Jessica Baldanzi
Jessica Baldanzi
Jessica Baldanzi grew up in New Jersey near New York City, but has been gradually transforming into a Hoosier since 1995, when she began graduate school at IU Bloomington. She’s been teaching English at Goshen College since 2006 and spends her spare time wrangling her two toddler sidekicks, as well as writing, running and of course, reading. (Photo above by Kyle Schlabach.)

Cloudy with a chance of manga: A review of “Sunny” by Taiyo Matsumoto

Community blogger Jessica Baldanzi reviews “Sunny,” a manga series by Taiyo Matsumoto and a crossover success for readers of all types of comics and graphic novels.

Posted on Aug. 28, 2014 at 1:21 p.m.

Thanks to Better World Books, 215 S. Main St. in Goshen, for providing me with books to review. You can find all of these books at the store.

Sunny Cover 1

Cover of Sunny, Vol. 1, by Taiyo Matsumoto.

Sunny Cover 2

Cover of Sunny, Vol. 2, by Taiyo Matsumoto.

Not much is sunny at Star Kids Home, the Japanese foster home where Taiyo Matsumoto’s “Sunny” is set. This series is much closer to “Little Orphan Annie” than “Sesame Street,” but without either the wealthy benefactor or the clear-cut villains. Most of the young residents of Star Kids Home have living parents unable to care for them for unexplained reasons.

Jessica Baldanzi is an English professor at Goshen College who reviews comics and graphic novels in her community blog, Commons Comics. 

“Sunny,” a broken-down car in a nearby yard, is the kids’ only form of “travel”: They imagine the Sunny (a Japanese nickname for a Datsun) as a spaceship or getaway car, and they imagine themselves as heroes, heroines, dashing or deadly outlaws, and sometimes just grownups or kids with happy families. Some of the scenarios the kids imagine are pretty run of the mill, and some — as in the image below — get a bit trippy, but all are complex and deeply affecting, throwing life a bit off balance so we can see it with new eyes.

Sunny trippy full page

A page from Sunny, by Taiyo Matsumoto.

“Sunny” is a type of comic called “manga,” which basically means comics from Japan. In the US, most manga is directed toward teenagers, with very specific categories for boys (seinen) and girls (josei). There are many complicated subcategories — “Sunny” has also been categorized as “slice of life” manga — but the simple truth is that if you set a typical teenager loose in a bookstore, not only will said teenager know how to find the manga, she’ll also probably sit right down on the carpet and start reading.

That said, “Sunny” has become a crossover hit in the US not only for older readers, but for readers usually more interested in graphic novels than in manga. Volume 1 of “Sunny” made the “best of” list for 2013 on Salon.com and won a cartoonist’s prize on “Slate.” Author Taiyo Matsumoto has won an Eisner award — the Pulitzer for comics — for his earlier work translated into English. I’ve only so far read Volumes 1 and 2 of “Sunny,” but Volume 3 is now out in English and 4 is due out this fall.

Unless you’re already a fan of manga, you might find “Sunny” disorienting at first, especially because manga reads from right to left. Not only do you open the book from the “back” and turn the pages in the “wrong” direction, but the layout of each individual page is “backwards” as well.

As you might guess, translating manga from Japanese to English involves more than just moving the binding to the other side: if it’s done well, it requires a substantial redesign, and even then, translations of dialect and other subtle details often don’t come across.

But part of why manga fans are so devoted is that they enjoy the challenge of decoding visual elements that don’t translate easily into English. Readers of American comics, for example, are all pretty familiar with the idea that bubbles leading up to a word balloon signify thought, while a pointy tip coming out of a word balloon signifies that the words are spoken aloud. Multiple points usually mean multiple speakers, but that logic doesn’t seem to work in scenes like this one:

Sunny spiky bubbles

A page from Sunny, by Taiyo Matsumoto.

I read more graphic novels than manga, so I was confused for a while too, but finally figured out that the spikes on those bubbles represent shouting, anxiety or both. In general, as you can tell from the above images, “slice of life” manga is slower and more atmospheric than Western comics and is less concerned with assigning speech than with representing its tone and presence. Manga even has a sound effect for silence, “shin,” which can be stretched across a frame or a page as “shiiiiiin.”

Don’t let all of my explanation scare you away from “Sunny,” however. This is a character-driven series, and Matsumoto’s complex characters are much more familiar than foreign. The kids at Star Kids Home struggle with their outcast statuses at school, miss their parents and develop crushes just like typical American teenagers. And Michiana readers, check out what college this character’s shirt is from — how’s that for familiar?

Sunny Notre Dame

A page from Sunny, by Taiyo Matsumoto.

The US edition of “Sunny” was translated by Michael Arias, an acclaimed expat producer of Japanese cartoons, or anime. Arias’ cross-cultural expertise strikes an expert balance between the foreign and the familiar. In the image below, for example, no matter what culture you’re from, you’ve felt like this character at least a handful of times in your life. But as Western readers, the unfamiliar streets and lettering on the signs — translated in subtle, small-print footnotes — help us feel like we’re traveling somewhere new.

Sunny pacing ex

A page from Sunny, by Taiyo Matsumoto.

Couple this emotional and narrative depth with hand-drawn illustrations — Matsumoto is one of a handful of holdouts who doesn’t use computers — and “Sunny” represents the best use of comics as a genre: not just an illustrated story, but a story that creates sparks out of the friction between words and images.

Matsumoto himself grew up in a foster home, and although he’s made it clear that “Sunny” is more fiction than memoir, the truth behind these characters makes them shimmer on the page. “When I'm drawing something that actually happened, it's like the child on the page really exists,” Matsumoto said in a “Timeout Tokyo” interview last year. “I'll draw a scene of a child crying, and I'm not sure if it's the child crying or if it's me.” Throughout “Sunny,” the author, his characters and the readers are all transported somewhere both unexpected and familiar, somewhere they recognize but have never been before — like life, no? Just as in the best literature, no matter the genre.

Here are the covers of my next four books:

Darkness and Shadow

From left, the covers of Beautiful Darkness, by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët, and The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew.

Joyners and Luke

From left, the covers of The Joyners in 3D, by R.J. Ryan and David Marquez, and Luke on the Loose, by Harry Bliss.

I’m having trouble deciding which to review first, so let me know what looks good to you. See you in another two weeks.

Would you like to become a community blogger for The Elkhart Truth? Get in touch with community engagement manager Ann Elise Taylor at ataylor@elkharttruth.com

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