Ristorante Paradiso

By Natsume Ono
176 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

Viz looks to be making a major push on Japanese comic creator Natsume Ono. Several months ago had the release of not simple, and House of Five Leaves is running on SIGIKKI as well as getting its first print edition later this year. They’re both strong comics, and after experiencing both of them it seemed like a natural to try Ono’s earlier work that just hit stores, Ristorante Paradiso. What I found, though, was a surprise in several different ways.

After reading not simple I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Ristorante Paradiso is a book with a slightly unsettling familial relationship. Here, we meet Nicoletta, whose mother Olga separated from her father years ago and moved to Rome with a new husband. The problem is, Olga now pretends that she never had a daughter, because her new husband had told her that he would never want to marry someone with children. Now an adult, Nicoletta has gone to Rome to try and confront her mother, and therein lies the problem with the story. On the one side, you’ve got Olga, whose abandoning of her daughter in order to get a new husband is never adequately justified. At best, it makes her a lousy person, at worst a reprehensible one. Her abandonment of Nicoletta never comes across as anything but selfish, and it’s hard to tolerate her presence in the book. And then there’s Nicoletta, who promptly blackmails Olga so that she can get hired onto Casetta dell’Orso, the restaurant that Olga’s husband runs and which is staffed exclusively by handsome men. Ignoring her motives (to get close to Claudio, a divorced waiter who is still unable to move beyond his ex-wife and wears her wedding ring) it’s a book where the main characters seem to have an attitude of, "anything’s fair in the service of love." The problem is, the book never sells that as being justifiable. Nicoletta’s actions might not be as morally dubious as Olga’s (although Nicoletta is originally showing up for the sole purpose of trying to destroy Olga’s marriage), but the fact that she ends up stooping to blackmail shows that in some ways the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree.

Ristorante Paradiso is also a slim book, and it was about two-thirds of the way through that it suddenly hit me that it didn’t feel even remotely close to coming to a conclusion. When that moment does happen, it’s so swift and such a non-event that one of the characters even comments, "That was anticlimactic." It could be that there was a behind-the-scenes reason for Ristorante Paradiso ending so rapidly, but unfortunately that still leaves us with an unsatisfactory ending. It’s frustrating, because there are little flashes of good from Ono the whole way through the book; little moments where Nicoletta is falling for Claudio, for instance, or some of the kitchen prep scenes. A manga set in the kitchen of a restaurant has a lot of potential, and it made me wish that Ristorante Paradiso could somehow shed the soap opera nature of its overall plot.

On the other hand, Ono’s art looks to be almost as strong here as in her later works. I love the loose assembly of inks that pull together (almost out of nowhere) to form characters. It’s a relaxed final product, one that draws people in a natural looking way. The biggest surprise for me with Ono’s art was how well she handles drawing an older-looking character while still making them attractive. Claudio looks to be an older, distinguished gentleman, one that isn’t muscular or energetic. He’s also quite handsome, and that’s a mixture of qualities that most artists fail to bring together. Honestly, for that reason alone Ristorante Paradiso gets some points with me; it’s nice to see an artist remember that good looks come in all shapes, sizes, and ages too.

I wanted to love Ristorante Paradiso, but in the end it just felt uneven. With unlikable characters and a hurried conclusion, it feels like this could have been much stronger. Maybe, given additional chapters, it could have come together a bit more. Interestingly enough, there’s a prequel series (also set for publication this year from Viz) called Gente about the founding of the restaurant and focusing on the other kitchen staffers. As the rest of the kitchen staff felt incredibly similar and generic, having each of them fleshed out from a blank slate sounds like it could work well. If I had go to entirely off of Ristorante Paradiso, I’m not sure I would automatically give Gente a try. But having read some of Ono’s other works, I feel like it could still work.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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