Simply Ono (the manga, not the food truck)

November 21st, 2011
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There’s a truck that’s shown up here on Oahu during the current food truck boom — well, okay, maybe it would be more accurate to call it a fleet of several trucks, if you look at their website — called Simply Ono. “Ono,” for those of you who aren’t from this string of rocks in the middle of the Pacific, is a term we use locally to point out that something is supreeeeemely tasty. We’re talking “Snuffles the Dog from the old Quick Draw McGraw cartoons enjoys dog biscuits” tasty. True to its name, the fare that Simply Ono serves up is diverse (yet affordable) and certainly a cut above what’s usually served at these trucks — just look at this menu and try to keep your mouth from watering.

But this isn’t a blog post about local food culture — if you wanted that sort of thing, you’d be reading the posts from the gang over at Take a Bite. (If you’re ever in town and come upon one of these trucks, though, I highly recommend the furikake-encrusted ahi, baked mac-and-cheese and warm bread pudding with creamy vanilla sauce.) It is, however, a post focusing on the star course of this month’s Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Alexander Hoffman over at Manga Widget: the works of Natsume Ono.

Like Simply Ono, Natsume Ono serves up a pretty tasty, yet diverse, menu of series that’s a cut above the usual manga fare. I’m not just talking about her two series with restaurant ties, Ristorante Paradiso and Gente; there’s also her tale of feudal swordsmen, House of Five Leaves; Tesoro, an anthology of short stories that just hit U.S. store shelves about a week or two ago; and La Quinta Camera: The Fifth Room, which sneaked out into U.S. publication back around July when I wasn’t looking, thus continuing what’s now been a three-month streak of my anticipating a book for the MMF arriving after the MMF wrapped up. (Side note to Kodansha: I really do have a fun idea planned for the review copy of Love Hina omnibus vol. 1 that you graciously sent me. It’s just a matter of finding the time to write it.) If Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys and Pluto are the foundation upon which Viz’s two-year-old Signature Ikki imprint was built, Ono’s works could be considered as a good portion of the structure, making up a healthy chunk of the imprint’s offerings.

Which brings us to the one title I didn’t mention above, the one I read for this month’s MMF: not simple. True to its title, it’s not a simple title to wrap your head around.

Here’s how the back-of-book blurb describes the plot:

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.

Sounds great, huh? Nice little inspirational tale, journey of self-discovery with all the highs and lows that that entails, perhaps a tearful reunion or two along the way?

But then you crack open the book and learn that — spoiler alert that’s not really a spoiler, considering it happens about 40 pages or so into a 316-page book — Ian dies. Then we learn that Jim releases his book and promptly disappears off the face of the earth as well. In essence, the manga that unfolds before us is the story contained in the book that Jim left behind.

And in short order, we learn that maybe, just maybe, death may have been the kindest thing to happen to a guy who somehow managed to deal with a really screwed-up life. It’s chapter after chapter of Ono basically telling the reader, “Oh, yeah? You thought that last chapter was hard on Ian? Well, this one’s even worse.” Consider:

  • Chapter 1: His sister, Kylie, is in jail for armed robbery; once she gets out, she learns that her parents divorced and her alcoholic mom took Ian with her to England. What’s more, dear old dad let mom take Ian because he already has a new honey who doesn’t like kids. Oh yeah, and mom may not actually be his mom.
  • Chapter 2: “Mom” has Ian acting as her errand boy, giving him money only to buy her drinks; when the money runs out, she promptly hands him over to the neighborhood pimp so he can earn more.
  • Chapter 3: Kylie works toward getting Ian back.  Meanwhile Ian … umm … works. He gets bubble gum for his efforts. When the two finally reunite, she … sends him back to his dad in Australia with a promise that they’ll get together again someday.
  • Chapter 4: … and dad isn’t exactly thrilled by Ian’s return.

I won’t go through the entire book, but suffice it to say that Ian’s family life gets a lot more twisted by the time the book ends with a story that connects back to the beginning of the book, which, as we already know, is the ending to Ian’s story. It gets to the point where you start reading the book forward and backward, exclaiming each time, “Wait, what? Whoa!” *flips back to earlier part of the story* *flips forward again* “Wait, what? Whoa!” And so on. Factor in what’s going on in Jim’s life when their paths cross for the first time — as we learn, he’s withdrawn from his family as well, what with the relationship he’s carrying on with another man — and you end up with snapshots of a world that can only be sufficiently described by one phrase in the English language, with one word that’s unprintable in a blog hosted by a mainstream newspaper coupled with the word “up.”

As much as I’d like to say that it’s a good book and that everyone who picks it up will enjoy it just as I did, somehow I feel like that can’t be the case. Ono’s art style has more of an indie-comic feel to it than anything, with her characters looking less like “traditional” manga figures and more like harsher sketches of the characters in the Scott Pilgrim universe. And the thing I’ve noticed about indie comics is that one person can say, “WOW! This is BRILLIANT!” about a particular book and hand it to another person, who’ll turn around and say, “What are you talking about? The story’s disjointed, the art makes my eyes bleed, how could you possibly like this?” That phenomenon actually manifested itself Sunday night as I was working on finishing this post, when Jason Green of Playback:STL posted his criticisms of not simple.

But that’s what Natsume Ono seems to do — create manga that are equal parts entertainment and contemplative exercise. I’ve seen this in reading Ristorante Paradiso – not enough that I feel qualified to comment fully on that book yet, but enough to know that the focus of that book, Nicoletta, comes from a family just as broken as Ian’s. She even has to go so far to hide the fact that she’s her mom’s daughter because her mom’s husband, who runs a lovely little restaurant with bespectacled waiters in Rome, never knew of the existence of any offspring.

So should you buy not simple? Honestly, I’d read Viz’s free online sample of the prologue chapter first. If it seems like your kind of story, pick it up; if not, well, that’s $15 saved. In any case, just remember: It’ll be a story that demands all of your attention.

3 Responses to “Simply Ono (the manga, not the food truck)”

  1. Natsume Ono MMF Archive « Manga Widget:

    [...] Jason Yadao (Otaku Ohana): not simple Review [...]


  2. Natsume Ono MMF: That’s a Wrap, Folks! « Manga Widget:

    [...] Yadao at Otaku Ohana has a review of not simple and finds it to be a powerful work, again bring up the ties of family that others have mentioned [...]


  3. AniMatsuri:

    Yeah, it sounds like a book that’ll get critical praise and sell nil to the general public. Critics love books like this.


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