Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
At the Star Kids Home, a combination group home/orphanage, a disparate group of children struggle with both the everyday issues of growing up and those specific to abandoned or orphaned children. Their one avenue of escape is the Sunny, a junked car that sits a little ways from the home. In the Sunny they can travel the world, go into space, or just find a refuge from the troubles of their world.
For those of us of a certain age, stories about orphans or abandoned children call up the image of Punky Brewster, the spunky little girl who was adopted by an older British man in the 1980s TV show of that name. For others the child who comes to mind is Little Orphan Annie in one of her many incarnations, the spunky little girl who was adopted by a wealthy older man during the Depression. Taiyo Matsumoto's Sunny may give people a different point of reference when it comes to tales of orphaned or abandoned children, one that shares elements of both of the aforementioned stories but on the whole takes a much darker tone than either of them but may prove to have just as lasting an impact.
Sunny, named after the junked car of that model that serves as a playhouse for the children of the story, is about a small orphanage or group home in an unnamed Japanese town. From contextual clues, we can assume that it takes place during the 1970s – song titles, lack of computers or other technology, and uniform skirt lengths combine to create a feel of this particular decade. The children of Star Kids Home seem to vary in age from infancy to late teens, and the group we follow are in late elementary school or early middle school. It is unclear whether or not any of them are actual orphans – the story begins with Sei being dropped off by his parents and at one point Kenji goes home to visit his alcoholic father, so clearly there's an element of child protection or a way for parents who can't provide to give a home to their children. Sei tells the other children that he is only staying for the spring, but they promptly inform him that he was “dumped.” Sei seems to take this in stride, but when he takes the wheel of the Sunny, his imagination allows him to drive it home, showing us how badly he is hurting without Matsumoto having to use any explanatory dialog.
This lack of spelling out what a character is feeling is one of the strengths of Sunny's introductory volume. Perpetually snot-nosed Junsuke is devoted to finding four-leaf clovers in a ritual designed to get he and his little brother out of the home and white-haired Haruo continually uses the Sunny to escape not just the home, but reality altogether. That combined with the fact that his hair appears to have turned white during his tenure at Star Kids tells us a lot more about his character than any of his spoken words. Of course there are exceptions to Matsumoto's rule of show-not-tell, but in most cases he manages to make them equally as powerful. One of the few girl characters to get a larger role, Megumu, is deeply touched by the death of a stray cat, and Matsumoto allows her to vocalize precisely why this is. There is a slight hint of the overdone in her words, but showing her continued fear in later chapters without having her say what she is doing soothes some of the melodrama.
What will most likely steer people away from this volume is Matsumoto's distinctive art style. Non-manga readers will recognize it from the film Tekkonkinkreet, another of his works, and those more accustomed to the more aesthetic manga style of mainstream authors may find the grittier art of Sunny difficult to stomach. There is an element of the grotesque in many of Matsumoto's images, with round rosy cheeks becoming bulbous and snot running from noses in constant streams, but it does serve the story better than a more cleaned up style would. Junsuke's hair is often just a blob of grey ink, as if Matsumoto pressed a brush to the top of the character's head, and some of the older male characters can be difficult to tell apart. The monstrously large Taro, who seems only to communicate by singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” has an ogre-like appearance that is at odds with his personality; while it is interesting, it is also a sort of bizarre fantasy note in an otherwise realistically drawn story.
Viz's edition of this book is impressive. A hardcover with no dust jacket, the book includes many color pages and a smooth translation. There is no synopsis anywhere in the book, which is a bit of a turn-off for anyone unfamiliar with the author, and the size is the same as other Signature line releases. There is no glossary for cultural notes; instead song titles, signage, and cultural references are footnoted between panels.
Sunny's first volume is both easy and difficult to read. It is a book that requires thinking on after you have completed it in order to really absorb what Matsumoto is trying to say. Small images at the corners of pages need time to be deciphered in the greater context, as do the references to The Little Prince that show up from time to time. On the whole, however, Sunny is an interesting glimpse into the lives of children who feel that the world has forsaken them and how they manage to cope with the help of an old car and a little imagination.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B-
+ Thoughtful story that really tugs at the heartstrings now and then. Good use of “show” vs. “tell.” Great presentation.
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