not simple (VIZ Media/Sigikki)

A look at Natsume Ono’s one-volume take on melancholy and melodrama as part of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast.

 

320 pgs. B&W; $14.99
(W / A: Natsume Ono)
 
It’s Manga Moveable Feast time once again, with this month’s festivities (hosted by Alexander Hoffman at Manga Widget) centering on the work of Natsume Ono. It’s not surprising to see Ono as the subject of an MMF: she’s a creator who specializes in off-the-beaten-path titles with a quirkily artsy bent that draw the attention of us comics critic types, things like the slice-of-life restaurant romance Ristorante Paradiso and the samurai period piece House of Five Leaves. not simple was Ono’s first book released in print form in English, and it’s not a particularly surprising first choice: the cover screams “American indie comic” with its ennui-laden lead character (Jeffrey Brown-style encephalitic head, hipster clothes, mopey expression), barren urban background, and thin, wavering ink line. This is a book that just jumps off the rack as “something different,” a far cry from the kind of manga that usually makes it to American shores.
 
But of course, “different” doesn’t always mean “better,” which is especially true in this case: despite Ono’s best attempts to tell an affecting story of human misery, not simple devolves all too quickly into hammy melodrama.
 
Ono gets off on the wrong foot from the get-go with a prologue chapter that is pretty much a total disaster. We meet Irene, a young woman talking on the phone to her boyfriend. The pair plans to elope, but Irene’s controlling dad has caught wind and is threatening to beat up anyone who tries to take her little girl. Hoping to dodge daddy’s wrath, Irene quickly establishes herself as a thoroughly unlikable character by grabbing a random “gutter punk” off the street and inviting him to a very public cup of coffee to throw her dad off the scent. But it turns out this “gutter punk” isn’t just any random homeless guy: he’s Ian, and three years earlier, he met a woman outside the very same restaurant, a very rich woman who bought him dinner and a suit and turned his life around, while at the same time he convinced her to not run away from her family. They agreed to meet at the same restaurant again three years later, and that day is tomorrow.
 
From here, things quickly go off the rails as coincidence after preposterous coincidence stacks up. See, Ian is Australian, but when he met the rich woman in question, he was marching across America to find his sister. Only it’s not really his sister, it’s his mom. Probably. The rich woman in question? She’s Irene’s dead aunt. And Irene knew this story, even knew that the big meet-up was imminent, yet she’s still unnaturally surprised that this guy is, y’know, the guy, but apparently not surprised enough, as she does virtually nothing to keep this nice guy from getting beaten up by her dad’s goons. Ian is left bleeding to death in a subway men’s room, too depressed that the woman he went to meet is dead to fight. But oh no! The woman? She wasn’t really Irene’s dead aunt like we were just told 15 pages earlier: she was Irene’s still living mom! Despite being a terrible person who mere minutes earlier was fine with this total stranger being beaten up in lieu of her boyfriend, Irene all of a sudden has a conscience and weeps uncontrollably, but a mysterious man tells her she’s not allowed to help, and Ian bleeds out and dies. But don’t worry: the guy is a novelist named Jim, and he’s going to tell Ian’s story in a book that will come out a year later. Flash forward to a year later and we glimpse Irene and her mom at a bookstore, where the book has been released amid rumors that the novel was based in fact and that the author had promised to kill himself a year after the subject of the book died, and that now that the book is out, he has disappeared.
 
That the prologue chapter crams more preposterous twists into its first 40 pages than fit into your average Lifetime original movie is bad enough, but from there it gets even more depressing. Jumping backwards in time, the rest of the book tells Ian’s life story through Jim’s novel (also titled not simple), a tale of family tension, divorce, a coldly distant father, a cartoonishly neglectful alcoholic mother, brushes with child prostitution, and on and on it goes like this. The only light at the end of Ian’s relentlessly dark tunnel are the love of his sister Kylie and the caring friendship of Jim, a gay man who has a subtle attraction to his subject.
 
But it isn’t the sad story that undoes not simple. In trying to stir up some mystery, Ono pulls a Pulp Fiction and presents her story out of order, a choice that completely destroys the book by scuttling any sense of tension or suspense. The fact that Kylie is really Ian’s mother and not his sister is treated like it’s supposed to be a surprise, but it’s not: we learn this fact on page eighteen, then Ono spends the rest of the book “foreshadowing” this “surprise.” On top of that, we know from the prologue that Ian dies never having met back up with his sister, so we have to slog through hundreds of pages of misery knowing full well that no one will be getting a happy ending. That knowledge makes it even more painful when Ono conjures up a series of unconvincing obstacles to keep Ian and Kylie apart.
 
Ono’s other works prove her artistic skill and ability to draw in a stylized-yet-realistic style. Here, she keeps things simplistic and sketchy, capturing her lanky characters with a gestural, thin line. The style is effective, but sometimes feels like a blatant shortcut; when her story requires that much of the heavy lifting be handled by facial expressions, it feels like a copout when she regularly doesn’t bother to illustrate one or both of a character’s eyes because their hair is slightly in the way. Ono’s ability to pace her pages for maximum dramatic impact is impressive, but when used in the service of such a melodramatic story, it only amplifies not simple’s problems.
 
Given the reputation of both Ono in general and the book in particular, I went into not simple with high hopes. I finished it feeling not only disappointed but, honestly, kind of gross. Withholding spoilers, the story takes several turns that feel exploitative, even more so in the context of Ian’s mercilessly downtrodden existence. not simple was just a relentlessly dour and unpleasant reading experience, plain and simple. | Jason Green
 
Click here to read the first chapter of not simple, courtesy of VIZ and Sigikki.com. Click here to read the entire Natsume Ono MMF archive at Manga Widget.

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