous request to have Amira make him plainer clothes to replace the ones he’s outgrowing (bright patterns on children’s clothes were seen as a good-luck measure against illness, hardly surprising in a time and place where child mortality was so high – and hardly unique to Central Asia. Yahiko’s wardrobe change from Rurouni Kenshin represents the same symbolic meaning). And the way the entire family (and beyond – it takes a village, indeed) gets involved in trying to broker the dispute, each offering their own advice (this seems quite a foreign notion to the modern mind). Pariya’s reaction is especially interesting – she plays the tomboy to the hilt, but she’s clearly overwhelmed at seeing the depth of the affection between Amira and Karluk, and dreaming that she might one day feel that herself.
Finally, there’s the moment itself, when Karluk finally takes matters into his own hands, and literally. He grabs Amira (a solid woman, for certain) in a bear hug and lifts her off her feet, then rips off his tunic and declares “I’m going to be 13 soon. I’m a man and I’d like to be treated like one!” It could have been cute, or absurd, or disrespectful – but it was none of those (well, it was a little cute). What shines through is just how difficult that was for Karluk, as shy as he is about any physicality with Amira, and what courage it took for him to be so bold. In fact I thought for just a moment that this was going to represent an even bigger milestone in their relationship, but that will happen soon enough – and it’s still a pretty huge leap forward in itself.
This is the kind of intimacy you rarely see depicted in relationships, in this medium or elsewhere. It’s just a further reminder of how remarkable both of these characters are, and how there are more important factors than age in measuring a marriage. The gust of wind that blows through their tent – and the sneeze it elicits from Karluk – gently point up that there are still going to be challenges and that this isn’t going to be easy for either of them. But the look in Amira’s eyes in the final panel speaks definitively to the fact that she and Karluk have taken a huge leap forward, and that the connection they share is stronger than any challenges it’s going to face.