This manga has gotten me thinking about shoujo again. I was amazed with its cultural scope and geographical ambition – because it’s an incredibly rich stylish adventure hopping from one major location to another set in Golden Twenties. “Why wouldn’t more shoujo be like this?” – I asked hundreds of times, espcially at the beginning. And then when the focus has shifted to the love story and melodrama amped up, I was “Oh, that’s why”.
The misleading covers are a pity. Like a lot of covers for shoujo they show only people in pretty clothes, which makes you expect the frequent introverted focus on close-ups and emotional text. But insular and low scale is something that Madame Petit is not. The whole world is its canvas. It shares the flighty spirit of Around the World in Eighty Days and the thrill of high-stakes violent intrigue between British secret services and Colonial India. It takes inspirations from a set of Agatha Christie novels, starting with Murder on the Orient Express – the full package, with a group of old world nobles and new world wealthy merchants looking for the culprit in an ornate first-class train car stuck in snow. It manages to reproduce perfectly the heart of a 1920-s detective travelogue, with the world being suddenly open and celebrating the new peace on fragments of old empires, science making breakneck advances, people from different countries mingling with each other with unprecedented ease – but with tech still being ornate, good manners valued, far off cultures relatively unstressed by globalization. Princes still exist, birthrights matter, but in a more relaxed and playful manner than before.
The story jumps from Istanbul to Paris, from London to Bombay. It visits many attractions: the ornate cabin of Orient Express, Moulin Rouge, Paris bustling streets, Eiffel Tower, an opium den, boutiques, a secret salon for lesbians, American nouveau riche houses, cruise ships, Japanese mansions, an Indian maharaja court with its domesticated elephants and tiger hunts and harem... All of these come with attention to detail, interior design and technical design, with costumes, Japanese (traditional and Taisho), Western (conservative and avant-garde), Indian, but especially with a lot of art-deco. I don’t know any other manga, where you would see a hand-drawn realistic salon with deco furniture and women in flapper dresses. The manga rushes from situation to situation as if being hungry for this pretty short-lived world. Madame Petit thrives in Roaring Twenties - and it’s hard to not be in awe of the ambition and effort. (Btw, I thought for a while about why I haven’t been recommended this manga before, and I came to the conclusion that this cultural baggage may not be attractive to all, especially the young female Japanese reader.) Though I must warn that, like those old detective novels, Madame Petit may take liberties with foreign cultures, especially Indian, so Indians may facepalm from time to time. Racism still exists and is reflected in the plot.
We encounter people who make these places tick. Throughout the story we get to meet a whole gallery of memorable folk, many of whom are pleasantly familiar to anyone who's read/watched Hercule Poirot. They're varied, well-contextualized and cherished. The manga leans more on the side of high society, giving preference to those with princely "glow", but all ethnicities, social classes and sexual orientations are shown with the same love and prettiness.
I’ve already started to praise the art, and now want to emphasize its quality. The drawings are beautiful, atmospheric and bristling with detail. The author sure doesn’t hold back on environments. Madame Petit gravitates to palaces and mansions, but we also see also glimpse things like a ship cabin, a poor flat with its leaking piping, a random shot of a hunt party in a nearby forest or street musicians singing around a corner. Almost each page of Madame Petit makes you whoa with how much information and pretty it has going on at once.
But then this is a teen love story as well, so it is a bit hysterical, with plenty of shouting about feelings. Our heroine, Mariko, is plucky, pure hearted and principled, she captures people’s hearts and doesn’t want anyone hurt. She’s likeable, believably special. The problem is, initially active, she’s gradually made into a diamond in someone else’s crown – too rigid and vulnerable to solve her problems herself, too focused on orbiting one knight. As Mariko is herded into a relationship, as the male lead is built, the momentum stops, the melodrama increases, the setting turns into a flat background for a fairytale – the story loses a bit of its charm, even though it gains in intrigue.
The male lead seemingly has it all, he’s handsome for sure, but comes with way too much baggage. Between the many unexpected events and saving friends our heroine never gets to properly establish herself. At one point she’s shown the whole Paris from above, she thinks about the enormousness of the world, about her dream – and her answer is “to make someone happy”. It's a good idea, but why does it mean that one guy and a problematic golden cage at 16? What about the emancipatory and aspirational zeitgeist? I would love to read about her being a detective or managing a business.
There’s also some uncomfortable teasing, with scenes that look very much sexual, but are perceived by characters as not.
Despite my personal slight criticism, Madame Petit deserves praise for its many unusual settings, recreated with love and attention. For its relentless dynamism. For its pretty art-deco furniture and fashion. For its mostly good writing. For giving me a taste of an ambitious shoujo, unrestrained with one topic, location or style. For reclaiming a whole strata of older Western culture for young girls. Even if Mariko soon gets static, as a flower in amber, in her deserved happiness and prosperity, she’s still explored and acted way beyond the first school love scope, prettily at that. For that she, Madame Petit, gets my thanks, and this manga my recommendation.