I first encountered and began to admire the work of mangaka Natsume Ono when I watched the Ristorante Paradiso anime. My adoration grew when I saw episode one of Sarai ya Goyou and after reading the RisPara manga and as much Gente ~Ristorante no Hitobito~ that I could get hold of, I realised that I was a definite fan. So when I saw her 2004 one-volume story, not simple, in an online shop, I immediately put myself further into my overdraft to buy it. What I didn’t realise is quite how much I’d get sucked into the tale or how impressed I’d be when I closed the back cover.
As the title suggests, not simple is anything but straightforward. While the story follows a young Australian man named Ian and tells of his life, the prologue essentially covers the tale’s conclusion before returning to the beginning with chapter one. The rest of the manga then follows a linear timeline while simultaneously weaving together three plotlines: Ian’s troubled family history and search for his sister, his relationship with author Jim, and his encounter with a mysterious woman in America who once bought him dinner and a three-piece suit.
From the outset the viewer knows the tragic end to Ian’s story, which makes every new revelation of his past all the more powerful and upsetting. More than that, the prologue serves as an immediate introduction to the central character and begins to show how the trio of storylines intertwine. Ian’s distressing past incorporates a variety of rather dark and disturbing topics such as incest, alcoholism, and child prostitution – an ambitious task for a one-volume manga. Though the amount of drama would be right at home in the crummiest daytime soap opera, it’s all handled in such a way that it doesn’t feel at all cheesy or melodramatic. Instead it encourages sympathy towards the poor boy, especially when his suffering is so relentless, and leaves the reader craving each new chapter in the hope that the prologue’s melancholy conclusion might not be the true end.
I generally like Natsume Ono’s looser and more relaxed drawing style, as it’s a little different from the norm. However, not simple lacks some of the polish and finesse of her more recent works. Even though this manga is only a year older than Ristorante Paradiso, there seems to be a considerable difference in the quality of the artwork. While similar, not simple lacks the glimpses of gorgeous imagery that graces the continental romance and instead offers up some sloppier sketches and oft-distorted facial features.
Ono’s use of screentone, on the other hand, is very effective. In contrast to the manga’s title, the overall visual style remains very simplistic – as such the shading follows the same pattern. The solid black inking and mid-grey hues inject enough life into the images without over-complicating it.
Ian himself is an intriguing protagonist. While his messed up childhood and the lack of parental love could have easily turned him into a depressed druggie or deranged psychopath, Ian’s innocence and naivety saves him from becoming a cliché. Despite all of his suffering, the young man doesn’t give in to his despair and instead stays true to his goals, determined to see them through. While his childlike nature leads him to seem somewhat emotionless or even slightly slow in the head, any subtle changes in his demeanour become all the more potent and far more dramatic.
Although the remaining cast members aren’t as fleshed out as the central character, it actually works in the narrative’s favour. The manga sets itself up as actually being Jim’s novel – a tale bout Ian and him alone while everyone else just facilitates the our protagonist’s progression. Though we gain a few details about some of the other individuals, when all is said and done this isn’t an ensemble piece. While teasingly feeding the reader a few titbits of Jim’s circumstances helps to build up more of not simple’s world, this also leaves the viewer with one or two unanswered questions. Luckily, the very final, and almost hidden, image of the entire book helps to answer the biggest quandary of them all while concurrently providing one of the most satisfying yet understated endings I’ve seen in a manga.
I find that one-volume stories can sometimes be tricky: many leave you wanting more, others try to be too ambitious and end up rushing through the plot, and some… well some amble along a mediocre path and fail to leave much of an overall impression. Luckily, not simple doesn’t fit into any of the above. With an engaging plotline and good pacing, the manga doesn’t over-stretch itself, and the only reason it doesn’t leave you yearning for more is because of its well thought-out and definite conclusion.