Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #184: Sunny, Vols. 5 & 6 by Taiyo Matsumoto

Slice-of-life stories about people don't have an inherent ending: they could continue as long as it's interesting, as long as there's something else to show. But if the main characters are children, that limits the scope: if it goes on too long, with the same group of kids, it will either stagnate, as those kids stay the same age and in the same circumstances for too long, or will instead be about those kids growing up and turning into other people.

Sunny isn't about growing up: I wouldn't characterize it that way. It's about a particular experience of childhood, about particular people in a particular place and time -- these orphans and near-orphans at the Lucky Star Home in a minor Japanese city in the late 1970s. Although...the last story does see one of the characters changing, and show physical changes in the lives of several other kids -- that's what makes it an ending.

I don't know why Taiyo Matsumoto spent so much time on stories about these kids -- why that state and time and place spoke to him so centrally. I don't want to speculate. But they clearly do matter to him, the way they're all a little damaged but resilient, kids who have been hit hard by life but still have time and energy and space to recover and become themselves. It's a bittersweet series, but there is hope in it, as there's hope for all of us.

(I've previously written about volumes one and two and three and four. Each story -- the volumes each collect five or six of them -- are all separate and individual, each story focusing on one of the kids or the staff at Lucky Star. You could start anywhere; you could read any story first. Reading in order is probably better, but I couldn't prove it.)

Volumes five and six are the end of the series: they collect stories that appeared in different magazines from 2013 through 2015 and then were collected, in books somewhat like these, in Japan. Michael Arias translated them into English for this publication -- they "sound" like the earlier Sunny volumes, and somewhat like Matsumoto's other books, which I take to mean Arias is successful at capturing the author's distinctive voice.

And Matsumoto is indeed distinctive: his other books, like Gogo Monster and Tekkon Kinkreet are even more oblique and odd than Sunny, with eruptions of the fantastic and unexplained and people who often talk elliptically rather than directly.

Sunny is more straightforward, but it's the straightforwardness of children: what they want, what they need, what they like or don't like. These kids have hidden agenda, because all people do, but they're young enough that those agendas are equally hidden from themselves: things they don't realize, or can't name, or don't want to think about.

There is an inherent sadness in Sunny. These children are all abandoned, to one degree or another -- and they all know that, deep down. They could have each other -- but this isn't a story about friendship. They could have the adult carers at the Lucky Star Home -- but this isn't a story about parental figures, either. They have their dreams, and their hopes, and a broken-down Sunny 1200 slowly rusting in the yard. That's what Sunny is about.

And it's about that poignantly, thoughtfully, and deeply -- a rumination on what it's like to be young and alone, put aside by your parents and living with strangers. Every character is distinct, every moment is real. It's worth reading, for anyone who ever was a child.

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