What’s The Big Deal About Natsume Ono?

By Brigid Alverson

A few years ago, only a handful of American manga readers had even heard of Natsume Ono. Last weekend, appearing at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), she was doubtless met by a large contingent of English-speaking fans, and she is likely to draw another crowd when she appears in the Kinikuniya Bookstore in New York City on May 10.

What changed? Viz began publishing her work in English in 2010, and word has spread quickly. Their first Ono license was the stand-alone manga not simple, which was part of their attempt to entice readers of indy graphic novels. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that it reads right-to-left, not simple could easily pass for an American graphic novel; it has a clean-lined look and a story that is set in the U.S., Australia, and England (but could take place anywhere). Since then, Viz has followed up with Ristorante Paradiso, its sequel, Gente, and The House of Five Leaves, and it will publish La Quinta Camera, Ono’s first comic, in July, and Tesoro, a later work, in November.

Ono’s first manga, the webcomic La Quinta Camera, appeared in 2003, so she has only been drawing professionally for eight years. During that time she has assembled an impressive body of work, however, and while Viz has licensed a number of her books for U.S. distribution, there is much more to Ono that we have not yet seen in translation.

Two things knit her work together. One is her style, which is instantly recognizable even though she varies it from book to book. The simple lines and areas of unmodulated black and white in not simple give way to a more complicated and detailed style in her later books, but Ono is always recognizable as Ono. One of her trademark features is her characters’ wide mouths, often a simple line that turns up for a smile, down for a frown. She can actually express an amazing array of emotions with that single line, but at the same time, it gives her characters a uniform look.

The other common characteristic is travel. Her characters seem to be constantly on the move: The shattered family in not simple hops from continent to continent as if it were nothing at all, and the spine of the story is the main character’s journey in search of his sister. Ristorante Paradiso is about a woman who travels to Italy to meet her estranged mother (Ono lived in Italy as a student, so it crops up frequently in her work). The House of Five Leaves is about a wandering samurai who falls in with a gang of kidnappers.

In Japan, Ono’s work is published in IKKI magazine, which is also home to such creators as Taiyo Matsumoto (Black and White) and Iou Kuroda (Sexy Voice and Robo). While technically classified as a seinen (young men’s) manga magazine, IKKI is a touch more literary and gives its creators freer rein than comparable titles. In the U.S., Viz is serializing a number of IKKI titles, including House of Five Leaves, on its SigIKKI website.

There is another side of Ono that we haven’t seen yet, and Khursten Santos has a nice essay about it at her site, Otaku Champloo: Ono draws yaoi, or boys-love manga, under the pseudonym Basso. This work has a more solid, less linear style than her more mainstream work, and according to Santos, her storytelling is more straightforward as well. David Welsh has more about these books, including cover images, at his blog. Ono has also done a number of dounjinshi (fan comics), including one about the New York Police Department and another based on the manga Naruto.

While it is possible that some of the Basso works may make it to the U.S., the doujinshi are more of a long shot. In the meantime, Ono isn’t letting any grass grow under her feet: She just announced last month that she is starting a new series, set in the Edo period, about two men at the Kawasaki Daishi temple. If the past is any guide, we should be seeing it in English before too long.

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