Saturday, June 16, 2012

La Quinta Camera

With this blog post, reviewing Natsume Ono manga is starting to become a trend of sorts. A trend that I would like to keep going, as I enjoy her work very much. But with my third Natsume Ono review and the fifth Natsume Ono work I've read in all, I've hit a slight bump in the road. What I mean to say is that I surprisingly didn't particularly care for 'La Quinta Camera'.

Set in Italy, 'La Quinta Camera' starts us off with an exchange student named Charlotte. Charlotte, bored with life in Denmark, hitchhikes to Italy as a language student, determined to make a new and more exciting life in a new country. Right of the bat though, she runs into trouble by forgetting her valuables in the truck that gave her a lift. With no money, and running into a fellow that is less than friendly to tourists, Charlotte has a bad start to her new life in Italy. Luckily, she meets a kind street musician named Luca, who helps her earn some money by singing, and takes her to a friend's cafe for a nice meal. With her morale back up, Charlotte goes by her language school to find out where she is going to be staying. With a mix up in housing, the school has no choice but to put her up in an apartment that is occupied by four, middle-aged men. As a young girl, Charlotte is at first nervous at the prospect of having four, older men as roommates, but soon realizes that she is already quite familiar with her new housing companions. Luca, the street musician, and his friend and owner of the cafe they ate at, Massimo are among the four. And to her surprise, Al, the truck driver who gave her a lift into town, is one too, and he brought with him her valuables. Just when things were looking up, the last roommate, Cele, shows up, and it turns out he was the rude man that labeled Charlotte a "boring tourist" earlier. But even then, when Cele finds out she is a student and not a tourist, and he will have a new, female roommate(much better than the sloppy, Canadian male roommate they had previously), he apologizes and Charlotte warms up to him. And with that, we follow the daily lives of the four roommates, and the many exchange students that come to occupy "the fifth room".

I think this book had a lot of potential. It had a great setup with fish out of water Charlotte living in a new country and rooming with a strange group of guys. That concept laid out in the first chapter had promise, but we never get to see that play out. Instead of that, we get a series of vignettes that show a new occupant of the fifth room each time, and we never really get to know any of them enough to care. Charlotte still sticks around after she moves out, but the year she lived their happens off screen and we never get to know her either. She becomes a side character of sorts, no more developed than the four roommates, instead of the budding main character that she could have been if this book had more focus and ambition to be more than just a overly mild slice-of-life.

Don't get me wrong. I love slice-of-life stories. It's probably my favorite genre. But the slice-of-life stories that I think are good develop the characters in a natural way, and have a good blend of comedy and drama that you would find is real life situations. The most developed character in this book would be Al, and even then, we still hardly got to know him. Al is a truck driver who is always sleeping when he isn't working. When Charlotte finds out that Al avoids a particular town to he doesn't run into his ex-wife, she tricks him into accompanying her their, so that she can get him to talk out his issues with his ex. Through her meddling though, we come to find out that his reasons aren't as dramatic as they seem. Al mutually split with his ex because he wanted kids and she didn't. Then he comes to find that she ended up having a child with her next husband. Needless to say, Al is quite bummed out about this, but in the end, it never really turns out to be that big of a deal. And that's about as deep as we get into exploring characters and their backgrounds.

Because of the lack of character exploration, this book ends up being a story full of side characters, with no real main character or focus. Even then, I could see a story like that working if the characters did or talked about anything interesting. The very peak of drama is when the owner of the apartment, Massimo, decides to get married when he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant. With this development, we find out our less than dynamic group has to go their separate ways. Accustomed to having this group of quirky roommates that he kindles friendships with(but we never get to see), Massimo gets a little depressed. But after discussing it over dinner, he realizes this isn't the end of their friendships and that he can continue to see them whenever he wants. That's it. That's the climax of the story. Now, I wasn't expected some exciting soap opera out of a Natsume Ono style slice-of-life story, but to be honest, this was kind of boring.

One of the aspects of this book that I could appreciate was the art. Natsume Ono has at least two very distinct styles of art. One is more refined, less odd, but still distinct from anything you will see in mainstream manga, and it is used in 'Ristorante Paradiso' and 'House of Five Leaves'. The other still has Natsume Ono's signature look, but it is more deformed and simple, and I think would look quite weird to a casual manga reader. This style is used in 'not simple' and this book, 'La Quinta Camera'. I find myself at a loss for words to describe the style, but this is because I am an incompetent writer, not because it is indescribably odd. Again, I'm trying not to fall back on my go-to-word for weird art, "cartoony", but for lack of a better word, that's kind of what it is. It's unrealistic, has asymmetrical lines, and characters are often drawn purposely inconsistent from different angles. I personally love this art style. It's different, and for me, different is good. It's a change. Too often in manga, the art styles are so generic. Reading a manga like this with weird art helps to relieve that "samey" feeling I get from reading a lot of popular manga. That's not to say that is the only reason I like the art. It is genuinely aesthetically pleasing to me. But I'd be willing to bet that casual readers would be turned off by it. And that's okay, but I urge you to take a second to get over your shock of how different it is from the usual, and try to see if you can enjoy something a little more atypical.

With the lack of engaging characters, interesting interaction, compelling drama, or really any one element that will grab you, I can't say I really recommend this book. It's not that it is offensively bad. It's just so mediocre. Especially compared to Natsume Ono's other works, like 'Ristorante Paradiso'. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to Natsume Ono's work. To people that are already fans of Natsume Ono, it wouldn't hurt to pick this one up from the library. I'm personally such a fan, that I want to read her whole catalog, good and bad, and I don't regret reading this book.

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