MELINDA: Good morning, Michelle! It’s been a while since we met here, just the two of us. I miss it!
MICHELLE: Me, too! I really enjoy talking about manga with you.
MELINDA: So, with a whole slew of debut volumes to catch up on, we’ve decided to spend the next few columns on mutual reads only, so we can give these books the attention they deserve. Michelle, would you like to introduce our first selection for this week?
Sunny is the latest series by Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet, GoGo Monster) to be released in North America. Serialized in Shogakukan’s IKKI magazine, Sunny is a slice-of-life story about kids living together in a group facility. Their circumstances vary—some might be orphans, but it seems that most have parents who are unable to care for them for some reason—but one thing they have in common is the use of an old, broken-down Nissan Sunny as a kind of playhouse.
Junsuke is a snotty-nosed kid with a penchant for shiny things. Haruo is a white-haired boy whose play-time daydreams always involve being a cool, grown-up version of himself. Sei is the new kid, taciturn and utterly opposed to thinking of the facility as his new home. Episodic chapters ensue, and somehow Matsumoto uses quick, short scenes in such a way that the pace feels frenetic and leisurely at the same time. Hyper, but with that “we’ve got a few hours ’til dinnertime” quality, if that makes sense.
MELINDA: Oh, what a wonderful way to describe the general feel of this book! The book’s structure and pacing seem so in tune with a child’s sense of time—that feeling of impatience on top of the endless landscape of imagination. These kids have more reasons than most to escape into their fantasy worlds, but they spend just as much time being shuffled along the familiar routines of childhood. Meals, school, sleep, play—their daily lives are similar to most young kids, but with an edge of anxiety most of us were privileged to do without. And it’s these points of anxiety that make Sunny feel moving and real, and not a nostalgia piece in the slightest.
Some anxious moments that stood out for me were things like teenaged Megumu’s instinct to head for the nearby bridge when one of the home’s children goes missing, because being left to die in the river is actually her own worst fear, and young Junsuke’s desperate bouts of kleptomania. I was also very moved by Haruo’s fitful attchement to visiting adult Makio, the one person to whom he’s willing to confess that he dreads seeing his own mother because seeing her only makes not seeing her that much harder.
Also, while the Sunny itself is certainly central to the story, somehow it’s the kids’ time spent out of the Sunny that shows us who they are even more than their stolen moments alone with their imaginations. That’s not what I would have expected, but Matusmoto is so deft at revealing his characters through their actions, everything they do feels significant.
MICHELLE: There were so many things here that I loved. I love that Matsumoto depicts what it is that the kids are imagining, particularly Sei’s fantasy ride back to the place he considers his true home. I love the ridiculous song Junsuke makes up. I love the way Matsumoto’s art—not pretty but still oh-so-charming—delivers some poignant moments, like a subtle establishing shot showing the home as a place of warmth to go to when it gets dark (both literally and figuratively). I love that he never actually says “and this little kid is Junsuke’s brother,” but simply shows it through their physical similarity and interaction. And I love the whole bit at the end where said little kid, Shosuke, is intent on informing everyone he meets that he found some four-leaf clovers when, in fact, this is actually a lie.
You know a manga is exceptional when even the presence of a dead kitty isn’t something that upsets me (because the kitty is treated with the utmost respect).
MELINDA: The scene with Megumu, Haruo, and the kitty reminded me immediately of one of my favorite scenes from one of the later volumes of xxxHolic, in which Doumeki confides to Kohane that he’d decided to help Watanuki after having witnessed him standing alone in the rain, cradling a dead animal and wondering if he’d be left the same way one day. Yet as moving as the xxxHolic scene is, and as strongly as it affected me at the time, with Matsumoto’s straightforward storytelling in place of CLAMP’s self-conscious drama, I found that the scene in Sunny moved me more.
MICHELLE: I must admit that though I own other works by Matsumoto, I haven’t read them yet. I’m thinking that will have to change, and pronto. Because when I finished this volume, what I felt most was “I want more.”
MELINDA: I own no other works by Matsumoto, but I will soon. I felt the same way.
MICHELLE: Luckily, Sunny isn’t a oneshot—it’s up to three volumes in Japan so far—so eventually there will be more.
Speaking of renowned creators whose work we’d not read before, want to introduce our next selection?
Moving swiftly from contemporary to classic, our second read this week was the first omnibus volume of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, just released by Dark Horse Comics. Though this series first ran in Futabasha’s Weekly Manga Action in the early 1970s, and Dark Horse has been publishing its English-language editions since 2000, these new omnibus editions offer new readers a chance to experience Lone Wolf and Cub, and in a larger, easier-to-read format than Dark Horse’s original small-trim editions. This is a series I’d spotted many times in book stores and comic shops over the years, but never picked up, at least in part because of the small size. Now I feel rather silly about it, of course, because I’ve clearly been depriving myself!
The book opens by introducing us to Ogami Itto, a master samurai now traveling as a ronin along with his toddler son, Daigoro, known collectively to most as “Lone Wolf and Cub.” The story’s structure is largely episodic, but though early chapters focus on tales of Itto’s fearlessness and skill (as well as his terrifying reputation across Edo-era Japan), we later discover that he took the “assassin’s road” as a last-ditch attempt to clear his family’s name after being wrongly ousted as the shogun’s executioner. In fact, one of the most oddly chilling scenes in this omnibus is one in which he leaves it to his infant son to decide whether he’ll join his mother in the afterlife or accompany his father on his blood-soaked journey, based on whether the son chooses to crawl towards a bouncy-ball or a knife.
The series is action-packed and very compelling, filled with creative swordplay and expressive artwork that carefully depicts both the beauty and brutality of the era, but its greatest draw for me as a reader is Itto himself, whose sense of honor in combination with his unforgiving career path presents us with a protagonist as complicated and problematic as the era itself.
In a modern series, I think a character like Itto would be written as a sort of “assassin with a heart of gold.” He’d be someone we could root for wholeheartedly even when he killed—a sort of Edo-era Mal Reynolds. But Koike and Kojima’s protagonist is no such thing. He’s reliable, trustworthy, and eminently honorable, but he always gets the job done, no matter who it is he’s been sent to kill; he could never be considered merciful, and only occasionally compassionate. He defends those he believes to be vulnerable or in the right, but only so long as it doesn’t interfere with his mission. And he’s utterly unapologetic at every turn, even when it comes to the plight of his son. I find him fascinating.
MICHELLE: That would’ve been a great introduction even without the Firefly reference!
I’ve never read Golgo 13, but I do have to wonder whether Itto might be a comparable hero to that famously inscrutable lead, in that he is consistently shown to be a major badass. This is a guy who’ll commit a robbery to get himself sent to prison to be nearer to his target, and once he discovers that said target is on death row, he kills a bunch of his fellow prisoners in order to pursue his goal. He’s not just deadly with a sword, he is a brilliant strategist, and not above using Daigoro in his plans. (And he’s also able to satisfy the ladies even when his life is in jeopardy.)
At first, I was intimidated by the sheer size of the omnibus (over 700 pages!), but found that Kojima-sensei’s artistic style boded well for quick reading. The panel layout is simple, but Kojima does especially well with establishing a sense of time and place, and I quite loved the establishing shots we get for each new location Itto finds himself. My only complaint about the art is that a lot of the clients and other characters look like. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to remember seeing anyone in particular before, but usually there are clues in the text that help to dispel confusion.
Daigoro is the most endearing aspect of the story, as one might expect, but his presence for all these gory scenes is kind of disturbing. There’s one panel in particular in which he and his father are watching an opponent slowly topple, and once the guy finally goes down, Diagoro smiles. It made me wonder how warped he is gonna be! Of course, with all this bushido business, probably he’ll just be some hardened warrior who greets the concept of death casually.
MELINDA: Heh, yes, there’s a chapter late in the volume that gives us the beginnings of a look at the man Diagoro might one day be, in which he fearlessly attacks much older characters with a look that one describes as, “eyes that see between life and death… the eyes of a swordsman able to place his heart in the nothingness of mu.” Later, Itto asks his son if he’s going to be able to reap what he’s sown, as Daigoro has thrown an entire household into deadly turmoil. Somehow, I imagine he’ll grow to be an even scarier adult than his father, assuming he lives that long.
I, too, was intimidated by the length of this omnibus when I started, but I was stunned to find myself suddenly at the end, it read so easily. And it’s definitely worth the time! Most of my favorite stories were at the end of the volume.
MICHELLE: Yeah, that part about Daigoro’s eyes was rather creepy. I can’t help but feel bad that he’s been shaped by witnessing all this slaughter, yet cannot deny the appeal of watching his dad dispatch his enemies with such skillful ease. I guess probably the mangaka wanted us to feel this way.
MELINDA: Yes, I’m sure that’s the case. One of the things that I think makes this manga so interesting, is that its sense of morality is so clearly of another time and place. Often, modern storytellers will insert their own sensibilities into a period piece, either viewing it with rosy nostalgia or, perhaps, horror. But Koike and Kojima leave it entirely up to us to figure out how we feel about an era in which the value of a person’s life was viewed so differently than it would be today—and the value of death, for that matter. It can be hard to swallow at times, but it’s never sugar-coated.
I’m really grateful for the opportunity to delve into this series at last! It’s certainly worthy of its classic status.
MICHELLE: Well said! And I, too, am glad we decided to check this one out. As much as I love Takehiko Inoue, I actually enjoyed this more than Inoue’s Vagabond, and will probably keep reading it!