La Quinta Camera

La Quinta Camera, By Natsume Ono Translation: Joe Yamazaki Touch-up Art/Lettering: Gia Cam Luc Design: Fawn Lau.
By Natsume Ono
Translation: Joe Yamazaki
Touch-up Art/Lettering: Gia Cam Luc
Design: Fawn Lau

La Quinta Camera was a webcomic series that established Natsume Ono as a mangaka in Japan, but was translated by Viz after her later work Ristorante Paradiso. Nonetheless, one can see a number of commonalities between the two works. Ono displays an early fascination with the Western cultural milieu, particularly Italy. And just as in Ristorante Paradiso, the manga has a thing for adult males of a certain age. Even in her first story, Ono handles the lives of her characters with a deft and light touch, devoid of any cheap melodrama.

The manga does contain a few surprises. Considering Ono’s more mature minimalist style, La Quinta Camera’s art is practically primitive by comparison. Ono’s figures are blockier and more squat, almost reminiscent of early Cubism. Her lines are more uniform, as if she only used technical pens which produced a certain line thickness. This results in characters who are more archetypal in appearance. They’re recognizable primarily through larger features like their hairstyles, or preferred items of clothing.

Ono also uses a much simpler setup to make her story work. In the first chapter, a young woman from Denmark arrives at an unnamed Italian city and immediately suffers a series of mishaps. We learn that she’s here to learn the language. But after losing her personal belongings, getting lost, interacting with a few of the locals, and finally managing to find the language school, she’s directed to an apartment building for her room and board. To her surprise, she discovers that her hosts happen to be the very locals she met earlier on the street. If this were a more conventional story, the rest of the manga would be about the fish-out-of-water misadventures of the woman and her 4 eccentric roommates.

But this isn’t the case at all. In the next chapter, the woman has already moved out of the apartment and an artist has moved into the room. We learn that the owner has arranged with the school to rent the apartment’s 5th room to the school’s foreign students, who usually stay for a short period. Each chapter introduces a different student, and their outside perspective allows us to learn a little more about the 4 permanent residents in the apartment.

While they might not be the center of attention, the students are nonetheless an important component. There’s an opportunity to further ground the setting in local color through comparisons with the customs of the students. Many of those interactions take place over a warm meal. A shy Japanese youngster comments about the differences between how Italians and Japanese celebrate the Christmas season over preparations for a big feast. On another occasion, the hosts are mortified over how one American’s love for french fries has permeated the apartment with an unwanted greasy stench.

Overall, this approach makes for an easily accessible work. The story builds through the accumulation of intimate conversations, mundane observations, and tiny revelations. We come to realize what mini tragedies brought these individuals together, and appreciate the generous spirit that compels them to open their home to a varied and ever-changing flock of strangers. The meandering narrative is like taking a casual stroll through a friendly and welcoming neighborhood where the locals wouldn’t hesitate to talk about their lives over coffee and panino.