I don’t know if you know about this thing called TCAF? It is where loads of awesome people gather near the beginning of May? This year, the main exhibition days are May 11 and 12, but there is lots of stuff happening in the week before and after, and the whole month in fact. Like this art show at a beer factory. Art + beer = Sign me up. You should totally come and check it out. But if you need another reason to check it out, how about insanely talented Japanese artist Taiyo Matsumoto? You know, the guy who wrote Ping Pong? And Tekkon Kinkreet? And so, so much more? TCAF is putting on a big show of his work, the first of its kind in North America and not much to compare with it even in his native Japan. So it is kind of a big deal.
And in my capacity as “Japanese guest liaison” for the festival (I love this title, makes me feel like I am always wearing sleek black suits with my hair pulled back into tight buns), I will be escorting Mr. Matsumoto around town and making sure something in English happens at his speaking events. He is pretty good at handling the Japanese part; hopefully, I will be equally good at handling the English. Because I really want people to fall in love with him like I have. Not only because he is a super-nice, super-sweet guy (because he is), but also because his work just grows more and more compelling and interesting.
I’ve read some of his work before this, but to prepare for working with him at the festival, I have been going back and reading and re-reading everything he’s written that I can get my hands on. And he has written a lot of stuff. Going through twenty years of work in a two-month period allows you to really appreciate how an artist has developed. (And being bilingual allows you to appreciate how his translators and the very notion of translation in manga has developed. Thoughts for another time, perhaps.) Moving from Hana Otoko, one of his earliest works, to Sunny, his most recent, is almost shocking, both art- and story-wise.
Sunny may be my favourite out of everything I’ve read, and it gives me hope for whatever he does next. An artist of Matsumoto’s caliber can basically do whatever he wants at this point (or so it seems to me, non-Japanese manga magazine editor), so the fact that he is still pushing and exploring and trying out new ways of telling stories and new stories to tell means that I will still get to read stories that challenge and interest me in new ways. (And it is all about me, after all.)
The thing that struck me the most about Sunny was girls! There are girls in this story! To be honest, as much as I enjoy his artwork and his storytelling style with all its intense motion, I was starting to get a little disheartened at the lack of anything not male in Matsumoto’s universe. I think the only woman in Tekkon Kinkreet is the lover of the gangster Kimura, which is what I would call a bit part at best. For the most part, Matsumoto’s worlds seem to be impossibly populated by guys, so much so that I have caught myself wondering more than once how all these people ever came to exist if there are no women in their universes.
So you can imagine my delight at seeing numerous characters of the female persuasion show up in this latest work in more than just bit part form. Sunny takes place in a kind of orphanage/children’s home in the seventies run by an elderly housemaster, who mostly just sits in his office and listens to the children’s voices, together with a couple of full-time, seemingly live-in staff members (one of whom has lady bits!). The children range in age from tiny (girl!) baby to nearly grown high schoolers (including a girl!), although the story generally focusses on the group of third graders in the house (including two girls!!).
As a friend said to me before I started reading, it’s heartbreaking. These are kids who have been left by their parents generally for reasons unknown. It is revealed later in the series (spoiler!) that Megumu (girl!) at least is an orphan, but the others seem to have been left by their parents in arrangements that are unclear. I appreciate this lack of clarity, though, since it seems to reflect the perspectives of the kids. They don’t know why their parents had to leave them, so neither do we the readers. We just get to follow them through their daily lives in the home and watch how they deal with being left there.
The art is so, so perfect for the story, I can’t even begin to express how in love with it I am. It’s all pencilly and watercolors, and has a feel of a seventh grader doodling in her textbook. You know how your friend in junior high would draw a dog and you would be all, oh my god, that looks totally like an actual dog? Matsumoto draws that dog. And not because he couldn’t draw a dog that is way better than this dog, but because this story about these lost kids really needs drawings with that skillfully crude edge to them. He also has a tendency here to pull in suddenly for a close up of a kid’s face in a way that is so moving and pushes the story forward in a very intangible way.
Only Volume 1 is out in English, compared to three books in Japanese, and having read all of these, I have to say I feel a little sorry for English speakers on this one. And not only because you have to wait longer to read these books. The translation is without a doubt a good one, faithfully conveying meaning from one language to the other. But Matsumoto writes Sunny in the Kansai dialect of Japanese, which is basically my favourite dialect and I never stop dreaming about moving to Osaka just so I can learn it. And it creates a particular atmosphere in the Japanese, especially given the contrast between the local dialect that the kids speak and the Tokyo dialect that new kid Sei speaks. That atmosphere is essentially lost in the English translation, which puts everything into standard American English with some “ya”s tossed in for variety. I understand the thinking behind the decision to lose the dialect (we don’t generally write in dialect in English, it sounds forced, etc.), but I wish there had been a way to keep the dialect because so much of the richness of this story is in the language it uses. Like all stories, I guess.
PS. Come see Taiyo Matsumoto at TCAF and say hi to me! I will be in an interpreting daze and so I will not remember meeting you, though! Just a heads up!