I came across Natsume Ono from an unusual direction. Back when I was active in the fan community of my favourite manga Gunslinger Girl I went through something of a 'tifosi' phase, voraciously devouring anything to do with the manga's setting of Italy - its history, landscape and culture. I even enrolled in Italian language lessons for a while, and it was while seized by the fervour of this Mediterranean enthusiasm that I picked up Natsume Ono's Ristorante Paradiso and its sequel Gente. Both shared Gunslinger Girl's sunny Roman backdrop, if not its content - I liked Gunslinger Girl for being a spy drama with high-fidelity firearms (scratching the itch of someone starved for /k/ontent after Gunsmith Cats ended), yet whose action was elevated into grand opera by soulful meditations on humanity compromised by vermillion lashings of the Italian vendetta... moving on from that to Ristorante Paradiso's gentle otome 'reverse harem' romance where a woman is fawned over by handsome older gentlemen whose long fingers play with each other as much as her was a change of gears, to say the least! Natsume Ono's Gay Lit stories like not simple aren't a feature of my normal reading lists, so my curiosity was piqued when I saw ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department on the bookshelves, brought to us after the Madhouse-produced anime version that was broadcast last year raised the original manga's profile. Natsume Ono was reciprocating my earlier gesture, reaching across to me: moving from her previous quieter, civilian tales to a political thriller of drama and intrigue. I'm curious to see how she adapts to the change of environment.
The Kingdom of Dowa is a large, modern and peaceful country, and part of the reason why that peace has been maintained is through an acceptance of regional autonomy - rather than trying to forcibly hold itself together as one great continental mass the kingdom offers its subjects local expression in thirteen provinces. There are still ties that bind these disparate states together into a kingdom though, and chief among them is ACCA. Named for the bluebird that is the kingdom's emblem, ACCA is a government ministry with many responsibilities supporting people's lives - leading police, fire brigades, hospitals and other aspects of public safety. Every state has its own independent ACCA branch, but testing the lines between them and national headquarters is the Inspection Department. The Inspection Department ensures all of the data sent from the regional branches is on time and accurate... and if there are any irregularities that usually means that some crook's fiddling the books. Thus the Inspection Department's vice-chairman Jean Otus travels across the kingdom sniffing out local corruption - he's excellent at his work, but his superiors are starting to wonder if all this free jetting about the country is allowing Jean to be a bagman as much as a troubleshooter. For all of Dowa's outward appearances of peace there are grim rumours of a planned coup d'etat, and "Jean the Cigarette Peddler" does mysteriously maintain a very expensive taste in tobacco for someone on a mere cop's salary...
...and "expensive taste" certainly suits ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department. Even though Dowa is a fictional kingdom it definitely maintains a Continental vibe, with sub-plots about discovering bijou boutiques selling artisanal bread, multiple interludes for Jean's elegantly-dressed sister to doff her beret for an al-fresco lunch at a city café, matters of state are decided in Versailles parlours, ACCA operatives zip about in dinky little Fiats, and ACCA themselves resemble the Carabinieri with their impeccably-tailored uniforms - . If nothing else this manga would certainly appeal to a fashionista, as multiple chapters end with a profile of a different branch's uniform and even when off-duty a trip to a restaurant still calls for a whole wardrobe. When regarding Jean's office uniform you get that sort of frisson of guilty pleasure when you discover that S.S. uniforms were designed by Hugo Boss - yes, the Nazis were genocidal maniacs who scarred Europe for decades but they certainly cut a sharp line doing so!
Background art is drawn with detail in certain specific establishing shots for new scenes (but do Japanese not understand how toast works? In one scene Jean is eating a slice of bread bigger than a whole dinner plate), and Natsume Ono has a light, wavy line so that crowd scenes dissolve into a reflective shimmer of light and hubbub becomes not a pounding din but a soothing lap of water. While the map of Dowa is fairly silly - the country is laid out like a giant bird with feather-shaped islands and a peninsula for a beak - whenever peculiar maps show up they should always be judged against the rock-bottom of the appalling world of Allison and Lillia (whose adventures took place in a trans-continental bum-cleft) so ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department is certainly not the worst offender I've ever seen!
I emphasise ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department's tasteful and artistic fashion sense because to be quite honest it really doesn't have much else going for it. Despite the high stakes of revolution and dictatorship that are hinted at, the manga very determinedly stamps out any notion of action or excitement. The opening chapter sets the tone: Jean's detective work exposes a smuggling ring, and he never leaves the ACCA office. You don't even see the bust! There's something to be said for a slow-burn building of tension, true, but ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department has not even turned the oven on... and at a premium £12 a volume, anyone picking up this series will have to tolerate a very expensive wait for anything to happen.
I mentioned some time ago in my review for Drops of God (a wine-drinking manga that incidentally was another title I was attracted to by my Italian love affair) that manga in particular is ill-suited to dense talking-heads drama like this. Western comics can do it better by simple dint of having larger pages than the typical tankobon in which to fit more text, but tall and narrow manga speech bubbles are incredibly limiting for Latin letters - vertically-read Japanese kanji symbols can comfortably fit sentences inside them but when translated into horizontal English you have little space to cram in more than half-a-dozen at a time. This means that conversations become frustratingly bitty and choppy, as you have to keep flitting across the page to snatch at disparate fragments of conversations popped into multiple bubbles and then try to stitch together whatever shreds you clutch into a dialogue. What was once keen rhetorical prestidigitation gets boxed into sausage-fingered plain meaning; important information is cut beyond concise and just becomes plain thin. Reading ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department shows me that for all of this manga's vivid sense of art design little has evolved in the way of visual presentation to get me to change my opinion, and even many years after Drops of God the same struggle to communicate remains. I don't ask for wall-to-wall car chases and gunfights but it's fair to demand that if you are going to be having a dialogue-focused manga - and a dialogue-focused manga amongst a suspicious cast of uncertain and compromised loyalties concealing hidden agendas, at that - then you had better ensure that dialogue sparks with revealing hooks and scintillates with double meanings, but sadly it's functional, plain and drab throughout.
The monotone, tuneless text flattens the characters - for instance, in the second volume an impatient prince wants to seize his inheritance sooner. He's thwarted at a public meeting where the elderly king decides against abdicating, forcing the prince to bin the grand sweeping accession manifesto that he'd been preparing and make up a more humble one. One of the ACCA chiefs scoffs that this new speech is "terrible", presumably to indicate to the reader the unsuitability of the idiot prince, but the problem is that there's no comparison between different characters to see why - it sounds much like everyone else, and really he did well to mask his frustration and invent something off-the-cuff. The dull dialogue thus undermines the point.
That last sentence becomes a neat summation of ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department. It undeniably has good art and Natsume Ono has a certain level of ambition to do a story well outside her comfort zone, but she fails to realise it. As unusual as it seems I actually hoped that Natsume Ono's previous experience on soap opera-like stories would actually translate quite well to palace intrigue - people still lie and cheat whether they're deciding the fate of nations or relationships - but as similar as dissembling might be unfortunately she's evidently gotten hung up on the change of scenario and losing confidence in her own voice has overwhelmed her. Buy one volume to enjoy the European style but don't set much stock in the story.