[Content warning: fictional suicide]
[This post will assume that the reader has watched Happy Sugar Life. Also, I’m too sick this week to write a proper introduction or proofread… maybe I’ll clean it up later… … And two months later , I have!]
If you watched a certain yandere psychological horror anime during the summer 2018 season, you might recognize the general plot structure of the Japanese “shinjuu” (love suicide) genre. Shinjuu stories usually go something like this:
Step 1) Two fate-bound souls fall in love. This is true love. It is eternal, even beyond the duration of the lovers’ human lives, and cannot be replaced by anyone else.
Step 2) Some social contrivance makes it impossible for the lovers to be together if they elope. For example, one lover could already be married, or belong to the wrong social class, or lack the money to live independently, or be a prostitute in debt-bondage.
Step 3) The lovers elope anyway and society persecutes them.
Step 4) The lovers reassert their commitment to each other but realize that they cannot evade their pursuers forever.
Step 5) The lovers kill themselves, on the promise that they will unite in paradise or otherwise meet again when their fate-bound souls reincarnate in the mundane world (shinjuu stories often show significant influence from Pure Land Buddhism).
Happy Sugar Life is at its core a shinjuu story. The first minute of the first episode teases as much when it opens to two girls embracing with matching rings at the edge of a burning roof. Of course, Happy Sugar Life twists the shinjuu template with the addition of some fun anime tropes like moe and yandere (yes, yandere are fun! remember the mantra: n-o-t-h-i-n-g-w-r-o-n-g). And how well does it twist! The first nine episodes made for some of the best psychological horror anime I have seen, even better than many of the shinjuu classics from film, short stories, and Japanese theater (I exaggerate).
Unfortunately though, Happy Sugar Life’s conclusion sucked all of the momentum out of its excellent shinjuu narrative. This post will explore how Happy Sugar Life fits the shinjuu template, and by way of analysis of the frustrating conclusion, give something akin to a series review.
Before exploring Happy Sugar Life’s shinjuu structure, let’s trace out the conclusion, which really begins to unravel in episode 10. After killing Shouko, Satou realizes that she will need to escape her apartment to evade the crime. This brings her to a new catatonic low because leaving would invalidate the happily-ever-after “apartment-made-castle” fantasy that she had constructed with Shio. Shio tries to comfort Satou in her own childish way, but when Satou begins to muse about potential escape plans, Shio realizes that Satou wants to abandon the “castle” and feels betrayed. She yells that she hates Satou and runs away to her room.
This is good angle, I thought. Though Shio might be too naive to understand the gravity what Satou had done to Shouko, I imagine that losing the “castle” fantasy would come as a shock to her young mind. From this point, I expected that Satou would become increasingly desperate while trying to coax the child back to her side with empty promises. Despite her best efforts, Shio would become frightened and distant, thus throwing Satou into emotional disarray and tarring her otherwise immaculate yandere record with a few sloppy mistakes that would trigger a death spiral to the show’s conclusion.
At first, the plot progression matched my expectations. With the new dispute, Shio seems to age by ten years into an angsty teenager that can’t tolerate the way adults condescend to her. She complains that Satou doesn’t trust her, that Satou doesn’t tell her the truth, and worst of all, that Satou does not share the responsibilities of protecting the “castle” with her. Shio lands a few biting lines like “I’d be just like a doll [to you],” and Satou reveals those anime crazy-eyes that show real desperation. Our hitherto stoic Satou finally acts uncharacteristically emotional as she begins to babble away with any platitute that might return Shio to her side. But Shio only becomes angrier.
Alright, I thought. Shio’s sudden maturation feels contrived, but we’re still on track. At first, it seemed odd for a child as young as Shio to worry about things like responsibility and truth (how would she know what was true, with no one to tell her but Satou?). However, I could accept her apparent teenage-phase as a way to drive a wedge between her and Satou and hint at the inevitable instability in the relationship. As Shio grows up, she will begin to desire autonomy and question why Satou keeps her locked in the “castle.” Because the series’ heavy suspense cannot wait years for Shio to actually age, especially given immediacy of the crisis caused by Shouko’s murder, Shio must reach emotional adolescence early to start the death spiral.
However, by episode’s end, the show loses much of its dramatic weight. Shio seems to age another ten years into something akin to a mature, empathic lover, replacing her sudden angst with unconditional love for Satou. Now speaking completely unlike any child, Shio says “I want to protect you too, Satou-chan … It hurts to see you get hurt! When we die, I’ll be your partner in crime.” Satou replies “Let’s prove our love together,” thus instantly resolving the conflict that the episode had established barely ten minutes ago. Despite some thick foreshadowing regarding Asahi at the episode’s end, Shio no longer has any of the hesitation that would make her distrust Satou and Satou no longer has any of the desperation that would make her yandere crimes sloppy.
This is stupid, I thought. With that “partner in crime” line, everything that had made the previous nine episodes so suspenseful suddenly disappears. The creepy contrast between Satou’s selfish, controlling love and Shio’s childish, unthinking love becomes plain fairytale-esque “true love.” This results in two problems. First, Satou loses her status as a mother or older sister type, and becomes a real lover to Shio (we finally get into pedophilia territory here… eugh). But more importantly for the narrative, Shio is no longer an unwitting hostage too young and naive to understand the situation. Acting in her aged-up way, Shio consents to her captivity and instantly resolves the greatest anxiety in the show: that Satou had kidnapped Shio. The defining feature of the whole series, that spiral towards a flaming tragedy foreshadowed in the first minute of episode one, just stops.
The remaining two episodes rush through any unresolved plot threads. Satou spends episode 11 back as her usual hyper-competent yandere self while she prepares to leave the country with Shio. And then, in episode 12, the spiral only starts again for such a silly contrived reason: Satou forgets her ring, that precious symbol of her obsessive love for Shio that I can in no way accept that Satou would forget (this is sooo stupid!). So instead of heading to the airport, the two return to the apartment to retrieve the ring. Of course, in another plot-convenient contrivance they confront Asahi moments before the building catches fire. Whatever, I came this far. I’ll see it through, I thought.
And thus, the no-longer dramatic conclusion: Asahi has trapped Satou and Shio on the roof of the burning apartment. Shio refuses to return to Asahi’s family and commits herself to Satou one last time. Wounded and cornered by the fire, Satou apologizes to Shio for failing to protect her. Shio reverts back to her typical role as an angelic, cherubesque child-redeemer and begins to comfort a hopeless Satou. But then, she proposes something absurd: the pair should prove their love together by jumping to their deaths. Um… what? Why would a child coax an (almost) adult into a suicide pact? I didn’t even think this time. I just shuddered.
Shio pushes Satou, the two hug in midair, and at the last moment Satou positions herself to absorb the force of the fall to save Shio. Satou apologizes, a jar shatters (whose? probably Satou’s?) and Shio lives. A rapid-fire epilogue wraps up the other characters stories: Satou’s aunt and teacher get arrested, Mitsuboshi becomes a broken, nervous wreck, and Shio’s mother keeps her distance as Asahi tries to reconnect with his sister. In the hospital, Shio acts as if she has absorbed Satou’s yandere soul and declares to Asahi that she has found her “happy sugar life.” Um…okay…I thought.
Because I don’t even know where to begin with such a bizarre ending, let’s jump back to the shinjuu template and substitute in a few terms to see how well Happy Sugar Life fits, with a few twists.
Step 1) Satou and Shio fall in love. This is their true love or “happy sugar life.” Satou cannot replace her love for Shio with anyone else. The twist: Shio might replace Satou with Asahi. The love is not eternal, because Shio will grow up and reevaluate her childish, unconditional love.
Step 2) Society will not let the girls live together because Satou has killed three people and kidnapped Shio. If discovered, Satou will be arrested. The twist: Satou killed in self-defense and rescued Shio from abandonment. (It’s just a (maybe) kidnapping!)
Step 3) Satou lives with Shio despite the risk. Asahi pursues her. The twist: Satou’s only friend Shouko cannot commit to Satou and begins to assist Asahi. Satou kills Shouko.
Step 4) In episode 10, Satou realizes that she cannot hide in the apartment forever after killing Shouko. Despite a short argument, Satou and Shio recommit themselves to each other, thus belatedly straightening the twist in step 1). The twist: …Shio is a child…
Step 5) The lovers attempt to kill themselves. The twist: Shio survives.
By the end of the series, the only twist that still matters is that Shio survives. This is where Happy Sugar Life shatters its shinjuu template.
Once the couples declare their true love, as Shio did when she said “When we die, I’ll be your partner in crime,” the logic of a shinjuu story demands that both lovers must die for the least tragic ending. Only in death can their fate-bound souls reunite in the Pure Land paradise or otherwise reincarnate in the mundane world to live out another chance at meeting. However, if one lover survives, the conceit of an eternal, irreplaceable “true love” means that the couple will live apart in agony. The survivor often becomes a miserable prisoner to the pursuer (in Shio’s case, Asahi and her mother in the hospital) and longs for another chance at suicide if they still have faith in meeting their lover in death. Meanwhile, the dead lover will pity the survivor’s misery in an unhappy paradise or live out their new reincarnated life empty and alone, in ignorance their former true love. Surviving is the worst possible outcome of a shinjuu story, and Satou shows that she understands this when she says (while falling!) “I hope you still love me when we are reborn.”
However, the show seems to contradict itself with one final twist on the shinjuu template. By saving Shio, Satou does the exact opposite of what the reincarnation reasoning predicts. Because Shio survives, Satou inflicts that worst possible “survivor” ending on her love. In shinjuu terms, she has committed the ultimate betrayal, satisfying her own selfish desire to protect her lover rather than granting Shio the autonomy to choose her own death. But here is the last twist: Happy Sugar Life turns Satou’s death into a light redemption. Essentially, Satou concedes on step 1) of a shinjuu story. She does not trust that Shio really views her as an irreplaceable love. By doing one last selfish thing, Satou returns to her motherly disposition and redeems herself by giving the child a second chance at life and love. Alright, as an interesting twist on the shinjuu template, I can accept this ending, I thought.
But I think that I am just imagining that final redemption twist: Happy Sugar Life gets weird in the epilogue. The show drops a few bizzare visual hints that imply that Satou’s soul has reincarnated inside Shio and then removes all doubt with the bafflingly stupid lines “I’ve been reborn” and “We’re together forever, Satou-chan” (No! You broke the shinjuu template, you can’t be together forever!). She declares that she has found her “happy sugar life” and seems to assume Satou’s role as a psychopathic yandere. Asahi looks terrified of her and her mother continues to watch from a distrustful distance. Um… why? I thought.
It’s all so rushed and retwisted that I don’t even know what to make of it. The epilogue denies the impact (heh.) of Satou’s death because Shio is neither a miserable survivor as a classic shinjuu story would predict nor just a normal child as the redemption twist would predict. The ending tries to have it both ways but bumbles both. It fails on the shinjuu reincarnation trope by putting Satou’s soul inside Shio without any of the survivor-guilt. But it also fails on its redemption arc proposed by Satou’s death when Shio becomes a new Satou, effectively continuing the cycle of madness. Why do that? Do the writers want to set up a slasher sequel with Shio as the lead or something? It’s a contradictory mess.
Until episode 10, Happy Sugar Life was perfect (with just some hyperbole). The gorgeous art, the marvelous voice acting, the yandere competence-porn, the psychological struggles and the climactic betrayal and ultimate murder of the immensely relatable Shouko. And the suspense! The dramatic pacing! Those excellent twists on the shinjuu template! The show had a few odd plot contrivances (for example, Shouko appears at Satou’s apartment at the perfect moment to take a picture of Shio), but given the thematic weight of those scenes, remember that yandere mantra: n-o-t-h-i-n-g-w-r-o-n-g. It’s mwah! Perfect. 👌👌👌 💯
But by the end of episode 10, the show just seemed confused. The great contrast between Satou’s selfish love for Shio and her virtual imprisonment of the girl disappeared when Shio suddenly matured and consented to being a “partner in crime.” Even worse, with that, Satou lost her role as an overprotective mother and the show became the loli romance that it had skirted but never committed to. And well, the baffling choice to have a child propose a lovers’ suicide just felt… oh… oh no. I enjoy shinjuu stories, but that maybe crossed a line.
I suppose I will still recommend Happy Sugar Life to anyone with a tolerance for yandere and lovers’ suicides for the masterful execution of the series’ first nine episodes. But the final act just sucked all of the drama and suspense out of the series. It denied me both the campy yandere bloodbath that I had expected and a serious shinjuu tragedy that I had discovered. But most of all, it seemed to lose that stark contrast between the sweet-moe and bitter-horror that had defined the series. Happy Sugar Life ended on the wrong flavor. It was sour.