by Natsume Ono
published by Viz; $12.99 US
I don’t care for the work of Natsume Ono. I found her samurai series, House of Five Leaves, confusing and Ristorante Paradiso badly inconsistent, with too much telling, not showing. I also think her art style is too wispy and insubstantial for much of the material she attempts.
Given that, I wasn’t looking forward to trying Tesoro, a collection of her short stories. I only decided to read it because Natsume Ono was the subject of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast. Imagine my surprise to find that I enjoyed reading it more than any of her other works.
While some reviewers have said that this volume isn’t a good introduction to the author, I disagree. I think it’s the format best suited to her work. She’s very good with noting and portraying just the right incident, not so much with longer narratives. That approach makes her longer stories seem disconnected, at the worst resembling pointless wandering, but in a short story, it’s the perfect skill to have.
The color pages that open the volume demonstrate an obsession with food that trails subtly throughout the book, whether it’s “Three Short Stories About Bento” (where we learn how emotional people can get about lunch, and how making food for a loved one shows you care) or a chef turning down a catering job or a pastry shop owner’s daughter binging on dessert after another broken relationship.
The story that really hit me, though, was “Moyashi Couple”, a piece about two older spouses worrying whether the neighbors think they get along. They have different interests, you see, and while they’re comfortable with the way they interact, they also decide to make a show of caring for each other to reassure those around them. “Moyashi” means “bean sprout”, and the story starts with the wife telling her husband that the neighbors are worried they’re not getting enough to eat, since they’re both skinny. Ono’s style is very well-suited for slender older people, with her spare lines giving them an elegance, and her showing how much they care for each other through eating strawberries together is subtle and nuanced.
Another poignant heartbreaker is the second of the bento stories. At his son’s request, a father makes him a lunch that looks like his departed mother. The way this plays out is touching and funny all at once, telling us more through what the characters don’t say than what they do. I wish all the stories in the book were as good as these two, but the later ones come from earlier in her career, so the first ones are the strongest and best-told.
Another set of tales shows us various people who need help of some kind — an orphan girl desparately seeking a father figure, a doctor taking care of an ill son, a professor in a bookstore who appears lonely, a widower hoping his son will help him reconnect with his father, a boy getting out of jail. The particular conflicts are sometimes unusual, as with the last. The debate there is, if your parents and your friends come to pick you up on your release from prison, whose car do you get into? That’s a creative idea, but it’s really just a mechanism to portray different kinds of relationships.
Sometimes it seems that Ono is playing a game, either with us or herself, to see just how few panels she needs to tell us what we need to know about a character or a situation. Sometimes, I think, she doesn’t give us quite enough notes, and I can’t quite name the tune. Other stories beg to go on just a little bit longer than what we’ve read. Some of the work is frustrating, but overall, the volume is a good indication of Ono’s strengths and weaknesses, her approach and favorite topics. For more information on that subject, here’s another review by David Welsh, Ono fan. (The publisher provided a review copy.)