“Sunny” is a manga masterpiece. Page by page, it quietly transcends similar slice-of-life comics in its depiction of children in a foster home, their caregivers and estranged parents. Written and illustrated by renowned manga artist Taiyo Matsumoto, this six-volume collection, which won the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award in 2016, is based on Matsumoto’s real-life experiences growing up in a group foster home. To read it is to enter a discordant world, populated by discarded children.
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One of these children is Haruo, whose free-spirited, unmarried parents flit in and out of his life, leaving only moisturizing cream and loneliness in their wake. Then there are Megumu and Kiko, who struggle to navigate friendships and make connections; and brothers Junsuke and Shosuke, who visit their ill mother at the hospital, their grimy pockets overflowing with lucky clovers for her recovery.
The title, “Sunny,” refers to an abandoned, rusted-out car — a Nissan Datsun Sunny 1200 — near the foster home that the kids escape to, where they create fantasy worlds or sneak peeks at stashed, forbidden magazines.
Matsumoto has long been praised for his authentic depictions of children — he says they’re easier to create than older characters.
“It’s hard to explain, but I feel like the kids are only playing the part of kids,” Matsumoto says of most manga he has read. “I consciously make an effort to render the characters as realistically as possible. I try to let the child naturally shine through.”
According to Matsumoto, the children (and adults) in “Sunny” are “about 70 percent based on reality.”
“The names have been changed, but it’s the first work I’ve done that’s based on my experiences. It was fun to write, but I was also worried that the characters were too much like the real people. I worried about offending my parents — although I did ask their permission,” he says. “My dad told me to go ahead but, in his heart, I’m sure he had some reservations.”
Matsumoto had been mulling over whether or not to write “Sunny” for more than two decades.
“Each time I finished a work, I’d think about writing ‘Sunny’ and then always give up.”
Aside from the daunting prospect of depicting “the hard times” Matsumoto experienced as a child, he says he was concerned about sharing his story in the “right” way. To do this he continually experimented with form, pushing the visual boundaries of manga. “Sunny” may have struck a chord with comic connoisseurs, but even first-time readers will be surprised by Matsumoto’s attention to detail and unusual compositions. He ricochets from the imaginative adventures of children to a painfully personal depiction of a drunken father; from a child’s incandescent view of city lights to the runny-nosed, mundane realities of childhood.
Unassuming in person, Matsumoto transforms into a towering force with a pen in his hand. “Sunny” is just one of his critical and creative successes: in the 1990s and 2000s he created a string of notable manga, including “Tekkonkinkreet,” a tale of orphaned street kids who take on the yakuza; “Ping Pong,” which focused on the psychology of two competitive table tennis players; and his illustrations for the historical manga “Takemitsu Zamurai,” which traces the life of a masterless samurai in feudal Japan.
“Sunny” is different to those previous titles because it is so personal. In it, Matsumoto turns his imagination toward his own memories. And the result? “At once heartbreaking and heartwarming,” says the manga’s English translator, Michael Arias.
An American filmmaker based in Japan, Arias also directed the 2006 anime adaptation of “Tekkonkinkreet.” His “Sunny” translations have garnered multiple awards and nominations. The sixth and final volume was released on Nov. 15.
Usually Matsumoto and his wife — manga artist Saho Tono, who collaborated with Matsumoto for “Sunny” — would hand the books over to their publisher without knowing their translators. But when they heard that “Sunny” was to be translated into English, there was only one option.
“We’d been working well together for a long time, and even before that I was a big fan of Matsumoto-san’s work,” Arias says. “But I worried about whether or not I could actually do it justice.”
The text weaves together rural Japanese dialects and allusions to 1970s pop culture along with the songs, slang and nonsense words of children. It authentically conjures up the experience of being a kid in Japan. But rendering this patchwork of styles and references in English would be challenging even for a veteran translator.
“I think every writer likes to know who is doing the translation,” Matsumoto says. “In our case, we knew Mike and he knew us and our personalities.”
Arias leveraged this familiarity as he labored over the text.
“I am intimately acquainted with Taiyo and his oeuvre and I tried to infuse this into the translation,” says Arias.
“Sunny” could have gone on indefinitely, but Matsumoto decided to end the story after only six volumes in order to keep the quality of his work high. But it wasn’t an easy decision to end the story — he says he still misses the characters.
Little moments from the children’s lives linger long after you turn the last page: there’s Junsuke’s umbrella “house” at school, which he refuses to shut down; Kiko, who quietly reads her horoscope at the seedy bar where her mother works; and Haruo, who sneaks aboard a truck with Sei, running away to make it on his own.
In the end, “Sunny” stands as a poignant testimony to the quiet power of childlike wonder in a world that often disappoints or betrays its young.
“At first, I thought it might be a rather dark story. It turned out to be pretty upbeat,” says Matsumoto, pausing as he thinks.
“Maybe the message I tried to get across is deceptively simple: it’s not all bad, life’s never all bad.”
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