Welcome to the Natsume Ono Manga Moveable Feast. I am proud to be hosting this month – Natsume Ono is one of my favorite mangaka, and her distinct style and narrative tone are what draw me to so much of her work.
As I have been reading House of Five Leaves, I have noticed a certain cinematography that many manga lack – Natsume Ono’s staging and scene creation are a unique feature of her work.
One of the most pronounced cinematic cues that Ono uses throughout House of Five Leaves is a “cut on motion,” where Ono breaks up the actions of characters in multiple panels. For example, this image (volume 2, chapter 11, pg 102) shows Goinkyo setting down his tea cup. While the action here is fragmented based upon the medium of comics itself, the act of putting down a cup could have been incorporated into the last panel. The “cut on motion” here adds tension and allows us to focus on the silent, thoughtful stare of Goinkyo in the upper panel.
We also see this technique used in the first fight scene of the first volume, which shows us very specific portions of the fight between Masa and the hired samurai. While on first glance, the action seems almost incomprehensible, the distinct “shots” of the action show quite a bit – a determination and fighting spirit that Masa has, the results of the fight, the fluid motion and skill Masa has with a sword.
These shots also do something important in what they don’t show us – which of the two samurai does Masa wound? How did he manage to chase them off? Ono decides that this information isn’t necessary – rather, the most necessary portion of the fight is Yaichi’s look of disbelief and gaping jaw as Masa quickly and soundly defeats his enemies. This decision-making shows that Ono is not an ordinary mangaka. For many, the focus of the fight would be an interesting way to bring action to a fairly peaceful and laid-back story – but focusing on the fight actually detracts from the content and the emotion displayed.
Stepping back to the page above, it has another trait that I find unique for its use of the inanimate object – in this case, a cup. Ono will use panels like this to create a somber mood for House of Five Leaves, where her less “serious” works, like La Quinta Camera, focus more on the characters as they say and do things throughout the book. In a book like La Quinta Camera, the story is especially told by the reactions and various emotions of the characters, but in House of Five Leaves, the emotions of the various characters are a bit more muted because of the setting. Whether the panel’s focus image is candy, a snapping turtle, money, or radishes, these steps away from the characters allow us as readers to focus on either what is being said, or the lack of words – in this case, the thoughtful silence and judgment of Masa by Goinkyo.
One of the other techniques Natsume Ono uses throughout House of Five Leaves is the downwards shot. Masa is described as being a very tall man, and Ono chooses to display this information by basing her panel composition around it. We often get the viewpoint of the main character, Masa, which often involves looking down on the other characters. As a illustration and composition standpoint, I love these scenes, because they generally contrast Masa’s strong and downward-looking glance with a weak and non-confrontational main character.
On the page to the left (volume 2, chapter 13, pg 162) we see another of Ono’s favorite cinematic shots – a series of close, personal, and stark images of each of the characters, involving their conversation and getting close and personal to each. Then, a distancing shot, which shows the world around them, and broadens the scope of the conversation (and sometimes, willfully distracts from it). Then, the distance shot followed by closer feature panels. Again, what isn’t said here is far more important that what is.
Ono’s panel construction reminds me of Japanese film, in some ways. Her dedication to composition and meaningful editing, the use of cut on motion and her incorporation of the ordinary into her most impressive scenes make House of Five Leaves a unique experience, and a read that bears repeating.