Manga-ka: Taiyo Matsumoto
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Mature (16+)
Release Date: May 2013
Synopsis: “Synopsis: “What is Sunny? Sunny is a car. Sunny is a car you take on a drive with your mind. It takes you to the place of your dreams. Sunny is the story of beating the odds, in the ways that count. It’s the brand-new masterwork from Eisner Award-winner Taiyo Matsumoto, one of Japan’s most innovative and acclaimed manga artists.”
Anyone upset by the news of Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed retirement might find some consolation by picking up Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto. Like Miyazaki, Matsumoto often draws on childhood and the surreal as inspiration for his work. The main difference would be that while Miyazaki usually centers his stories on strong female heroines, Matsumoto homes in on boyhood and young male characters. This is especially true with Sunny, a manga loosely based on Matsumoto’s own childhood experience of living in a group home.
The manga starts off with a new kid, Sei, arriving at a chaotic children’s home. The kids range in age from toddlers to teenagers and it’s rarely spelled out what any of them are doing there. Some are orphans, while others (like Sei) have been left there by their parents for unspecified reasons. The adults who run the home are kind but that doesn’t stop the children from missing their families. While there are lots of cute moments in Sunny, it’s also the most melancholy work of Matsumoto’s to be published so far in English.
A common thread through Matsumoto’s work is the resilience of children and how imagination can save you from a grim reality. Both these themes are present here and signified by Sunny, the titular car that the children play in. When the kids are sitting in the driver’s seat of the broken down yellow car, they can go on just about any adventure: race car driver, lunar explorer, you name it. In one of the more tear-jerking scenes in the manga, Sei uses it to imagine himself driving down the streets of his hometown, pulling up to the home where his mom and dad live.
Sunny is also notable in that it is the first manga of Matsumoto’s that I’ve read to have actual female characters. In the past Matsumoto has created manga almost entirely populated by male characters. Here the children’s home is coed, and while the focus is still on the boys the girl characters that do get page time are just as interesting. It’s like Matsumoto has had some kind of breakthrough, realizing that children, regardless of gender, want the same things: love, attention, friendship, and this insight allowed him to write interesting girls as well as boys. Matsumoto has long been one of my favourite manga-ka (perhaps my favourite) but his lack of female characters has always disappointed me. It’s good to see him break with that with Sunny, even if it’s still disproportionately a boy’s tale. Here’s hoping that we see even more of the few (but unique) girl characters in volume two.
Taiyo Matsumoto’s art is darker here than some of his other titles, using a lot of watercolour and hatching to fill space. This gives the manga a dense, dreamlike quality. The lack of screen tones also gives the manga an old-school, nostalgic atmosphere, appropriate for a manga based on the creator’s memories of youth.
At the start of this review I compared Taiyo Matsumoto to Miyazaki, and while there are a lot of similarities, Matsumoto’s work is slightly weirder and darker than Miyazaki’s films. Sunny actually reminds me a lot of Wandering Son by Shimura Takako though the two manga are radically different in art style and execution. Both of them show how childhood can be a wonderful, exciting time, but don’t shy away from how much it can suck. Both manga also have a respect for children and how well they can adapt to adverse situations.
Despite its cheery title, Sunny isn’t a very happy series, but it’s sadness is bittersweet rather than melodramatic. It’s an extremely well-done manga, and while I’ll recommend just about anything by Taiyo Matsumoto, Sunny, his latest work, may actually be the best one to start with.
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Book purchased from Strange Adventures