For better or worse, the word manga usually conjures images of quasi-anglicized Japanese youths with physics-defying coiffures fighting demons or piloting towering robots. But these comics represent just one (albeit outsized) slice of the manga pie.
For older, more seasoned readers there exists a rather sizable swath of books written and drawn with a more mature bent. In manga’s nascent days, cartoonists coined the term “gekiga” to differentiate this type of work from the commercial titles that were quickly becoming the face of the artform.
Since then, what’s now referred to as alternative manga exists on the periphery of the industry—the brambly thicket to more popular genre’s beaten paths. It’s here that the works of manga auteur Taiyō Matsumoto dwell, gnarling and blossoming to form diffuse arbors of pictures and words. His toothy, somewhat grotesque forms and poetic breakdowns give his storytelling a dreamlike lilt, and stand in stark contrast to the polished, expedient qualities of his more mainstream contemporaries. Matsumoto allows moments to linger, and with a few choice establishing shots he can invoke a believable, lived-in atmosphere.
Sunny is Matsumoto’s most personal and poignant work. Staying within his creative milieu, the series focuses on the lives of misfit adolescents, specifically the wayward orphans of the Star Kids Home in 1970s suburban Japan. Working within the slice-of-life structure, Matsumoto depicts the kids’ daily lives individually and as a group. Each has their own set of social hurdles, borne from their insecurities and underlying feelings of abandonment. Some, like bookish Sei and wallflower Megumu, internalize their pain, while others, like rebellious Haruo and impetuous Junsuke, act out in order to cope. Despite their varied personalities, the children are all drawn to “Sunny,“ a broken down mustard yellow Datsun, which provides an escape to each them, either as a literal place of solace or as a conduit for their imaginations. Their collective lots in life inject the comic with pathos as any neglected child’s would, but their melancholy often melts away under their innocent optimism and camaraderie, making Sunny not maudlin nor manipulative, and instead something more akin to a documentary.
It can be difficult for adults to write believable children’s dialogue, but Matsumoto (as well as translator Michael Arias) has no trouble capturing the speech of Star Home Kids’ residents, and often fills a page with word balloons to create an authentic din of voices. Although he is largely averse to discussing his private life, Matsumoto has admitted that Sunny draws on his own childhood experiences with foster care, and this imbues the comic with an emotional foundation that sets its apart. It would behoove any respectable manga reader to pick it up.