Two by Natsume Ono

For my latest column at Comics Should Be Good, I reviewed the debut volumes of two (relatively) new Natsume Ono series: House of Five Leaves and Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso. I really loved House of Five Leaves, with its story of a hapless samurai drawn into the schemes of a fascinating criminal. Gente is more a collection of low-key short stories than a single narrative, which means it’s slightly less awesome but still very entertaining.

You can find those reviews here.

Both House of Five Leaves and Gente are published in English by VIZ. The former is still ongoing in Japan, where it is up to eight volumes, but the latter (a “delightfully whimsical continuation” of Ristorante Paradiso) is complete with three volumes.

Review copy for Gente provided by the publisher.

Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono: B+

Twenty-one-year-old Nicoletta arrives in Rome with the intention of confronting her absentee mother, Olga, and revealing the fact of her existence to Olga’s husband, Lorenzo, who had believed his wife to be childless. Instead, she becomes entranced by her mother’s world and ultimately finds a place in it.

Olga and Lorenzo run a restaurant, and though the food is excellent, many of the patrons come just to see the waiters, a staff of mostly older men who all wear glasses (whether necessary or not) to indulge Olga’s whim. At first Nicoletta is perplexed by the multitude of women swooning over these men until she begins to notice the particular charms of Claudio, the head waiter. Claudio is graceful, sexy, and very kind, though he’s still hung up on his ex-wife and continues to wear his wedding ring. Although Nicoletta originally wrangles a job as a kitchen apprentice in order to be near him, she proves to be genuinely good at cooking. She becomes part of the restaurant’s family, and her relationship with Olga improves as a result.

Ristorante Paradiso is a completely different kind of story than not simple, the other Natsume Ono title currently available in English. It’s happy, for one thing, with a cozy, slice-of-life storytelling style and the kind of predictable yet comforting conclusion that would be perfectly at home in an Italian holiday kind of chick flick. Things between Nicoletta and Olga work out too easily, but most of the focus is on the guys anyway, so I’m not as annoyed as I otherwise would be.

Let’s talk about those guys for a minute. Sexy Claudio is definitely the star among them, but grumpy yet kind Luciano is another standout, as is Gigi, Lorenzo’s eccentric half-brother who seems to have a completely unspoken thing for the boss’s wife. Nicoletta is continually upstaged by these men—and by Olga, whose zeal for life makes her a sympathetic character despite the mistakes she made in the past—and it’s no wonder that Gente, the prequel/sequel series due from VIZ in July, focuses on them and not her. Nicoletta starts out as a directionless twenty-something in search of her place in the world, but we just don’t get to know her well enough to find her journey truly compelling. That said, I did appreciate her confidence in certain situations and she has a terrific final line.

It might just be an illusion, but Natsume Ono’s art looks a little more traditional here than in not simple. There’s no way you’d mistake her work for anyone else’s, but the characters seem more normally proportioned and she really does a great job in conveying Claudio’s gentle demeanor and appeal whenever he appears. While the “show don’t tell” rule gets broken on several occasions, there are still a few examples of good nonverbal communication, too. My one artistic complaint is that I wish we could have seen more of the food! Then we might have had something like the Antique Bakery of Italian cuisine. The subtle inclusion of a hilariously oversized ravioli made by Olga is some compensation, however.

In the end, Ristorante Paradiso is definitely worth reading. The plot won’t knock your socks off, but the experience will likely put a smile on your face nonetheless.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

not simple by Natsume Ono: A

notsimpleFrom the back cover:
A story within a story,
A book within a book,
A tale about the search for family,
For an emotional home.

Ian, a young man with a fractured family history, travels from Australia to England to America in the hope of realizing his dreams and reuniting with his beloved sister. His story unfolds backwards through the framing narrative of Jim, a reporter driven to capture Ian’s experiences in a novel: not simple.

I normally reserve my comments about a comic’s art for somewhere near the end of my review, but since the fact that Natsume Ono’s style deviates from the manga norm is glaringly obvious, I thought I’d address it first. Her art is spare and kind of squiggly, true, and yet it’s absolutely perfect, adding to rather than detracting from the narrative. I honestly cannot imagine this heartbreaking story being illustrated in any other way; to pair it with pretty art would be too wrong for words, so don’t let the lack of same be a deterrent.

If you, like me, have ever thought, “Why don’t more stories have sad endings?” then not simple is the manga for you. That’s not even a spoiler, really, since the structure of the story reveals the fate of Ian, the hapless protagonist, practically immediately. The book begins with a conversation between Jim, a writer, and Ian, in which Jim announces, “You’re going to be my next novel.” From there, a prologue depicts the end of Ian’s story, in which he is a drifter looking to keep a rendezvous with a woman he met years earlier, before shifting back in time to chronologically cover his life from childhood until the moment he leaves for the meeting.

The hardships and misfortunes of Ian’s existence are beyond many, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. Growing up in Australia as the child of a drunken mother and absentee father, he’s extremely close to his sister, Kylie. When Kylie is sent to prison for robbery—her means for funding a new life with Ian by her side—he’s left alone at home, and after his parents divorce, ends up living in London with his mother. Upon her release, Kylie finds him there and they have the briefest of brief reunions before she sends him back to Melbourne to be with his dad and promises that they’ll meet again once he achieves his dream.

Years pass. Ian has always loved running, and his dream is to break a certain runner’s record. He and Jim originally met when Jim was assigned to interview him, and they reconnect when Ian’s peculiarly jubilant response to placing fourth in a race attracts the notice of Jim’s editor. Ian, having achieved his goal, now feels free to seek out his sister. His search is long and disappointing, hindered by a series of terribly unlucky near-misses and a set of relatives that don’t care much about Kylie or Ian, let alone helping them achieve a reunion.

If this sounds like just about the most depressing story around, that isn’t far off the mark. And yet, it never strays into implausible territory. Ian is a likable guy—a strangely pure and innocent person who is, simultaneously, somewhat of an enigma—but the stresses of his life begin to take their toll and the final time he shows up at Jim’s place, after an absence of two years, the change is palpable. For years, he’s been matter-of-fact about the horrible things that have happened to him, but finally is so worn down that he’s become haggard and yearns only for the warm personal relationships that have been denied him. Jim’s an interesting observer, as well, ignoring his own family about as strenuously as Ian searches for his. If there’s anything I could complain about with not simple, it’s that we don’t learn more about Jim’s particular circumstances.

Depressing or not, not simple is masterfully told and completely unforgettable. If I had to sum it up in one word it would be this: haunting.

Review copy provided by the publisher.