Natsume Ono has any number of fine works to her name: the samurai drama that's not a samurai drama House Of Five Leaves (a personal favorite); the sly and endearing Ristorante Paradiso; the recently animated ACCA: 13 Territory Inspection Department. But it was not simple that left the greatest impact on me and still does, and which compels me to recommend it as a starting point for her work. It also embodies its title, as it starts by presenting what seems like the plainest and most uncomplicated of stories, and then shows how nothing — not good and bad people, not good and bad behavior — fit into the little cubbies we carve out and label for them.
Ian’s a drifter who looks like he could be any age between twenty and fifty, with hollowed-out eyes that have seen entirely too much. And yet he has a oddly naïve, wide-eyed approach to life—naïve enough that one day when he’s crashed out on a street somewhere, he says yes when a teenage girl approaches him and asks him to be a stand-in for her boyfriend to distract her crazy father. Then before either of them quite realize how tangled things have just become, Ian’s lying on the floor of a public restroom, dying from a stab wound to the stomach.
not simple begins with Ian’s lurid death and then leaps backwards across decades to show us how he fell this far through life. He’s been the victim of bad luck, says his friend Jim, a reporter-turned-novelist whose life has intersected with Ian’s on and off for years. Jim’s hatched the idea of turning Ian's life story into a novel, the sort of thing no one would believe if it were fiction. And yet not simple, which is that story itself, is entirely credible from beginning to end—not because of what happens but because of how it’s told, and how the people it all happens to respond to it. It’s to most manga what intelligent indie films like You Can Count On Me or Florida Project are to gaudy digital kitsch like Transformers.
Ian’s entire life has been a tangle of bad decisions and mislaid trust. It started in childhood, when his parents split up—or maybe it started long before that, if we pay attention to hints sprinkled throughout the book. Ian was only twelve when his parents divorced, leaving him stranded in a dead zone between them. His mother’s an alcoholic now living in London who spurns her children; his father wants nothing to do with Ian, but has an overweening interest in his sister, Kylie. This family’s not just broken; it was defective before it came off the assembly line.
Some of the damage most likely started with Kylie. Not because it comes from her, but because it was done to her and has been transmitted through her to another generation. She’s a number of years older than Ian, and as the story opens has spent at least some of that time in prison. Armed robbery, she says, but we know that people in prison have plenty of reasons never to tell the truth about what they did. She gets out, finds Mum and Dad have split, hunts frantically for them, and finds Ian living with her mother—barely living, since the two of them are subsisting on a combination of neighborly charity and Ian working part-time for a butcher up the road. Then Kylie finds out Mum has pressed Ian into providing them with another source of income, something that no mother should ever ask her child to do. (She didn’t ask, either—she simply made it happen, so it is all that more stomach-turning when we realize what it is. More than that I will not say here.)
All of this being shuttled around and treated with cavalier lovelessness has made Ian a hollow man, head filled with straw. He only answers the most direct of questions. He looks at everything, good and bad and awful alike, with the same sad, blank eyes. When he smiles, it’s only his mouth that’s smiling—except in one photo where he and his sister are crowded into the frame and grinning without a care in the world. The only real ambition he has is to become a runner, and it’s the one goal he seems to be able to chase earnestly and without compromise. He’s not a bad fellow, just limp and diffident in the face of what he’s accepted is his lot in life. It would be nice, we think, for someone who has been given so little in life to have something he can call his own.
This is where he crosses paths with Jim, the reporter who grows at first fascinated with Ian and then horrified of what has been done to, and with, Ian. It’s not enough for him to simply bear witness to Ian’s life, he realizes; he feels obliged, in some way, to atone for not doing more than simply looking. And then there is the business of the way Ian and Kylie feel about each other, one of those situations where feelings provide more of the truth than any searching for facts would.
Ono, both author and artist, presents all of this without fanfare or twisting of the arms. There are almost no major moments of action; most of the panels are just people looking at each other. Backgrounds are minimal. Environments are reduced to a few functional details. Like more conventional manga the characters all have outsized eyes, but only so that we can look first at everyone else and then at Ian, and feel from him a hunger and thirst of the spirit that we despair of ever knowing how to feed.
I have been vague about a lot of what happens, detail-for-detail and moment-for-moment, because a lot of what hits hardest in not simple is how those things are revealed both to the people in the story, and to us. That and how quietly it does so; the story doesn't need to shout when it can just murmur, or shut up entirely and let things speak for themselves. A simple image of a cube of bubble gum clutched in someone’s hand has all the impact of those early panels of Ian dying, because we know what that image represents and we don’t need to be told any more than that. We have already seen for ourselves.
Do this. Go buy the book, and read it once, all the way through, in one sitting. Then stop for a few minutes. Step outside, look at the sunset, eat an orange. Then go back in and read it again from the beginning, and see how you notice a whole ‘nother book’s worth of story that wasn’t there before—all hidden in the ways people glance sidelong at each other, or stare into each other’s eyes, or smile up at a camera. You could, I think, come back to it any number of times and find that much more there.
Then there is the title. Simplicity in life is an illusion, something we find by way of reflection, the process of paring down and distilling and finding the threads that matter most. But the messy reality underneath remains forever messy, not simple now and never to be.