Most isekais—a genre of anime or manga where the protagonist is plucked from one place to another—are simply about the allure of being transported to a world that’s more full of adventure and magic, with the help of a truck. However, this comic explores the concept of a character from a well-known novel and brings her to modern day Philippines.
At first, Nagmamahal, Maria Clara seems to play with a fish-out-of-water story, the demure, genteel, lady of the 1880’s, Maria Clara de los Santos, suddenly finding herself in a strange place and unfamiliar time. She’s quite flabbergasted at a world where women wear clothing that exposes different parts of their body and who work alongside men.
The culture-shock becomes more apparent when she realizes that people are using her name as an expression for ladylike women, but more in a negative connotation. Seeing women boldly pursue feats that were seemingly impossible in her era, Maria Clara feels as if she’s useless, as generally, she is a passive, soft person.
Marian Hukom gives us a thoughtful story that places a lot of thought on how society views women and how it has progressed over time. This comic has also the self-awareness of the character as a real person whose image has been distorted and been used to push down women, as well as coming to terms with the emotions that come with it.
This comic treats Maria Clara as a whole person, her anguish is treated delicately as she discovers that she is not merely a distressed damsel or a prude. Her good traits are often put on display, ones that we overlook. Her dedication, her kindness, and empathy, as well as willingness to teach.
Another thing about Nagmamahal, Maria Clara is that it actually debunks the view that Maria Clara was meant to be an example for women to follow. Apparently, the character itself was meant to be symbolic of the Philippines during the Spanish colonization era.
Her character develops over time, turning into someone who wouldn’t allow herself to be turned into a doormat any longer and setting boundaries. In which, a commentary and a challenge that the concept of the "Maria Clara" should evolve as well.
This comic also touches on the subject of victim-blaming, in which the deuteragonist, and Maria’s friend, gets harassed in a club by a young talent. It also gives a satisfying resolution for the victim, with her peers rallying beside her. It also shares that “just because you’re attracted to the person who harassed you, doesn’t mean they get a free pass.”
Another part about this comic that is worth mentioning is Maria Clara’s unease at Rizal’s brutalization of her. Everyone knows what happened, except for her. A truly cruel fate as she discovers what truly waits for her, and it makes her despair.
Possibly not intentional, but a jarring page of her being called a “mistake” by men who are closely associated to her, (namely, Ibarra, Padre Damaso, and her author, Rizal) will make you ponder if this is a commentary on female characters being treated poorly by many works, literary or otherwise.
There’s a disturbing trend of women being treated poorly, assaulted, harrassed for the sake of displaying brutalization and excusing it by the use of narrative. With the well-known “stuffed into the fridge” trope to motivate male characters into developing themselves, this is more of a biting, realistic portrayal if a female character sees that her death is merely fodder, as if she was nothing but disposable. The insight never goes further, but it could have been great if it was explored.
However, with the encouragement of an older woman and exposing her to the values of a modern-day Filipina, she gets the wisdom and will to move forward, filled with renewed inspiration from those who came after her.
This comic is a lighthearted, yet deeply inquisitive read that has become a platform to give light to women’s issues. This isekai is not a fully established high fantasy, unlike most of the female-centric isekai found in the new media, but leans towards magical realism, and the heart of this story is Maria Clara’s discovery of what does a woman’s role pertain to.
If you want to learn something new, while falling in love with the endearing characters, it’s available to read in Penlab for free.