Sunshine Sketch, Vol. 6

By Ume Aoki. Released in Japan as “Hidamari Sketch” by Houbunsha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Time Kirara Carat. Released in North America by Yen Press.

As I have noted many times before, there are certain manga that I like *because* I can go into them and not be surprised. Most 4-koma style manga fall into that category, mostly as plot development, if any, is glacial. In the case of Ume Aoki’s Sunshine Sketch, I have a limited pallette I want to see. Will Sae and Hiro have not-quite-yuri moments? Will Miyako be extremely silly and weird? Will Yuno be adorable? And indeed I got all of these things while reading the 6th volume of this series. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that I did also get some character development, as well as a sense that Vol. 7 may be the final one (at least for our favorite third-years).

First off, it has to be said that Yoshinoya-sensei, the girls’ teacher, has never particularly been a favorite of mine. She’s there purely as comic relief, and the exhibitionist and boob jokes have always seemed vaguely out of place in a moe blob series like this. And indeed, we still get both of those here. But I was also pleased to see signs that she is a good teacher at heart, as well as a few strips showing her bonding with her own generation of friends. And her advice to Hiro at the end is spot on, seeing through all of Hiro’s stress right to what’s really going on, and soothing her while letting Hiro understand the solution has to come from her. It’s a nice thing to see.

Speaking of Hiro, I was rather surprised by the final collection of strips here, as I figured that if anyone was going to freak out about graduation and losing her best friend, it would be Sae. Hiro has always seemed to be the more mature and together one in our favorite pair. That said, the desire to have a beloved situation stay exactly the same is a well-known one. Hiro’s choice of career, as Sae notes, is an excellent one, and has been quietly signposted through the previous volumes. But most of all, there’s Sae’s reassurance that things will be OK, even if the two are separated that finally soothes Hiro and gives her resolve. They are a wonderful couple (except they aren’t a couple), and everyone around them knows it.

As for the rest, Nazuna has the cover with Yuno this time around, and I’m slowly getting used to her and Nori. She seems to be funniest when horrible things are happening to her, sad to say. As for the art style, well, it’s Volume 6. If readers disliked the art I’m sure they would have dropped it by now. I have noticed a lot less ‘squashed SD’ style in these latter panels, as the girls seem to be drawn more ‘normally’, presumably as Aoki has gained confidence in her work.

Sunshine Sketch 6 gives readers exactly what they want from this sort of series: more of what they like about it. And, as an added bonus, there’s some additional depth as well. An excellent quick read.

Sunshine Sketch Volume 5

By Ume Aoki. Released in Japan as “Hidamari Sketch” by Houbunsha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Time Kirara Carat. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Wow, has it really been 18 months since the last Sunshine Sketch? This is what happens when you catch up with Japan, kids. Especially for a series like this, where there’s only 8 pages a month anyway. Thankfully, the volume proves to be worth the wait, provided you like the sort of thing it delivers.

It bears repeating: if you don’t like 4-koma strips starring cute girls who don’t really do anything, this isn’t the series for you. There is some plot and character advancement here if you’re looking deeply for it, but otherwise you’d barely notice it. It’s situation normal otherwise, as we get the wacky adventures of students at a high school with a track devoted to art. Unlike GA: Art Design Class, this series is not all that interested in teaching readers anything about art itself, so we mostly just see it in the context of Yuno sketching, or Miyako making giant clay hands. The comedic situations come mostly from the cast and their apartment life.

Vague things happen here: Yuno visits her parents in her hometown; Sae and Hiro go on a class trip (and talk about getting ready for entrance exams); we meet Yoshinoya’s brother and nephew, and learn that she’s just as flaky outside of classes (not that this comes as a surprise). And the new cast members from last volume are integrated slowly into the main cast, so we find out about Nori’s kansai dialect (that she conceals most of the time) and Nazuna’s ability to be homesick even when this is her actual hometown.

It’s hard to write a Sunshine Sketch review without mentioning the yuri tease, which is still present and correct here. The new girls are fascinated with the size of Miyako’s breasts (and Yuno tries to join in, but holds back at the last minute). Meanwhile, Sae and Hiro are still the perfect couple who aren’t, with Sae saying things like “We’ll always be together” and saying that she’ll get a license so that she can drive Hiro everywhere. It’s fairly clear from these episodes that Hiro seems to be more aware of her feelings than clueless Sae, and is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sadly, it’s not happening anytime soon. In the meantime, we must content ourselves with Miyako imagining Sae (in a suit!) and Hiro as a couple, crying at Yuno’s future wedding.

Sunshine Sketch continues to be a very niche series, mostly for people who like seeing cute girls do cute things and don’t mind the fact that it has no plot and little forward movement at all. This particular series also has the hurdle of the art, as Ume Aoki’s super-deformed style takes some getting used to, to say the least. Of course, given the massive success of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which she did character designs for, perhaps it will get more popular!

Sunshine Sketch Volume 4

By Ume Aoki. Released in Japan as “Hidamari Sketch” by Houbunsha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Manga Time Kirara Carat. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Sunshine Sketch is very good at what it does. It wants to be a cute and funny slice-of-life 4-panel comic about high school students at an art school, and that’s exactly what it is.

It’s certainly cute. The characters are stereotypes, but that’s not necessarily a drawback as long as an artist uses them well. Miyako, for example, is the spunky, energetic girl of the group, but can also be obnoxious when the situation requires it, or the spacey one, and of course it’s pointed out by the author that she’s the smartest and most talented of the group, despite her personality.

We do get two new characters in this volume, as the year passes and our heroes move up a grade. The new first years are Nori, who’s a computer girl who seems to be another ‘straight man’ character, and Nazuna, who is in the ‘normal’ track (she went to the school as it’s close to home, as opposed to all the others in the manga who are art students) and seems to be low self-confidence girl. Hopefully she will get more than that, as Yuno’s low self-confidence is generally enough for me.

It’s also got some good humor. Nothing here will make you laugh out loud, or even snort, but most of the gags will make you smile, either at the characters or in recognition. One of my favorite gags involved Yuno, our protagonist, procrastinating about what art track she wants to choose for her second year. She puts off making a decision by rearranging her entire apartment. The final gag shows her waking blearily the following morning, moving to get out of bed – and slamming into a wall, as she’d moved her bed.

This isn’t an Okazu guest review, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the yuri tease that the artist is now putting in a bit more. The final part of this volume is a non-4-panel extra comic going into Sae’s ‘rival’ Natsume, and how she met Sae. It’s pretty clear she was crushing immediately, and a combination of that and jealousy of Hiro led to her becoming what she is today. Likewise, Sae and Hiro get the occasional suggestion, notably when Sae says meeting Hiro for the first time, she thought Hiro was like a sugar candy. She says this with a huge blush, and the landlady is in the foreground with a “just kiss already!” expression of annoyance on her face.

Of course, there is one big problem here, and it makes it hard for me to unreservedly recommend this series. The art. I am used to the typical younger than they look moe style by now, but Sunshine Sketch really pushes the envelope. Its characters already look superdeformed, and then they have a further SD form that simply looks as if they were squashed by an anvil. And they really do look quite young. When Miyako is sometimes drawn relatively normally, and we see her substantial chest, it jars with the typical ‘7-year-old squishy face’ we get the rest of the manga. It also means when the author does try to draw sex appeal, it becomes very creepy. See: the cover of this volume for an example.

But if you can get past the moe-overload art, Sunshine Sketch is a good example of what it’s trying to be. Cute, fluffy, funny, and with the occasional life lesson.