by Joseph Luster
February 11, 2010
I was fairly blind to the work of Natsume Ono prior to Viz’s unveiling of their Ikki line of manga, aside from some cursory knowledge of her series Ristorante Paradiso. My first real introduction was House of Five Leaves—a few chapters of which are still available over at the Ikki site—and I couldn’t recommend picking up the first volume more when it hits in May.
Viz’s latest publication of the author’s work, not simple
, is a decidedly different entry in the medium, both narratively and artistically. It’s a story within a story that centers on Ian, a young man who travels from Melbourne, Australia to the United States to fulfill a promise to his sister and eventually reunite with her. The sandwiched aspect comes courtesy Jim, a man who takes an interest in Ian’s life and decides to make him the subject of his next novel.
As the name implies, there’s much more to it than that, and Ian’s life is revealed from childhood on as a series of shunned glances; increased separation from a family that would rather forget he ever existed in the first place. The reasons behind this are appropriately not simple, and the book is as much about coming to terms with and understanding the underlying facets of this as it is his journey from point A to point B.
It can be tough to connect with not simple
overall, some of which has to do with the overall structure of the book. Most of all, though, it’s a bit difficult to look to Ian as a protagonist, despite all that he goes through in the course of his life. Perhaps that’s the point, and I’m willing to accept that, because while Ian is the subject of the story, he’s also the subject of a book, and “subject” becomes the defining term for him as a character.
That’s another slight problem. The story becomes less about what Ian does or how he feels about what’s happened to him, and more about what he’s been subjected to and how that looks in the eyes of others. Maybe Jim pities Ian, while also finding him a fascinating enough subject for his book. Maybe everyone pities him, but it’s hard to get a proper gauge on him because he’s either incredibly disconnected or overwhelmingly accepting of things as The Way They Are.
Ono’s style makes up for some of the narrative shortcomings. The loose, at times almost scribbled line work is a departure from her previous outings, while still maintaining a level of recognizability. Most evocative are the characters’ eyes: gelatinous orbs of expression that say more about them than most of the dialogue in the story. This style is accompanied by a deft understanding of how to pace a comic through empty space and panel arrangement, two things at which Ono displays an admirable level of skill.
When all is said and done, not simple is a straight up downer of a read. While this is never objectively a bad thing, in this story’s case events occasionally come off as cloyingly melodramatic, to the point of “see, isn’t that just, like, the pits, maaaan?” I had mixed feelings throughout my time with not simple, and I’m still finding my reaction as such a while after the fact. This certainly speaks of a manga with substance, and one that many will discover nuggets of value in, but I’m finding it easiest to recommend only certain aspects of it and not the whole.
If this type of scenario sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll love it and consider it money well spent. Others may want to flip through it and give it some thought beyond whether or not the artwork is appealing before purchasing.
Story & Art:
© 2006 Natsume ONO/Shogakukan