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November 14, 2011

Bento Bako Weekly: not simple (MMF)

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Written by: Kristin
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Title: not simple
Author: Natsume Ono
Publisher: Viz Media (Sig IKKI)
Volume: One-shot, $14.99
Vintage: 2006 by Shogakukan, January 2010 by Viz Media
Genre: Slice-of-life, drama

[This review is part of November’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted at Manga Widget, paying tribute to the lovely Natsume Ono. You can check out the archive page here.]

There is nothing simple about this sad story of the unluckiest guy on the planet. As the book opens, a young woman is trying to find the safest way of running off with her boyfriend without getting him killed by her father. She spots an apparent homeless man sleeping on a nearby bench and decides to use him as a coverup. Knowing her father’s goons are watching, she invites the stranger out for something to eat. The man, Ian, is not homeless, but tends to travel a lot, and begins to tell a story to the girl named Irene. Irene realizes there’s something familiar about his story, and soon connects it with a story her mother once told her about her aunt Jenny. Three years ago, Jenny had met a homeless looking man that she picked up, dressed in a suit, and took to get something to eat. Jenny had been planning to run away from her life that day, leaving her husband and kids behind, but the stranger she met talked her out of it. The man was at the time traveling around the country searching for his missing older sister. They agreed to meet in three years to see how their lives were going. This man, Irene realizes, was Ian. Jenny, unfortunately, died a year previous, and Irene informs a shocked Ian of this. Knowing her mom will want to hear Ian’s story, she calls home to see if it’s OK to invite him for dinner, but while she’s on the phone, she recognizes her father’s goons in the crowd. She rushes to the bathroom where Ian had gone, and bumps into a novelist named Jim who also knows Ian just before they spot Ian bleeding out on the bathroom floor with a wound in his side. As Irene tries to make sense of things, a rather detached Jim coldly brushes her inquiries aside and tells her to look for the book he plans to write if she wants to know more about Ian. A year later, Irene is reading the book in a diner, and after she leaves, the other patrons discuss the mysterious fate of the book’s author, who has vanished.

A depressing start indeed, but it just goes downhill from there, even though it seems impossible things could get worse. The first chapter of the book is actually the end of the story, as the next part of the book takes us back to Ian’s childhood. Ian’s older sister, Kylie, is about to be released from prison (she committed armed robbery), and all that’s been keeping her going is knowing that Ian, now thirteen, is outside waiting for her. She plans to take her brother and run away together, leaving their uncaring parents behind. However, when she gets out, she finds her parents divorced and moved. She tracks down her father, who coldly informs her that their mother took Ian and ran off to England. In England, their mother does nothing but drink all day, forcing Ian to run the house and work odd jobs so they’re able to eat. The mother’s sister gives them money, but it all goes straight to alcohol. She’s been told to keep their location a secret from Kylie, but realizing there’s nothing more she can do, she finally tells Kylie what’s going on. Meanwhile, wanting more money for her drinking habit, Ian’s mother hands him over to her neighbor, a pimp, to prostitute out for some extra cash. When Kylie confronts her mother, it becomes obvious that their family situation is far worse; Kylie is Ian’s son with her own father. Suddenly a lot of things start making sense. To repent for what she’s put her mother through, Kylie decides to stay and look after her, and sends Ian to live with their father. They make a promise to meet again when Ian fulfills his life’s dream (breaking a certain track record). Ian’s father, however, wants nothing to do with him, and though he’s willing to support the boy, he avoids all but the bare minimum interaction with his son. Ian practices running nearly every day, working towards his goal so he can see Kylie once again. He gets older and meets a news reporter named Jim, who becomes interested in Ian’s story. When Ian gets a cryptic letter from his sister saying that she’s suddenly going to America, Jim invites the distraught Ian to move with him to New York so that he can search for his sister. In New York, Ian, who is desperately searching for familial bonds, finds himself living out of Jim’s home, a man who is estranged from his own parents due to his life choices. In the same building lives Jim’s friend Rick, who has run away and is hiding from his family. Eventually, Ian is able to track down Kylie, who is in prison once again. When he returns to Jim two years later, he is a changed man, and his sister is gone. Desperate for some kind of connection, he decides to tell Jim his story. The story isn’t over yet, though; as Ian wallows in his depression, Jim unearths a slip of paper he had returned home with, that has the address of his sister’s former boyfriend. Wanting to know what became of Kylie, Ian seeks the man out, but is met with nothing but another nightmare. Even with that final shock, things finally seem to start looking up for Ian. He’s made a new family of sorts with Jim and Rick. Then he leaves to meet up with the woman from three years ago….

Oh, Miss Ono, why would you ever write such a depressing story! You think it starts out bad enough, right with a death, but it just gets worse and worse. Dying is probably the best thing to happen to this poor guy. A lot of this story is formed around relationships between family members. There’s Ian, a guy who is desperately searching for familial connections and affection, and…just about every other character who is trying to escape that. Ian’s luck is truly horrible, and his story unfortunate, but somehow this guy who just can’t catch a break ends up helping those around him. Because of Ian, Irene’s mother returns home, Jim gets in touch with his family, Rick does the same, Kylie patches things up with her mother, people around him find the love and happiness that he always missed out on. Unwanted by the people who should be his family, he’s able to convince others of how important family should be. Bonds of family and friendship are typical themes for Ono’s books, and is probably why I enjoy them so much. Most of not simple is an experience that is hard to put into words, and really needs to be read and interpreted from a personal perspective. The story can be read in different ways. For a cynical read, Ian’s birth and presence ruins everyone’s lives. From a more optimistic perspective, he saves various lives and helps rebuild failing bonds. It’s a matter of…is anyone glad to have met Ian? His father isn’t; his father won’t even acknowledge him as his own. His “mother” hates him because he’s a constant reminder of her husband. On the other hand, while Kylie’s life undoubtedly would have been better off without Ian, she’s the only member of that family who wants Ian to be happy and make his dreams come true. At first glance, Ian appears to be a simple sort of guy, pure and naive. And he is. But he’s also perceptive to the pain of those around him, and he somehow seems to know the right things to say to people, or what they need to hear. As for the people around him, Jim is definitely the most interesting, probably because we really know the least about him. He rarely talks about himself, at least in his time in the book. I can imagine him talking a lot with Ian “behind the scenes,” so to speak. The point is, as readers we know very little about him. He appears to care for Ian beyond a simple friendship, but doesn’t appear to ever act on it. I thinks he’s gay, though he never says it himself; it is hinted at by Jim at least, and other people speculate on it. Rick is, by his own admission. Ian…his troubled childhood has left him with some strange ideas about sex and love, ideas that baffle both Jim and Rick when they learn about it. Ian seems to be sort of stuck in his teenage years, having not matured much beyond that. Well…no, I don’t think that’s quite right either, but his sexual maturity is at least stuck there. This is not a yaoi title, just so that’s clear. I really don’t think it can be relegated into a genre. The story also deals with something I’ve rarely seen in manga – HIV/AIDS. It’s actually not spelled out in the book (and I mean that literally), but it’s alluded to a couple of times. It doesn’t have a profound effect on the story, it’s just yet another element coloring the continued tragedy of Ian’s life. The book isn’t a statement on any one thing. There’s a lot going on, and Ono draws and writes out the whole thing marvelously. It seems like a simple story, but it’s not simple at all (see what I did there), because there are so many threads weaving through these people’s lives, breaking, mending, forming new weaves, all centered on gentle, unlucky Ian.

Wednesday, come back for Natsume Ono’s Tesoro.




  1. […] Kristin (ComicAttack.net): not simple Review […]

  2. Lovely review! not simple is one of Ono’s more devisive works – some love it, while others think it’s too full on the melodrama. I fall firmly in the first camp – not simple is beautifully done. Looking forward to your review of Tesoro!

  3. Kristin

    Appreciate the comment, Alex!
    I really enjoyed it. The first chapter cinched it for me. Just that was enough to tell me I was about to read a brilliant story.
    For whatever reason, I couldn’t get a real solid grasp of it. Or maybe there’s just so much going on that my mind couldn’t pin anything down. My review turned into a rambling mess as I jumped from one thing to another, rather overwhelmed by how much Ono manages to put into so few pages. Hope you were able to pull something out of there. 🙂

  4. I had my own take on “not simple” here: http://www.genjipress.com/2010/01/not-simple-natsume-ono.html

    Remarkable, to say the least. I think I’ll be revisiting it long after I’ve forgotten about most other stuff I’ve read in the last five years.

  5. […] over atComicAttack.net posted a thorough review of Ono’s large work,  not simple  and likens Ian’s involvement in the other characters’ lives to the fibers of a cloth […]

  6. […] Anime and Manga Blog) Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of Hikaru no Go (Blogcritics) Kristin on not simple (Comic Attack) Dave Ferraro on Princess Knight (Comics-and-More) Leroy Douresseaux on vol. 4 of […]

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