Lady and Old Man: Natsume Ono

Lady_OnoWe all know that my brain is a fan of Ono and her angled jaws and droopy cartoon eyes. She is one of the few artists to be tackled again and again and again in these pages, alongside such favourites as est em, Machiko Kyo, and Fumiko Fumi. So when I was browsing the world of manga from up on my mountain on cat island last year, my brain and I let out a little squeal of delight when we happened to notice that the new issue of Ultra Jump contained in its pages the latest from Ono. The squeals grew louder when I saw that the story was set in Los Angeles in the 1960s. I love the hints of retro style she’s been toying with in ACCA 13 Ku, and the idea of a whole series set in that period filled my brain and my heart with glee.

So naturally, I ordered that issue of Ultra Jump and waited with bated breath for it to be delivered to me and the cats. (The cats did not care about it, though. Not until I ripped out pages to ball up and toss around the house for them to play with. But I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t think it was the content of those pages that got them running around with murder in their eyes like that.) (Don’t worry. I only ripped out the pages once I was finished reading the magazine and was ready to throw the whole thing in the old oil drum that substituted for a recycling bin on cat island. Because there is no recycling on cat island. We just burn everything. In an old oil drum out back.)

Reading the first chapter in the magazine, I was indeed impressed. The time period was as perfect a fit with Ono’s evolving style as I had anticipated, but the story itself seemed tighter than anything I’d seen from Ono for a while. Although I love her art style and where her stories end up, I find myself occasionally frustrated by Ono’s tendency to drift in her storytelling, so that nothing really finds its focus and zeroes in on it. But the first chapter of Lady had me admiring all the ways she was pulling her readers in.

She presents us with the mystery of the titular old man. He’s just getting out of jail after a hundred years supposedly. But how is that possible? She offers us the dissatisfaction of the lady. Nineteen-year-old Shelly works at the diner her father owns, but she is insatiably curious. She’s not going to be satisfied with diner life forever. I already had so many questions after the first five pages. Then we’re introduced to Shelly’s father, a super softie who puts up a hard front, and some diner regulars, and suddenly, we have a whole world in front of us. The only question then is where this is going to go? And then Ono sends Shelly and Rob off on a delivery mission of the shady variety where unexpected hijinx ensue, and suddenly, we are reading an off-kilter buddy film or something.

Buddies_OnoAnd the later chapters are indeed broken up into delivery missions, so there is a one-offness to the chapters. But they’re tied together by the bits and pieces of information that Shelly and Rob glean about Rob and his past from each of the missions, creating a nice narrative thread that connects all the chapters, a bit contrived at times (why does everyone have a connection to Rob?), but still an interesting read. My fear, though, is that the editor will delight in whatever success the series has been enjoying and stretch it out far past its breaking point. The delivery-of-the-week format is a great way to get to know the characters and learn about Rob’s past, but it’s not sustainable for another two volumes even. At least for me, a grumpy old person who always sees in the adventure-of-the-week style of writing a naked cash grab.

At any rate, the art is reason enough to pick this one up. With a story set in America in the sixties, Ono is finally free to indulge in those retro, American tendencies that have been popping up in her work for the last few years. And I am one-hundred percent on board. The fashion, the hair, the glasses, the makeup, Ono has done her homework, so that everything looks picture perfect. And I swear, she wanted to draw this story just so she could draw Shelly and her long hair blowing in the wind on her motorcycle.

100_OnoThere’s a bit of modern feminist pushback in here, with Shelly taking the lead and riding the motorcycle while Rob is stuck in the sidecar. But it feels more accidental than intentional, a side effect of choosing a male protagonist unfamiliar with the modern era. As Rob finds his footing, he takes more and more of a lead in their delivery work. And for the most part, the book is filled with men, but it’s a nice hat tip to Ono’s roots as a BL artist.

I raced through this first volume, thrilled by pretty much every page, even as I registered my various complaints in my head to record for you here. It’s a fun start to a series, and the first chapter in particular is solid as hell. I’ll be reading book two for sure, if only to revel in Ono and the sixties finally joining forces for the joy of all (Japanese-reading) humanity.

Oyaji_Ono

(Apologies for the terrible image quality. Back in Japan without a scanner!)

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