La Quinta Camera

Written and Illustrated by Natsume Ono
Published by Viz

An Italian man with a room to spare takes in a variety of people over time in addition to his regular renters in a slice of life series that shows the roommates interacting and growing over time in this collection of webcomics from Natsume Ono.

I don't know that I've read a Japanese webcomic in translation before, so that makes this one notable to me. It's nice to see Viz using the Signature Line for a book like this one, even though I'm a bit late to the party in reading it. The label is a great fit for something like this, the early work of a now-popular creator.

La Quinta Camera was the series that put Ono on the map, and it's easy to see why. Her ability to weave characters in and out of the narrative, tell stories that could easily be about someone you know, and yet still give a feeling of place (the book is set in Italy, after all) and comparison between cultures (Japan vs Italy in terms of Christmas, for example) all shine here. The American is a total stereotype, but it's nice to see the US on the receiving end of a trope for a change.

The dialogue here is perfectly natural, allowing readers to get to know the characters well. Each has their own voice, so that even when limitations in the art make it more difficult to tell people apart, it's not hard to know who is speaking. (A tip of the cap to translator Joe Yamazaki for retaining that feeling.) By far the best part of the story is the natural linking of the stories, like when Charlotte (the opening focal character) loses her bag in a stranger's car, he turns up as one of the house mates. In another case, a random trip puts Al back in territory he'd rather forget. In clumsier hands that might feel too convenient, but Ono is already skilled at finding ways to do this so convincingly it's like finding out someone you know is actually Facebook friends with someone who has an unexpected connection to another of your friends.

I'm not sure how this was originally serialized on the web, but here it's gathered into traditional manga-style chapters, with "bonus" material at the end. Each of these moves linearly through time, skipping across various roommates and focusing on key times for the characters. The feeling is not unlike a movie about relationships, and thanks to the work Ono does in the opening chapter, you want to find out more about Charlotte, Al, Massimo, and the rest.

Artistically, this is also very different, in terms of most manga I've read. In fact, the next time someone says, "All manga looks alike" (which makes my skin crawl), I'm going to find a copy of this, show them a few pages, then hit them over the head with a Tezuka omnibus for good measure. The linework here still retains some essence of the things we think of as traditional manga art, like triangle chins or thin bodies, but the ways in which those concepts are presented are very different. In fact, the word that comes to mind for me with this is almost geometric. The characters, their surroundings, and everything else are angular, with the exception of the wide, expressive eyes.

Like many of the indie books I read, there's not a lot going on in the way of backgrounds. Ono chooses to focus squarely on her characters, leaving some panels without anything other than white or shaded tones. In a story about Italy, that's a bit disappointing, to be honest, but she makes up for it with her dialogue. The panel layouts are often quite packed, filling the page from top to bottom with characters and word balloons. This means that when there is white space/street scenes/etc., they have a real impact, serving as pauses in the narrative. Overall, the art won't be to everyone's taste, but it works for what Ono is trying to do.

La Quinta Camera is a cute one-and-done book showing the early development of Ono as she learns her craft. It's a good fit for fans seeking out more of her work and those who enjoy relationship-driven, everyday life comics.