Interview: Mangaka Natsume Ono

Since childhood, mangaka Natsume Ono harbored a deep fascination for Italy and other foreign destinations. She began drawing comics about them as a self-publishing dojinshi artist and eventually had the opportunity to visit the Italian peninsula in 2001. After nearly a year, Ono returned to Japan to start the web-comic La Quinta Camera. Her work was quickly noticed by the manga industry which lead to her start as a professional mangaka. Since her debut, Ono’s follow-up Ristorante Paradiso was a huge success spawning both a sequel and an anime adaptation.

GR: Critics often talk about the complexity in your narrative and your mature writing perspective. Some attribute it to your late start as a mangaka. Do you think starting your career at a later age affected the way you approach your stories and characters?

Natsume Ono: I’ve actually been drawing manga for a while. What’s considered my debut happened after I developed my writing style. So, I’ve been writing a little bit longer than is generally acknowledged.

GR: You were about twenty-six when you started drawing the web comic La Quinta Camera. When did you decide to pursue manga as a profession?

NO: So, I have been drawing manga as a hobby for a few years. I took a break from work to visit Italy for ten months to study Italian. When I returned, I found myself out of work. For nearly a year, I just continued drawing manga. I thought to myself, “This is what I’m doing anyway; I should try to do this professionally.” That was the first time I decided that I want to be a professional mangaka.

GR: You’ve mentioned that you studied abroad in Italy. How old were you?

NO: I was twenty-four/twenty-five. It was 2001-2002. Nine years ago.

GR: Did you travel all along the peninsula or did you stay in a particular city such as Florence, Rome, or Venice?

NO: I was in Bologna. Looking back I wish I visited other cities, but I was just in one city at that time. [laughs]

GR: A major theme in many of your works [such as Not Simple and Ristorante Paradiso] is the concept of travel. Can you discuss the way you use travel as literary technique in your work?

NO: This doesn’t answer the question directly, but I don’t really think about the “why”. So, I’ve never really thought about travelling or what it represents. Because to me, the character just starts moving. Then I look back and think what that might have meant for the characters to have done that. But there isn’t really a purpose when they start moving.

GR: Is it related to the Japanese concept of jibun sagashi no tabi (“a journey of self-discovery”)?

NO: I never tried to impose my personality in any of my books. It is precisely why I’m careful to keep myself out of it, so that common traits are developed which maybe represent something deeper inside of me. But none of it is done consciously. [laughs]

GR: More specifically in the manga Ristorante Paradiso and La Quinta Camera, I’ve noticed you frequently use Italy as the setting. What is it about Italy that inspires you?

NO: I have already been using Italy as a stage for my writing before actually going there. It’s really based on a childhood admiration of Italian culture. There certainly were Italian sports on television, and I loved the food. As a child, I kind of liked Italy and started drawing comics about it. Then I decided that I wanted to keep using Italy as the setting, but wanted to see it before trying it again. That’s why I actually went there so that it would make sense [in my work].

GR: Is the restaurant in Ristorante Paradiso based on an actual place? Can someone visit Casette dell’orso?

NO: [laughs] Because I went to Italy as a student, I really couldn’t afford to go to restaurants like those. So, it’s not actually based on any real restaurant. I never got the chance to experience one.

It’s totally not based on anything. It’s just made up in my imagination.

GR: In a media culture that values youth, you’ve successfully used much older characters in your work like the men of Casette dell’orso. What do you think is the appeal of these older men?

NO: One of my first works was a doujinshi that was centered on the theme of myopia. It was about people with poor eyesight. I started focusing on people wearing glasses. So, that’s the reason for Ristorante Paradiso. Beyond that, I like to set characters in a place where they are always talking to each other. I wanted to write about the side stories like the family histories, their pasts, and etc. For that to happen they can’t be children, and they can’t be young. They have to be at least thirty to forty years old. They don’t have to be fifty or sixty years old.

GR: Since we’re in New York, I have to ask this question. You’ve also written doujinshi and manga (Danza and Coppers) about the NYPD. What inspired you to use them in your work?

NO: I’ve always been sort of fascinated by the NYPD since I was in Junior High. It’s because of a show called ESU which stands for Emergency Services Unit (True Blue in the US). This was a show that re-ran on Japanese television when I was in Junior High. It was my first introduction to the NYPD.

GR: In terms of structure, except for House of Five Leaves and Gente, most of your works are one-shot manga. Do you prefer working on shorter length series?

NO: In the case La Quinta Camera, it was an editorial decision. In the case of Not Simple, I started serializing it as a web comic. I completed a volume, but volume two was never actually published… but I guess the editor just shut it down. So when Ikki/ Shogukan came to me about it. They wanted to complete the second volume. I thought it was better to have both volumes combined into one fat volume. They said, “You’re right. It would work out better.” It was sort of a joint editorial decision. The format is usually based on negotiations I have with the editors.

In the case of House of Five Leaves, it was really my first attempt at a really long form narrative. But otherwise, I enjoy doing episodic series like Gente.

GR: Is House of Five Leaves the exception or do you envision yourself doing more long form narrative?

NO: I think I got the knack for doing long form narrative from Five Leaves, and I want to keep experiment with different type of long form. But I also want to continue doing serialized omnibuses and serialized episodes. I want to do it all.

GR: Your artwork and character designs are very bold and unique. It’s very similar to indie American comics. How did you develop your drafting style?

NO: In middle school, I encountered a cartoonist named Tada Yumi and that was a huge influence on me. All of her work is set in America. I would go so far to say there’s a whole style which has been influenced by Tada Yumi. Just like there is a Shonen Jump style. Many artists have been influenced by her.

GR: I’ve noticed your clever use of pauses in your storytelling. All the dialogue and actions seem to stop at the poignant moment of the narrative. The only thing on the page is the ponderous expression on the character’s face. Are these meant to be deeply introspective moments?

NO: In a manner of speaking, it’s like self-reflection. But sometimes the effect of the words has to digest in you while seeing two facial expressions right next to each other, one more thoughtful than the last. So that might explain why I don’t use words in those situations.

GR: I heard you’re currently working on a historical series about Kawasaki Dashi for Ikki Magazine? Can you tell me anything about it?

NO: It very difficult for me to talk about it without giving anything away. [laughs] So, please wait for the publication. All I could say is it takes place in Tokyo.

not simple © 2006 Natsume ONO/Shogakukan
Ristorante Paradiso © 2006 NATSUME ONO/OHTA PUBLISHING CO.