House of 1000 Manga Danza and Tesoro
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
In 2009, I found myself browsing the then-newish branch of the Mandarake manga bookstore in Akihabara, Tokyo's otaku mecca. Never mind how I found myself there; it's one of the job hazards of the professional nerd. Bored by all the Shonen Jump and Shonen Sunday tankobon collections, my husband pulled an unusual-looking manga off the shelf. On the cover, a big-eyed, spindly-legged figure stood against a starkly sketched city street, a scene more reminiscent of an American indie comic than of your stereotypical manga. “Here's something they'll never try to publish in the U.S.,” he said.
“That's Natsume Ono's not simple,” I said. “Viz is putting it out next year.”
Usually, the manga-ka who get lots of work licensed for English publication are the bestsellers, the mainstream big names: your Rumiko Takahashis, your CLAMPs. Then there's Natsume Ono. Starting with not simple in 2009, Viz published six of her manga—five single-volume works and the eight-volume series House of Five Leaves—as part of its SigIkki line. After SigIkki folded—or, more accurately, went back to being plain old Viz Signature—Kodansha Comics picked up another Ono title, Danza. Ono's most recent manga remain untranslated, but most of her back catalog is available in English.
It's rare for American alt-manga fans like myself to get this much work from an artist this noncommercial. I previously devoted a column to her one-volume graphic novel Ristorante Paradiso and its follow-up, Gente, which at least have the commercial draw of sexy men—albeit middle-aged sexy men drawn in a decidedly non-bishonen style. Ono's other work doesn't even make that half-hearted effort to woo otaku. Her characters are cute but sketchy, sometimes little more than stick figures, frequently warping out of proportion as she switches perspectives. Her art in general suggests the influence of European and American indie comics, especially loose-lined autobio artists like Ariel Schrag. Her stories are mild-mannered and chatty, punctuated by wistful pauses. She likes to set stories in Europe, especially Italy, or in the U.S. (Her Italian characters drink espresso and wine; her Americans eat ice cream cones, hamburgers, and French fries.) All these idiosyncratic elements come out in full force in the two collections of Ono's short stories available in English, Danza and Tesoro.
Danza (Italian for “Dance”) is mostly devoted to stories of fathers and sons. A man tries to reconnect with his disapproving winemaker father in Italy, two brothers trapped by an earthquake work out old family wounds and daddy issues, a European marrying into a Japanese family tries to win over his father-in-law. There's even a science-fiction story in which a time traveler tries to convince a cold scientist to bond with his solemn young son while he still has the chance. The fathers in Ono's stories are distant and gruff, impossible to please, only rarely cracking to reveal a moment of warmth. A couple of stories break the mold: the long final story in the collection deals with a police detective deciding whether to trust his standoffish partner, and there's a cute short piece about gelato and carabinieri (Italian military police; yes, everything that isn't about dads is about cops). But overall this is a bittersweet book focused on the awkwardness of human connection, especially within families. The strongest piece is probably the time-travel story, “Memories of the Lake,” which takes time to set up the characters and make their estrangement plausible and painful.
Tesoro (Italian for “Treasure”; Ono loves her Italy), which covers ten years of her short work, is more eclectic. Most of the stories were originally doujinshi, sometimes featuring recurring characters for Ono to play with. The running casts include the Fratelli di Sandro, a trio of Italian siblings; the Frooms, an American family whose shy youngest child is bullied by his bossy older sisters; and the Moyashi (“Bean Sprout”) Couple, a cranky but loving elderly Japanese couple. Other stories are linked by themes like bento boxes, which Ono draws with care. The stand-alone stories range in subject matter from a country singer picking his son up from prison to a troubled young woman becoming convinced that an up-and-coming politician is her father. In between are stories about, you know, people talking and stuff. Talking and drinking.
To be honest, though, my favorite piece may be the three-page wordless comic about a bear ordering doughnuts that opens the anthology. Because they have honey doughnuts! Obviously a bear would go to the bakery that makes honey doughnuts. Shut up, this is awesome.
Comparing the two, I find Tesoro more satisfying than Danza, if only because it covers a wider range of subjects and moods. Viz also scores some bonus points by printing Tesoro in snazzy sepia-toned ink, with the bear story and bonus sketches in full color; it's a particularly nice-looking edition. (On the other hand, Kodansha includes cultural notes at the end of Danza to explain all the Italian stuff, so maybe they're even.) Ono can draw quiet stories about lonely people in cafés and ristorantes all day long, but in some of the stories in Tesoro we get to see her move out of her comfort zone and sketch some different situations and characters.
This is the kind of manga that gets published for one reason and one reason alone: because the people in publishing love it. (Or possibly because Ikki magazine has compromising photos of the heads of at least two American manga publishers. I'm not ruling out this possibility.) Nobody's going to make a fortune putting out Natsume Ono manga, probably not even Natsume Ono. It would be easy to leave it to be forgotten on a shelf in Akihabara. But instead here it is for us to enjoy. I hope one of these days someone gets around to translating her recent work, too. I would also like to see more bears.
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