La Quinta Camera

July 5, 2011

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2011 – 1 volume

This is more like what I wanted from Natsume Ono! I really like the type of series she writes, but Ristorante Paradiso rubbed me the wrong way for some reason. I thought it was a little too mundane, the lives of the characters just a little too average to support a book that contained nothing but conversation about their lives. La Quinta Camera is an earlier work, but it still appealed to me more than the later book.

The plot… well, it’s all about the lives of the people in a single apartment in Italy. It’s a five-room apartment, and four men live there on a permanent basis, while the fifth room (the title of the series, in Italian) is rented to a student that has come to Italy to learn Italian. We are introduced to the men in the first story through the eyes of one of the Italian students. We learn that one runs a cafe, one is an artist, one… sleeps, and one is a street musician. After the first story, the student becomes less a part of the story (though a different one is always a member of the apartment, of course), but each short story focuses on the lives of one of the men in the apartment. For instance, one is about the musician falling in love, a little bit, with the girlfriend of one of the students. One is about the sleeping man’s ex-wife and how he deals with the separation. One is about how everyone loves and hates the artist. And one is about marriage and changes of life.

The stories meander nicely, and as I’ve said of Natsume Ono before, you are only shown what the characters wish to tell others about themselves. There are no internal monologues, no narration. It’s all about conversation and getting to know everyone as naturally as reality, if that makes sense. And it’s true that it’s only about the lives of the characters, and there’s some element of humdrum to that. But their lives are far enough removed from my own, and different from one another, that reading it is more interesting than the somewhat mundane experience I had with Ristorante Paradiso. Ono’s narrative technique is the most unique and interesting thing about her books, and while I can easily see how it isn’t for everyone, it’s wonderful when it works as well as it does here.

The one downside to this book is the art. Ono’s artwork is a little different than the usual manga style, even as far as Ikki series go. She has a very loose way of drawing, and her character designs are more cartoony than they are manga-styled. Large heads, elongated limbs, and just a completely different visual shorthand all together. La Quinta Camera is even farther removed than the other books I’ve read by her, and in addition to the different visual style, the line work is also a lot more loose, and there’s a lot more white space around. It looks like an early book, for sure, but her style is so unusual it’s hard for me to call it rough or unpolished. It strikes me as intentional.

I thought this was a wonderful little story, all about the interesting lives of fairly average guys living in Italy and sharing an apartment as friends do. There’s looks at culture, how people enter and exit each other’s routines, and even a little bit about friendship in general. It all works, and I love the meandering way that everything is told. It’s different, and definitely a little calmer and slower than what most people may be looking for, but I still think it’s worth a read. It should also appeal to a lot of people outside manga fandom especially, since it has a lot in common with American “indie” comics, especially the biography-style ones. In fact, I think it does that technique one better by not getting bogged down in too much detail.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.