The Worlds of Natsume Ono

by Rebecca Silverman,

Despite the fact that the English manga market has grown substantially since the early days of translation and publishing, it's still a fairly rare occurrence for any one manga creator to see multiple titles released. Even when we do get more than one series by a single author, we often only get the most recent titles – we have The Ghost and the Lady but not Ushio and Tora, for example. Of those creators who do see multiple titles translated, they tend to fall into recognizable demographics, such as Rumiko Takahashi's shounen series or Arina Tanemura's ornate shoujo. These creators come with built-in fans who are of the age group that people are comfortable associating with the words “comics readers,” and we still see a great deal more aimed at a younger audience than an adult one.

And then into this group comes Natsume Ono. Her works aren't clean or pretty. They aren't for the kiddies. Most of them aren't even single stories, but collections of related shorts. And yet somehow she has managed to make her mark on the English-language market, with six manga titles and three anime adaptations translated, this season's ACCA being the latest. What is it that is so appealing about her work? I would say that at the very least it is the air of complex simplicity that she imbues both her stories and art with, a deceptive quality that makes you think you're barely reading anything before you realize that you've actually been given a lot to ponder. With her loosely interconnected tales on themes such as love (both romantic and platonic), luxury, and belonging, Ono creates intertwined worlds both interior and exterior that we can relate to, even if we don't quite realize it at the time we're reading.

Perhaps the most obvious of Ono's exterior worlds is the country of Italy, which stands out for its recognizable foreigness when compared with her stories set in Japan. Most of her translated manga is set in this country, and Ono gives it a sense of both clarity and unreality. While she does use many of Rome's landmarks over the course of such series as La Quinta Camera, Gente, and Ristorante Paradiso, the actual action of the pieces takes place in enclosed, almost cut-off spaces. Restaurants on back alleys, deceptively spacious apartments, or even just cozy kitchens offer intimate, interior places that take characters away from the performance of being outside. By using a place as much in the public consciousness as Italy, which has been romanticized throughout history and by such internationally known literature as E. M. Forester's A Room with a View and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Ono has the chance to play with our perceptions of Italy as an almost mythic land. Rome, in particular, is associated with the past, so by putting her very modern characters down in its heart, she is giving her stories the nuances of both history and fantasy that are associated with it. In Ristorante Paradiso, Nicoletta finds the eponymous paradise inside a restaurant on a small side street in Rome, building on the fantasy that authors like Forester and Ernest Temple Thurston created in the early 20th century, that of the hidden, authentic paradises to be found off the beaten path of tourist cities. (Temple Thurston's 1909 novel The City of Beautiful Nonsense does this for Venice rather than Rome, but the similarities hold up.) Within the fairy tale-named paradise, which in itself conjures up imagery of Goldilocks looking for someplace just right, Nicoletta is able to discover herself through interaction with the patrons and staff of Casetta dell'Orso. In the follow up series Gente, which literally translates to “people” but can have associations with family depending on the context, we see the rest of the cast in both their interior and exterior spaces, shedding their protective skins once through the door to the kitchen or apartment.

The idea that when you leave the public spaces that carry with them the weight of history or expectations you also leave behind what the public puts on or expects of you is an exit from a stage is one that Ono uses frequently in her works, and is arguably a large part of what makes them memorable to us. Perhaps this is best seen in three of her as-yet-unlicensed titles, ACCA, Nigeru Otoko, and her contribution to the anthology Cigarette. In two of the three, Ono uses the idea of cigarettes as being representative of luxury to show the performative nature of being in the public eye. ACCA, as has been mentioned before, has just been adapted into a TV anime series, and if you've seen the first episode, you'll remember that one of the plot points is that protagonist Jean is a conspicuous smoker. In a world where tobacco products are heavily taxed, his decision to smoke in public is part of a carefully crafted image – he has both the money to burn and the confidence to show it off. This is backed up by the fact that he and his sister live in a high class building; what no one knows is that they manage it rather than rent a fancy apartment. Jean's public persona is designed to help him do his work as an inspector for the government without people knowing what they're getting into: if he appears to be a silly rich boy, he will be underestimated – to his own benefit. It also sets him up as a bit of a rebel, since the high taxes on cigarettes are to discourage people from taking up the habit.

This theme of smoking as a symbol of rebellion is also used in the short story Ono wrote for volume one of the two-book Cigarette manga anthology. That story, which appears to take place in a very similar exterior world to ACCA's, is about the last man who creates hand-rolled cigarettes for wealthy buyers. With the taxation laws on the books, only the very rich can afford to smoke, and the habit has come to be regarded as a folly of the well-off. The protagonist of the piece actually despises cigarettes and those who smoke them, and he wishes that they would be outlawed all together. Despite this, he bows to circumstance and the need to support his family and continues to produce his hand-rolled smokes, laboring under the theory that they're popular. Eventually he learns that only one woman buys and smokes them, and not only that, but she was once an idol singer who was pressured to sing about the evils of smoking in her heyday. The entire story sets up a complicated series of interior world versus exterior, with the former singer publically showing her disregard for what was originally a very private arrangement (pressure from her record label) while the craftsman publically sells what he privately hates. Both characters are forced to bow to the wishes of those who enable their careers while internally smoldering with resentment and neither are quite able to reconcile their exterior lives with their interior feelings. Although it is nominally about cigarettes, the story can also be read as an examination of who we are and who the world wants us to be, a theme that also appears in House of Five Leaves and some of the stories in both Tesoro and Danza.

However, none of Ono's works so capture this split between interior and exterior worlds like her 2010 series Nigeru Otoko, which can be translated as “The Fleeing Man.” The basic plot is that a young politician, tired of the political charades he's forced to engage in, sees a bear in the forest he is driving through. The bear seems to want him to follow it, and when he does, he finds a run-down cabin and the body of an older man. After he buries the corpse, he reads the journals left behind and realizes that the man was taking care of the domesticated bear. Not really consciously thinking about it, the politician decides to take over for the dead man, shedding his suit and settling into the cottage in the forest. All of this is only revealed after a first chapter that frames the bear in the woods as a local folktale, and a woman recently dumped by her boyfriend proclaims herself enough of a child to be able to see this bear if he really exists. In the cabin she discovers the suit and its Diet pin, but mistakes the bear and the man for the same person, transformed by day or night. Essentially both she and the politician put their own wishes onto the stories they encounter, living their own interior dreams exteriorly, regardless of who they involve. When the woman sleeps with the politician thinking he's a bear prince out of Nordic folklore, it's because that's what she wants to think. When the politician moves into the cabin, it's because he wants a chance to leave the stage, not because he cares for the bear. The woods function as a world out of reality, an escape where the only mask you have to wear is the one someone else creates – and that you don't actually have to acknowledge.

In a way, Nigeru Otoko's forest, which the politician does eventually leave, is the embodiment of another of Ono's familiar themes: the search for a place to belong. In many cases, this also implies someone to belong to, as we see in both Ristorante Paradiso and not simple. Not simple, like Nigeru Otoko, isn't told chronologically, which adds to its sense of taking place in some time-out-of-time that only looks like we belong in it. The story of Ian's quest to reunite with his sister takes him around the world, through England, America, and Australia, and it almost becomes unimportant whether or not he finds her or any other family. Instead the story is about the actual need to belong, and how the search for it can become all-consuming. Both the politician and the woman in Nigeru Otoko find that the cabin in the woods is only a temporary respite on the journey. While the parallel isn't precise, there's an element of the same in Ian's story, with the trip itself becoming a place to belong, or rather, a metaphor for becoming a part of the actual world. Whether you are running towards something or away from it, it is the act of moving that becomes habit. As Jean in ACCA's early episodes seems to be most at home traveling around as an inspector, being the barely known quantity, the smoking woman in Cigarette's journey to and from the smoking area makes her a part of the world. Nicoletta may find home in a single place, but for many of Ono's other characters, it is in the searching or the act of moving that they find their niches.

Of course, for Nicoletta, as well as the characters of House of Five Leaves, a sense of family is intrinsically part of creating both their interior and exterior worlds. Masanosuke in House of Five Leaves has never been able to hold on to a position as a bodyguard due to his attitude, so when he falls in with the Five Leaves, a gang of criminal misfits, he finds himself suddenly part of a group that he can't leave so easily. It's as much a family of mostly unrelated individuals as the folks Nicoletta bonds with at Casetta dell'Orso – a band tied together by a shared interior love or exterior setting. That juxtaposition of Ono's two basic world types is something that is intrinsic to her works, and is often represented as “home” versus “work.” The two blend somewhat in Amato Amaro, another Italy-set story about an economics professor who is being threatened by a terrorist group. He refuses to stop living his life, making it almost a performance as he takes his bodyguard with him to the movies night after night, almost as if he is living in a film of his own making. When he finds out that his bodyguard was once fired for being bisexual, the professor asks him if he'll have sex with him, so that he can see what it's like. He's a character who deliberately blurs the line between public and private, work and home, putting on a performance to show his tormentors (and the world at large) that he can't be beaten into submission. In the case of this particular story, the professor's efforts result in a blended world, where the relationship between his public and private lives become a single life – something that is partially accomplished in Ristorante Paradiso, but left to be a central problem for most of the other characters who inhabit her works.

Natsume Ono's works aren't easily summed up in any sort of neat package, and not only is that part of her appeal as a creator, I think it's also something she strives for. The same exterior worlds – Edo-era Japan, contemporary Italy – may reappear over again, but the people who inhabit them are always different, consumed by their own journeys both interior and exterior. Very few of them ever fully resolve – Ono doesn't deal in packages tied up in a nice bow. To read one of her works is to walk for a bit along someone else's road. From 2003's La Quinta Camera to her current series Doko ka de dare ka mo Tabete iru, which is her take on the current trend towards food manga, Natsume Ono takes us on small, quiet journeys through worlds that always have more of an impact than you at first expect.


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