House of 1000 Manga Sunny
by Shaenon Garrity,
In my House column on Taiyo Matsumoto's GoGo Monster, I mentioned how the alt-manga master's career has drifted from fantasy to realism, toward work that feels increasingly drawn from life. Best known in the U.S. for Tekkon Kinkreet (also published as Black and White), a sci-fi riff about two feral Lost Boys in a futuristic urban Neverland, Matsumoto draws intense, disorienting, psychologically intimate stories, usually from the perspective of children with a shaky grasp of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Over the years his fantastic settings have metamorphosed into individualistic inner landscapes (although among his relatively recent works is the surrealistic, Moebius-inspired Number Five). In Matsumoto's current series, the autobiographical Sunny, a kitchen is as alien and vertiginous as any far-future metropolis.
Sunny takes place at a foster group home in the 1970s. Japan's foster care system is similar to that in the U.S., with institutional orphanages long ago replaced by small homes, often in the countryside. Like the group home in the recent American movie Short Term 12, the small rural orphanage in Sunny is homey and supportive, run by adults trying to do the best for their wards. But the kids know better than to get comfortable. “No way you're goin’ home,” quiet, bespectacled Sei is told on the day his mother drops him off. “You got dumped.”
Some of the residents are orphans, but most have families that are unable or unwilling to care for them. Sei is far from the only one to get dropped off by a parent with promises that it's just for a little while, only to realize as the weeks stretch on that those promises were empty. Unsurprisingly, many of the kids are troubled and act out—some aggressively, some sneakily. All of them are fully aware that life has screwed them over. But children are marvelously, tragically adaptable, and for the most part they're not unhappy, exactly. They just learn to incorporate abandonment into their lives. They survive.
At first it seems like the manga will be about Sei, the newcomer to the home, who looks a lot like his creator. Instead, Matsumoto switches the point of view from chapter to chapter, diving into the mind of each child in turn. White-haired Haruo acts hyper, smokes cigarettes, gets into fights, and hovers on the brink of trouble. Kenji—nicknamed “Horny Kenji” by the younger kids after they find his porn stash, although really he's just a typical teenager—threatens to drop out of school and hangs out with the tough kids in his class, who are uncomfortably aware that their rebellion is a safe adolescent phase but Kenji has no parents to rescue him. Awkward Kiko makes up outrageous lies for attention. Junsuke steals. Even the mentally challenged Taro, a gentle giant who picks flowers and sings nursery rhymes, eventually gets a chapter exploring his viewpoint. All the kids have rich fantasy lives that, in Matsumoto's art, bleed into reality. Reality is hardly less strange.
This sounds like sad material, and it is, but the overall tone is gently melancholy, even a little nostalgic. The kids play, go to school, make friends, develop crushes, and follow the routines of the home. The adults in charge are vaguely benevolent background presences. Their parents are absent gods. Only occasionally is the stasis punctured. In one of the most wrenching storylines, Haruo's absentee mother finally shows up for a visit. She takes him out for a weekend, and the disconnect between Haruo's excitement and her ambivalence is painful to watch. She's not cruel; she just has no idea how to be a mother, and Haruo, so tough in front of the other kids, leaps like a puppy at every clumsy gesture of affection. In later chapters, kids’ parents sometimes do come back for them, and they find, like recently released convicts, that life on the outside has its own complicated problems.
The title refers to an abandoned car on the grounds of the home, a Nissan Sunny (known in the U.S. as the Datsun, and talk about a classic 1970s detail). The kids brag that no adults are allowed to come inside, although it's hard to imagine an adult would want to, and they use it as their private clubhouse. They confess their feelings, make personal space, hide porn. Character after character gets behind the wheel and imagines a spaceship, a race car, a desert wasteland, or, inevitably, a ride home. The symbolism is on the nose—a broken ride out of the orphanage—but the Sunny makes for a poignant landmark, a place for fantasies of both refuge and escape.
Because this is a Taiyo Matsumoto manga, it's gorgeous to look at. The characters are stylized but carefully drawn, with sharp eyes and rosy, doll-like cheeks. They move through a vivid world that shifts from mundane to fantastic as if there's no great difference between the two. There's a strong, specific feel of place to the home, the small town surrounding it, the countryside, the local school. Matsumoto draws all the details kids would notice: birds and animals, small shiny things, the futon someone wet last night, the cute chopsticks in another, luckier kid's lunch box. The rough linework is shaded in textured ink washes, giving it a mixed-media look.
Currently five volumes long, Sunny is shaping up to be one of Matsumoto's longer works. He's not a prolific creator; even his untranslated hit sports manga Ping Pong is only five volumes. Although the characters develop over the course of the manga, it's essentially a series of vignettes that could go on indefinitely, checking in on each kid in turn. All of Matsumoto's work feels personal, but Sunny especially so. Matsumoto has been recalcitrant about discussing the autobiographical elements in detail. In a Japan Times interview, he places it in the tradition of semi-autobiographical Japanese “I-novels.”
Sunny is Matsumoto's slowest, quietest manga, especially compared to his muscular early work like Tekkonkinkreet and Blue Spring. Some readers may find it hard to get into. But once it hits its rhythm, it's hard not to keep thinking about the characters and wanting to drop in on them, just to make sure they're surviving. Sometimes you find a manga you want to hug.
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