In the yard of the Star Kids group home sits a broken-down yellow car. The rusting Sunny 1200 may no longer function in any traditional sense, but it “runs on telepathy,” as one boy appreciatively puts it, serving the home’s vulnerable young residents as a safe place to stash their porn, smoke a forbidden cigarette, find a moment’s peace, cry without shame, have an honest talk, share a laugh, or give their imaginations free rein as they act out their escape fantasies, daydreams, and longed-for homecomings.
Boys and girls, only-children and siblings, toddlers and teens: the home’s dozen or so wards each have their own history. There’s nerdy new kid, Sei; white-haired firebrand, Haruo; and obsessive collector of lucky clovers and shiny things, Junsuke. There’s gentle, singing giant, Taro; horny Kenji; morbid Megumu; and responsible Asako. As they fight, play, commiserate, and shoulder their personal burdens, these fundamentally good kids put their trust in their caretakers, take refuge in the Sunny, and look out for themselves as well as for one another.
Matsumoto drops the reader into the story without exposition, using the hubbub of Sei’s arrival to give the reader a brief introduction and letting the unfolding story’s context gradually fill in the details of the home, the community, and the characters’ personalities and circumstances. Because each chapter focuses a little more on one individual while still revealing the interactions of the others, the many unique and endearing characters all develop together and their shared story reads smoothly along with their personal tangents. In the process, Matsumoto gives us glimpses of how rough the path is for each child as they deal with drunken fathers, sick mothers, school bullies, separation anxiety, abandonment, first crushes, and a thousand other challenges, all against the backdrop of the imperfect but sincerely caring safety net of the home and the freedom embodied by the Sunny.
Matsumoto’s detailed backgrounds appear to be hand-drawn images rather than traced photographs, fitting in perfectly with his loose-lined, ruddy-cheeked figures and use of washes and ink-textures instead of screentones. The result is an open, earthy style full of raw emotion that’s just right for his awkward protagonists in their varying stages of growing up. It’s also the ideal vehicle for the kids’ sometimes moving, sometimes funny imagined adventures in the Sunny and lets Matsumoto sneak in snippets of near-magical-realism humor by occasionally interpreting the resident pets’ expressions with actual dialogue bubbles. The textured hard cover and occasional warm-toned color pages also add another layer of pleasing substance to the book.
Sunny‘s slice-of-life tale of aggravated adolescence portrays the fears and comforts of everyday existence for a bunch of kids in foster care while celebrating the emotional supports that help anyone get through turbulent times: trustworthy elders, empathetic peers, and their own imaginations.
Any reader who is or has been a teenager will find something to connect with here. While one of the older kids smokes, he repeatedly gets taken to task for it (even by his younger sister), and a couple of the younger ones just use purloined cigarettes and sunglasses as props to be “cool.” The porn stash in the glove box gets pulled out a few times—amusingly, usually by the kids who don’t quite know what to make of it yet—with the reader seeing nothing beyond two or three bare-chested ladies in bikini bottoms as the kids giggle with the thrill of the incompletely-comprehended taboo. As for language, at one point some would-be bullies are made to cry “Pussy!” to earn their release, and that’s as ribald as it gets. The fight itself is in no way graphic, and neither is the dead cat the kids find in a ditch before they take it home in a bike basket and give it a proper burial. That combination of downplayed dark reality, silliness, and heartbreaking sweetness will draw readers in and have them looking out for volume 2.