Friday, 2 October 2015

Sunny 5 by Taiyo Matsumoto: to be unreachable, by kindness or hope

Sunny volume 5 by Taiyo Matsumoto, translated by Michael Arias, lettered by Deron Bennett, Viz

Taiyo Matsumoto is due to wrap up serialisation of his comic, Sunny, in Japan this month. Centering around a group of children living at a halfway/foster house, the comics take their name from the dilapidated yellow Nissan Datsun 'Sunny' in which the kids play and take refuge. Viz have been releasing some very nicely designed (by Fawn Lau) English-language translations of the book, the fifth volume of which was published in July this year. It seems likely then, that the 6th volume will be the final one, collecting the closing chapters of the story. In many ways, Sunny feels like the most accessible and commercial of Matsumoto's (translated) works; with a subject matter and clarity in approach that lends favourably to literary association. Traditionally linear, it's rooted in the real, and largely free from some of the more surreal elements and quirks inhabiting his other books.

The children of Star Kids Home are resident there for various reasons: some are orphans, others parents have abandoned them, or are incapable of taking care of them due to illness or financial circumstance. Confusion, uncertainty and the cruel tremulousness of hope abound as the kids attempt to negotiate their in-flux status. The individual personalities of the children provides a range of reactions for Matsumoto to explore: Sei's polite, quiet, resoluteness; Junsuke's dreamy remove; Haruo's hurt, angry rebellion; Megumu's inverted contemplation. Sunny moves from child to child with each chapter, sharing an event or moment that provides insight into  both the character of focus, and life in a care home. Looked down upon by their peers at school and pitied by society, Matsumoto presents starkly the import and impact of human connections to a group of children grasping for a foothold of recognisable stability. They are children who just want their mums and dads; the comfort and assurance of family, home, and belonging. 

But when someone you love leaves you, it doesn't just make you question them, but yourself. Especially when, in their absence, that's all you're left to engage with. The wrench of disappointment and rejection mingles with a dismantling of identity; who you are, what you know (or thought you knew), where your place is. Growing up is a tough prospect to negotiate in a normative sense, and for Sei, Junsuke, Megumu, Haruo, and the others, it's doubly so; a state of internal scrutiny, of rebuilding and reformation; reassessing the world around them to regain a semblance of autonomy and control. The difficulty of this negotiation is acutely exemplified by Haruo, who rails woundedly at his lot, but carries a totemic tin of Nivea cream around with him to conjure up the smell of his mother at any instant. For her part, Megumu chooses not to go live with a nice couple because the death of her parents, her grief, and still being able to feel their presence via their absence, is something she wants to give time to. We are all more than the sum of our situations.

What I appreciate most in Matsumoto's work is the ability to speak to painful truths, to see unflinchingly, and yet to retain a degree of affirmation. And that's not limited to topic: his very style of drawing is a reflection of that approach. Matsumoto's art is sometimes referred to as surreal, but there's a difference between illustrating the imagined and dreamed up, and that being a facet of your style. If anything, he aims for a realism in keeping with traditional illustration- albeit with a unique bent. However, he treads a line where the deliberate framing and presentation used to slow pace for emphasis or contemplation (whatever he wants to draw the reader's attention to) leads to a staticness of sorts. A child yelling is a child with his mouth perpetually frozen open. Hair lifted by the wind hovers there indefinitely. It compromises movement in terms of both dynamism and flow. Combined with the many tight panels of eyes (on which a whole other article could be devoted) and faces, there is a feeling of signposting: meaningful moment ahead! The effect is indie movie-like: a beautifully cool, ponderous aesthetic that Matsumoto offsets by employing it in the service of good, genuine material. It helps that his art not only conveys, but contains, palpable emotion: poignancy and wistfulness that jabs at your chest.

Matsumoto's art is attractive in that it's ultimately pleasing to the eye, though it may not always seem like it'll get there. People, things, and environments are recognisably rendered with a strange, meandering, curling line. Character and a distinct individuality teem from the page. He has a fondness of depicting circles of colour in ruddy or delicate cheeks, a firm affinity for snot; hatching and lines work away to define a range of features usually forgotten. The pools of black ink here are softened by an array of textures  (that conversely also work to ground Matsumoto's work, adding body and weight) and the less harsh contrast of the cream paper. There is an inherent dreaminess to his drawings, a tone or lens that's almost romantic; a quality that's more emphatically manifest in Sunny. It may be difficult to to do in real life, but on the page Matsumoto manages to see the beauty in everything, irrespective of appearance. 

Sunny divvies out small solaces: moments of trust, connection, knowledge, humour, hope; without ever feeling like a blatant grab for your emotional gonads. For the children, the present is forever stretching out into the distance; this time feels like the only time. They live in the nook between change feeling impossible and the belief that change alone can alter and improve current circumstance. It is there that Sunny's sweet melancholic heart is to be found: a stoic Junsuke rewarded with a phonecall to his mum when poorly. Sei's meticulously planned, devastating, run-back-home itinerary: '...Call Star Kids Home and apologise for worrying them. Buy flowers for mother... Go to father's workshop. Go home together.' Kenji alone again after the brief budding of a relationship. Haruo being told he's lucky he ended up at a home where he's not beaten. There are no bad guys in Sunny; nobody to blame or fault. It is nothing smaller or bigger than life, as it aches and appeals. This happens, and that, too.

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