Sometimes books find you. Most of the time, you find the books, but once in a while, they find you. It’s weird when it happens, but also amazing. It’s kind of like when a friend gives you a book they think you’ll like and then you love it, but it’s more like going to a city you’ve never been to before, getting on the metro, and finding a book by someone you’ve never heard of sitting on the seat next to you in a half-empty train car. And you forgot to bring your own book with you, so you start reading it and it turns out to be exactly the sort of thing you love. That’s a book finding you.
So when my brain is not battling books for your entertainment (are you entertained?), it and I spend our time messing around with the Japanese language, trying to turn it into English for your entertainment (how about now?). You may remember that I work with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival because of all the Japanese messing around I do, interpreting for visiting manga artists. And you may further remember that this year the interpretee was the amazing Taiyo Matsumoto. And because he is amazing (this part you won’t remember because I haven’t told you yet), he brought gifts of books. And the book he brought for me was a collection of his wife’s manga, Twinkle. Which is how this book found me.
I’d never actually heard Saho Tono’s name before, but reading this book, I realized I’ve seen a lot of her work. In fact, I am pretty convinced I once had at least one stationery set done by her. (Remember when we wrote letters? Or was that only me?) She mostly works as an illustrator now, and if you google her name, you will find many of the pieces she’s done for magazines and things. According to Matsumoto, she also helps him with his manga. (They basically do everything together and have an adorable cat. I think they might be my new favourite couple ever.) He actually credited her with the female characters in Sunny in one of the interviews he did while he was here for the festival. And weirdly, reading Twinkle (written nearly twenty years ago), I can see echoes of Sunny (still being written).
The whole time I was reading this collection of short and shorter pieces, I was wondering if I would be making these connections to Matsumoto if I didn’t know that Tono was his wife. And I keep going back and forth on it even now. The adorable and appropriately seventies turtlenecks that pop up in Sunny can be seen in pretty much every story in Twinkle. And the elongated fingers and awkwardly large hands of Ping Pong are very much on display here. The cowlick I love so much in Matsumoto’s portrayal of Megumu is alive and well on more than one little girl in this collection.
Even though in a lot of ways, their art couldn’t be more different. Tono here is all scribbly lines, loose minimalist pages for the most part (and occasionally creepy pupil-less eyes). Nothing more than pencils and ink, no screentone in sight, and certainly none of the ink washes Matsumoto’s been using for the last few years. But the stories in Twinkle are all from the mid-nineties, so it’s not really that fair to be comparing them to Matsumoto’s more recent work. After all, in the same period in his career, he wasn’t using ink washes either.
But I really do feel like the story and characters of Sunny must be heavily influenced by Tono. Every single piece in this collection is from the point of view of children, and all of them are more vignettes than they are narrative-driven stories: a little girl playing with her breakfast, two sisters speaking in code by playing the piano at each other, a little boy trying to figure out a Rubik’s Cube. Nothing really happens, you just follow the kids in their worlds for a little while.
Some of the stories are really silly, like “Aoi Cake” (Blue Cake), which follows Eeda and Niko as they travel on a flying phone receiver through a clothes dryer to the land of birthdays, where they encounter themselves on previous and future birthdays. And others are nothing more than a fleeting moment, like the almost entirely wordless “in your hands”, which depicts a series of everyday moments with such warmth and wonder. But every story is so beautifully done, and Tono has such an incredible way of capturing subtle and natural movement that the book is worth flipping through even if you don’t read a word of Japanese. And more than one of the stories comes with the most charming English (“Your chocolate is so sweet”, “These big socks for your big feet”).
I’m sad that Tono doesn’t do more manga these days. Although I think her influence on her husband’s work is definitely good and I like seeing the direction the two of them are going in together, I want to see where she would take her turtlenecked children. I want more of these casually comfortable and charming moments she creates so seemingly effortlessly. Her comics remind me of all the good bits about being a kid, and make me feel kid-like all over again. And I seriously cannot believe how much feeling she can pack into a single line. As one review I read noted, her manga are like drawn poems. And that is pretty much the truth of it.