Blue Moon Reviews — Two by Natsume Ono

The manga of Natsume Ono, brought to American shores by VIZ Media, has been enjoying critical acclaim over the past year. Danielle Leigh reviewed the first two Ono releases—the stand-alones not simple and Ristorante Paradiso—and now I’m tackling the debut volumes of two new series, House of Five Leaves and Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso.

House of Five Leaves, Vol. 1

By Natsume OnoVIZ, 208 pp.

Score: A

Wow. I think I am in love.

House of Five Leaves is the story of Akitsu Masanosuke (“Masa”), an unassuming samurai who was dismissed by his lord due to his inability to intimidate. Since then, he’s been trying to find work as a yojimbo (a personal bodyguard or security patrol for an establishment), but the same personality problem continues to arise. When he is hired to guard a charismatic man named Yaichi while he performs a dangerous errand, Masa finds himself intrigued by the other man and envious of his composure.

Masa’s samurai pride receives a blow when said errand turns out to be collecting the ransom for the kidnapped son of a merchant. Yaichi belongs to a group known as the “Five Leaves,” and he wants Masa to join them. Masa balks and continues to try to find his own work, but he’s too poor to refuse when Yaichi tells him he can eat for free at a bar run by another Five Leaves member, Ume.

The more he’s around Ume and the others, the more Masa begins to feel at home. His existence has been a lonely one, and even though these people are kidnappers (who unequivocally dismiss the notion that their focus on troublesome families can in any way be construed as noble) he enjoys their companionship.

I feel a bit bad for Masa because it’s obvious that Yaichi expected this to happen, and he has no compunction in using Masa as an unwitting inside man for the group’s next job. What Masa feels for these people is genuine, but do they return his feelings in kind? At the same time, it’s frustrating that he doesn’t walk away after this ill usage, but remains more intrigued by Yaichi than ever and wants to learn more about him. Masa is fascinated, ensnared by Yaichi’s personal magnetism, and it might be his downfall. His plight is so sympathetic, though, and the story and characters so vivid, that I am fascinated, too.

This series is the longest of Ono’s licensed works so far, with eight volumes available in Japan. I look forward to relishing each as much as I did the first.

Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso, Vol. 1

By Natsume OnoVIZ, 176 pp.

Score: B+

Billed as the “delightfully whimsical continuation” of Ristorante Paradiso, Gente is really more of a prequel told as a series of short stories. This format makes it rather less awesome than House of the Five Leaves, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a very entertaining read.

Likely to appeal most to those who enjoyed Ristorante Paradiso, Gente provides a look into the background of Casetta dell’Orso, the restaurant in Rome where much of the action takes place, including the decision to hire only bespectacled older gentlemen as waiters. It also spotlights a few of the employees—the “cranky-but-kind” Luciano, who impassively resists the advances of a customer while lovingly babysitting his grandson, and the energic Vito, who meets his future wife in one of the tales.

Some stories are better than others, but the overall blend is pleasant and low-key with only one hint of strife (one chef doesn’t seem to think too highly of another). The timeline is a little hazy, as I’m not sure how long before Nicoletta’s arrival (as depicted in Ristorante Paradiso) all this is happening, but ultimately it isn’t really that important. The purpose of this story is seemingly to visit a while with old friends, not to embark on new adventures.

The debut volumes of House of Five Leaves and Gente are available now. The second volumes of both will be available on December 21.

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