[4 March 2010]
not simple unfolds like an intricately constructed piece of origami. Start with the title. It isn’t ‘complicated’, for example. ‘Not’ and ‘simple’: the two words appear late in the story, when one character attempts to describe what she thinks of the main character in this unusual manga. She calls him ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’:
‘But not like a child. You’re hard to grasp. You’re not simple’, she says.
Those few words encapsulate the entire 316 page story. They’re practically a haiku.
At first, Natsume Ono’s single-volume story reads like an ambitious family drama, novelistic in scope and structure. It tells the story of Ian, a young man who has led what could charitably be called a difficult life.
Ian travels the world in hopes of one day reuniting with his beloved older sister. They suffered traumatic and psychologically scarring childhoods, and this has led to their separation. There’s also a framing story that follows a reporter-turned-novelist named Jim, who develops a strong attachment and feeling of empathy towards Ian and his journey through life.
The structure flashes backwards and forwards, and together with the irregularly-shaped panels, these structural elements seem to mirror the fractured and fragmented nature of Ian’s life.
Ono’s artwork also works wonders. Unique yet strangely familiar, there are occasional hints of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s faces, Taiyo Matsumoto’s fine, wavy lines, and Egon Schiele’s haunted eyes. The comic would fit in easily with any of the works in Fantagraphics’ Ignatz series of comics.
Then, as the story lingers in the mind, thoughts arise that Ono might be doing something more. One of the most affecting aspects of the story is Ian’s apparently affect-less and “pure” outlook on life, despite grief piled upon grief. A psychiatrist might diagnose him with a combination of depression and anxiety disorders.
But those concepts of purity, simplicity, innocence (even the denial implicit in the ‘not’ of the title) recall key elements of Buddhism and Zen, and that’s when not simple takes on the added dimension as a possible parable. Could Ian be an enlightened person? The first of the Noble Truths in Buddhism is that life is suffering, and Ian has had more than his share.
The Buddha’s three characteristics of existence also appear to have direct parallels in the story: annica, dukkha and anatta (respectively: impermanence, suffering/dissatisfaction/unease, and the doctrine of ‘no-Self’). These can all be used to characterize Ian’s troubled journeys.
Ian’s story also resonates with what D.T. Suzuki called ‘the spirit of ‘Eternal Loneliness’, in an essay on Japanese literature included in his Selected Writings. As an example of this spirit, Suzuki refers to the poet Basho, “the embodiment of Eternal Loneliness,” and cites this haiku:
A branch shorn of leaves,
A crow perching on it—
This autumn eve.
‘Simplicity of form does not always mean triviality of content’, Suzuki writes. ‘There is a great Beyond in the lonely raven perching on the dead branch of a tree. All things come out of an unknown abyss of mystery, and through every one of them we can have a peep into the abyss’.
In not simple, Ian’s experiences expose him to more than one kind of abyss: not only mystery, but also pain, sorrow, uncertainty. His seemingly passive and quiet response to every bad thing that happens to him echoes with Suzuki’s observation that, ‘When a feeling reaches its highest pitch we remain silent, because no words are adequate’.
Ian only wants to be together with his sister again. For a variety of painful and tragic reasons, he can’t, so he travels the world (and at one point early in his youth, trains as a runner), in order to do what he believes is necessary to find her, and find love. He sleeps in the street, unless a kind stranger takes him in. Though young, he appears weary and tired all the time.
‘When travelling is made too easy and comfortable, its spiritual meaning is lost’, Suzuki writes. ‘This may be called sentimentalism, but a certain sense of loneliness engendered by travelling leads one to reflect upon the meaning of life, for life is after all a travelling from one unknown to another unknown’.
Perhaps in Ian’s travels, he comes to find a way of existing that captures the essence of many Buddhist and Zen concepts, without consciously trying to do so.
In Ono’s depiction of his facial expressions and body language (ranging from grim to gleeful, but always inward-looking), we get a glimpse at the strange ‘Beyond’ that Suzuki identifies in Basho’s lonely raven.
Perhaps that’s one reason this story is so affecting: Ian feels familiar and real, and he draws from the reader strong feelings of empathy, even a mysterious sort of admiration.
Four-Eyed Stranger appears every alternate Thursday and looks at classic manga reprints, and unusual modern work by Asian artists that might not fall under a strict definition of manga.