By Taiyo Matsumoto
224 pages, black and white, with some color
Published by Viz
I’ve always appreciated that you never know quite what you’re going to get with a Taiyo Matsumoto comic. Some are rooted firmly in reality (Blue Spring, Ping Pong), others utter fantasy (No. 5, Tekkon Kinkreet/Black and White), and a few a strange mixture and melding of the two (Go-Go Monster). In the case of his latest series, Sunny, it’s a book that might at first look to fall into the latter category. But as you read more about this book’s group of young children and the car that can bring them anywhere they want to go, the more you’ll find yourself glad that it’s one without any magical elements whatsoever.
Matsumoto opens up Sunny Vol. 1 by introducing us to Sei, a young boy who’s the latest addition to an orphanage/halfway house/foster care facility (it’s never 100% clear) which is the central location of the series. As Sei meets all the different residents—each with their own personality and quirks—we also learn about Sunny, a car in the back yard that the children regular use to magically go wherever they want. But of course, it’s not literally taking them there; this is all about them mentally escaping their current situation to imagine themselves somewhere better. And in doing so, of course, Sunny becomes much more interesting.
At first it feels like Sunny might just be a heartbreak-of-the-week story situation. How else can you describe it when the opening chapter involves Sei using Sunny to drive himself back to the home that he just had to leave, and having a family there who can still take care of him. When that’s your fantastical, I-can-go-anywhere dream? It’s a little sad and depressing. From there, though, Sunny delves into fleshing out each of the kids as one-by-one they start to get a spotlight chapter. Some are funny, some are surprising, and all of them are strong. I have to give Matsumoto a lot of credit in that not only do the kids go from a bunch of faces with names to real characters as Sunny Vol. 1 progresses, but he also does a fair share of building it up when you aren’t paying attention. Kenji’s in the background of the first three chapters, for example, but we start learning that he’s a bit of a lothario through comments from some of the other kids. When we then get an entire chapter all about him, the rest of his story clicks into place and it becomes that much more interesting.
The best two chapters, though, have to be the final ones. Chapter 5 introduces us to Makio, the grandson of the housemaster who occasionally visits the kids. Watching the children light up over an adult’s arrival is partially joyous because I don’t think we’ve ever seen them quite so happy and excited as they are in this chapter. At the same time, though, it also says so much about their home lives before they came to this facility that it’s a little sad; these are kids who are starved for adult attention and compassion, and Makio’s occasional visits emphasizes that in a way where it never needs to be explicitly spelled out. That’s then followed by the events of Chapter 6, where little Shosuke goes missing and the children and staff of the home all rally to try and find him. In many ways it’s a very stereotypical moment—the coming together of everyone for a shared goal—but Matsumoto makes it work. Coming right on the heels of Makio’s visit, it helps answer the question of who these children have for their own family (namely, each other) and once again shows rather than tells. It’s a great story with which to close out Sunny Vol. 1, and makes me eager for the next volume this fall, even as it also could have just as easily served as an early conclusion if necessary.
Matsumoto’s art in Sunny looks great. His faces always look great, sometimes twisting up into strange expressions of delight and glee, but just as easily able to turn on a dime and knock out that sad expression. Panels usually have a tight focus on the characters, which is great for giving us their body language, but I must admit that I especially love seeing the slightly run-down, less-gleaming sights of Tokyo that Matsumoto brings to life. The neighborhood is a perfect match for the kids of Sunny, and getting to wander through it in Chapter 6 is a treat. There are also some nice touches with the kids, especially Junsuke. Junsuke’s big afro of hair often looks almost like a smoke cloud, and it’s drawn without any hard borders. It’s a neat effect, one that you don’t often see in a book that’s normally just hard ink lines.
Sunny Vol. 1 was released by Viz in an attractive hardcover edition, and this is a book that’s earned it. I feel like in many ways this is the most accessible Matsumoto manga to date, but without sacrificing good storytelling or dumbing things down. I’m already looking forward to the second volume and beyond. If you’ve never read a Matsumoto comic before, this is a great place to start.