Ristorante Paradiso

Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono.
Natsume Ono is the latest beneficiary of a growing market for adult and experimental manga which every U.S. publisher seems to be banking on these days. Indeed, her art seems to come out of left field of mainstream conventions. It's recognizable enough to be labeled "manga". But just quirky enough to attract the attention of the indie crowd. Her most ambitious work to date, the period story House of Five Leaves, is currently being serialized online and will also be printed by Viz. Ristorante Paradiso however is an earlier work with a very different subject matter.

Readers who prefer their comics art with a more polished finish are going to find Ono a potential turn-off. I find it pretty refreshing. In Ristorante Paradiso she draws lithe, elongated figures which straddle a fine line between appearing elegant and appearing grotesque. She employs relatively thick, broken strokes to delineate her figures. And she keeps her background details sketchy at best. Sometimes this can make her page layouts appear flat and a little difficult to follow. She compensates by filling large areas with black or shades of gray to help with the page's readability. Overall, her characters possess a shopworn look that's very appealing.

The art also complements the story's setting. Like Fumi Yoshinaga's workplace comedy Antique Bakery, it takes place in an eatery staffed with attractive males. The establishment is a restaurant in Rome named the Casetta dell'Orso. Ono slightly subverts the bishonen fetish by making them distinguished, bespectacled middle-aged men (If there's a popular Japanese term for this fetish, I'm unaware of it). This policy is reinforced by the owner partly to attract more patrons, and partly in order to please his wife Olga. She is however keeping a secret from her husband that she abandoned her only daughter Nicoletta after the dissolution of her first marriage. Now a 21 year old woman seeking revenge, Nicoletta shows up one night at the restaurant threatening to expose Olga's past. But she then settles on blackmailing Olga for a job as one of the kitchen staff after she becomes enamored with the restaurant's headwaiter Claudio.

Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono.

From this convoluted soap opera beginning, the book settles into a low key, slice of life comedy with romantic underpinnings. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace. Character development comes in tiny increments and small revelations rather than big dramatic gestures. Many readers would probably agree with one character's assessment of the ending as being "anticlimactic". This suits the understated nature of the story just fine. But Ristorante Paradiso also touches on the lives of ancillary characters, mostly the wait staff, possessing backstories that are more interesting than that of the three main protagonists. It doesn't help that the wait staff are all cut from the same design template as Claudio. A single volume feels too slight to sufficiently differentiate them and leaves many intriguing glimpses of narrative threads waiting for more extensive development. Ono might have sensed that, as there is a prequel called Gente being currently serialized which delves into their backgrounds with greater detail.

The story has the characters also engage in several awkward actions which are then conveniently set aside, including a final reveal at the end of the story. While this hardly seems realistic, Casetta dell'Orso is a place where people surrender to its ambiance of and accept one another. Anger and bitterness are eventually washed away. And as sappy as this sounds, love finds a way to forgive past transgressions, at least in Paradise.

This is what defines Ristorante Paradiso as a work for mature audiences. Not with adolescent angst or over the top histrionics. Not even with passionate rendezvous between star-crossed lovers. But with a quiet acceptance of living in a present full of uncertainties.