The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide Happy Sugar Life
How would you rate episode 1 of
Happy Sugar Life ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
I didn't think another show this season would have me actively pining for Angels of Death, but here we are. While Angels of Death was happy to wallow in its C-tier horror melodrama from minute one, Happy Sugar Life makes us wait for it, dragging its obvious reveal of its obvious intentions out for a good fifteen minutes. While clearly aspiring to creepiness and suspense, all this episode ultimately left me with was a vast, overwhelming sense of “please get on with it.”
It's obvious from the start where Happy Sugar Life is going with all this. We open with a high school age girl and a young child on a burning roof, as the older girl gleefully proclaims her love for the child. And even if the show had skipped that, the opening song is a giveaway as well, hammering in the clumsy “things are so happy EXCEPT NOW THEY'RE DARK” tonal fumbling these shows always do. On top of that, the base premise of the show, where a high school girl continues to express her undying love for an actual child, makes it clear that we're ultimately going to be reveling in the unhealthiness of this whole situation.
And yet, in spite of all that, Happy Sugar Life still makes us spend fifteen minutes watching high schooler Satou go through the motions of her fake life, as she gets slowly fed up with a predictably, inhumanly monstrous supervisor. There's no suspense here, because we know exactly what's coming. There's no room for investment in the characters, because Satou is a yandere cliche, her “relationship” with her destined love is a gimmicky plot device, and her supervisor is an antagonistic “jealous woman” trope. And there's no real aesthetic hook either - it's just fifteen minutes of waiting for first the supervisor and then Satou to get into their cackling villainy act, knowing all the while exactly how it will end.
Look, I'm clearly not the audience for a show like this - I find these kind of “everyone is secretly a monster” narratives joyless, juvenile, and tedious, and it's almost impossible for me to take a yandere heroine seriously. But if you're going to go for that obvious reveal, please do not make me wait fifteen minutes while you clear your throat. Believe me, we're all well aware of what you're about to say.
First things first, Happy Sugar Life will absolutely not sit right with many viewers, full stop. Even with the show clearly presenting itself as psychological horror, the fact that the main character is a sixteen-year old girl who has kidnapped and fallen in love with a girl who doesn't look a day over nine is a lot to process. If you decide to completely drop Happy Sugar Life the moment you see Satou affectionately grooming Shio in the bath, I don't think any reasonable person would blame you. Satou is a monster on many levels, and there are a few scenes of her interacting with Shio that I could barely get through. Before the episode ended, I thought I might have to dump it into the proverbial trash fire along with last season's Magical Girl Site.
However, Happy Sugar Life was able to just barely walk the line for me, between depicting reprehensible material and just being reprehensible. For one thing, Satou's “love” for Shio is glamorized strictly from Satou's perspective, and I think the episode ends up revealing enough of Satou's depravity to make it clear that we're not supposed to endorse or idealize her actions. It's also dubious whether Satou's affection for Shio has crossed into non-consensual territory, though the bath scene is tough to contextualize in that regard, yet another instance where I wouldn't blame anyone for putting Happy Sugar Life down. Given Satou's own history of abuse, not to mention her obviously criss-crossed psychological wires, her affection for her young victim can possibly be read as a hyperbolically toxic mix of romantic and pseudo-familial love. Even if the relationship is completely inappropriate and abusive, the camera and the script are careful enough to not fetishize Shio as a character, but to gawk at Satou's own fetishization of her; make of that what you will.
This is an incredibly precarious balancing act for Happy Sugar Life to execute, and it's entirely possible that the show will completely nosedive in future episodes. If you are able to go along with Happy Sugar Life's premise for now, this is a surprisingly well-constructed piece of psychological horror that puts you inside the mind of an engrossing psychopath, whose only genuine human connection is only forged after she kidnaps a little girl, murders a family, steals their apartment, and keeps that little girl locked away so that her grooming can continue in perfect isolation. Satou also makes sure to blackmail her boss, who happens to be a rapist and kidnapper herself, because this is the kind of anime where literally everyone seems to be a murderer in hiding.
I've been listening to a lot of true crime stories about famous serial killers lately, and it's honestly disturbing how much Satou and Shiro's story mirrors the many real tales of murder and abuse that have broken the lives of many victims over the years. From a pure storytelling standpoint, Happy Sugar Life is compelling on that kind of morbidly visceral level, so while I can't say I "enjoyed" this premiere, I am curious to know what happens next.
Oh, boy. This show is going to get dark in a powerful hurry. While Happy Sugar Life has a little bit in common with Angels of Death in terms of its premise of placing a seemingly innocent young girl in the care of an unstable “guardian,” the differences end there. Nobody chases anyone through a spooky murder house in this premiere, nor does anyone get carved up in dramatic fashion with a scythe. The scares here are quieter, more subtle in the way they creep up on the viewer. If there's fear to be felt, it comes from what has already happened in the show's backstory, or from what could (and probably will) happen in future episodes. That's a harder approach to pull off, but it's worth the longer buildup when it works.
The core appeal of this episode, and presumably the rest of the series, is the creepy balancing act it maintains between its sweet moments and its menacing ones. It walks that line pretty well so far, starting with the way the opening theme song swings back and forth between peppy and disturbing. That back-and-forth momentum carries through to the episode itself, which alternates between Satou's happy home life with her beloved Shio and the things she does to preserve that personal oasis. The audience is slowly made to understand that Satou is hiding a whole host of issues beneath her pink hair and cheerful attitude. As Satou “deals with” some problems at her new job, it becomes clear that she only cares about being with Shio, and she's willing to do whatever she thinks is necessary to achieve that goal.
Admittedly, the gradual reveal means that this episode is a relatively slow burn in terms of dramatic tension. Satou's showdown with her manager feels very much like a warmup round; her wrath is directed at a suitably scummy target, and her methods are remarkably non-violent. The focus here is not so much on the confrontation itself as it is on the details. It takes a while for little observations and the questions they raise to pile up: we never see Shio leave the apartment, Satou seems completely unconcerned about the fate of her captive coworker, and just for good measure she's got one or more dismembered bodies stashed away in a closet. Right around the time Satou tells those bodies that their house is pretty comfortable, a gut feeling of “aw, crap” finally settles in. Whether or not that feeling takes too long to arrive will likely come down to an individual viewer's preferences when it comes to narrative pace in horror stories.
Happy Sugar Life has the potential to be a good, or at least memorable, psychological horror series. It's playing with some pretty intense subject matter, which means that both good writing and artful direction will be crucial in terms of making the story disturbing without straying too far into objectionable territory. This episode seems to have a decent sense of where to draw that line, so I'm inclined to be optimistic. I'm more curious than I am scared at this point, but this show could definitely refine itself into grade-A nightmare fuel over the course of a few more episodes.
Happy Sugar Life was on my list of most-anticipated anime this season because its combination of disparate elements seemed so utterly perverse that I was curious to see how they could possibly fit together. And the first episode certainly doesn't disappoint when it comes to sheer perversity! Before the episode ends, there's been heavily implied yuri lolicon content and outright depicted mutual suicide, workplace bullying, two different kidnapping cases, sexual slavery, and grisly murder, all alongside moments of utter cutesy sweetness. In other words, the title is both literal and sarcastic.
The main gimmick is that central character Satou puts on a cheery outward face but on the inside she's a raving psychotic so desperate for love that she'll do unthinkable things. What drove her to this point is bound to be an interesting series of revelations that surely go beyond her disillusionment with ingenuine proposals from boys. Her yandere fixation falls on what looks like an elementary school girl who fully reciprocates her love. Setting aside how creepy that whole scenario is, it also raises interesting questions about what happened to Shio for her to adore Satou so completely. It's not hard to imagine how this could all lead to the suicide depicted in the beginning, and there are about a thousand different ways that this story could go down that road from here.
Satou isn't the only twisted person in the cast either, easily rivaled by the manager at her new place of work. Given the heavily pessimistic view of human nature that the series is showing so far, I have to think that she won't be the last disturbed person that Satou encounters. All of this makes for an immense counterpoint to the more cutesy scenes of adoration peppered throughout the episode.
Overall, the first episode is remarkably well-executed. The visual quality is better than I would have expected, nailing both the cutesy scenes and the dark ones, and the musical effort so far is perfect. It's more than just that, though. Someone has carefully thought out how to present the cutesy and dark scenes together in such a way that they feed into each other rather than clash, which is a rare feat. It also manages to show the warmth that Satou is getting from living with Shio without ever justifying her actions. That's a critical point since there are a lot of places that would turn into red flag if the episode depicted them in a positive light.
Even so, this balancing act isn't going to work for everyone. I can easily see this being a love-it-or-hate-it series. At least for now, I'm on board.
Did you ever play Doki Doki Literature Club? If so, you have a decent idea of what the first episode of Happy Sugar Life is like, although comparing it to Yuno in Future Diary is also a decent approximation. What all of this means is that there's a dark underbelly to the series that belies its cheery title, something that's almost immediately apparent when the episode opens. That's something I'm torn about: it might have been more effective to hide the grimness a bit better, but on the other hand, at least you know what you're getting into.
What you're getting into is a story about Satou Matsuzaka, a teenage girl who clearly grew up in an abusive household. As a consequence, she never knew what “love” was as pertains to feelings for another person, and there's some implication that she used sex as either a substitute or simply as a way to make people behave kindly to her. All of that changed when she somehow met Shio, a little girl currently being advertised as kidnapped – Shio fills all of the gaps in Satou's soul. She also apparently never leaves the apartment the two girls live in, which raises some interesting questions of how she and Satou met. At the end of the episode we clearly see that Satou killed someone to keep Shio, but was that Shio's own abusive parent, or was it Shio's original kidnapper and Satou saved her? Does Shio really love Satou in return, or are we dealing with Stockholm Syndrome here?
In either case, the answer is probably not good, and Satou's not so broken that she doesn't recognize that some things are simply wrong. That point is made when she takes on a second job to pay for Shio's care – when a boy at her new job confesses to her, her narcissistic manager gets jealous and kidnaps and continually rapes him, blaming Satou for her own bad behavior. Satou calls her out on it, but not because she wants to save poor Mitsuboshi-kun – instead, she's mad that the woman is withholding her pay, which she needs for Shio. Had she been paid properly, I doubt whether she would have cared what happened to the boy.
The combination of the visuals and Kana Hanazawa's Satou are what really make this work. The sudden shift from a pastel palette to dark reds and blacks is very effective, as is the imagery of sugary candy and pretty bags coupled with blood or broken glass. Hanazawa's vocal shifts compliment it very well, as she ranges from sweet and cute to as cold as a frozen corpse. As I said, I do wonder if more subtlety would have worked better in a few cases, but on the whole I do think this works. It obviously comes with a host of content warnings that will probably only get worse from here on out, but if Angels of Death isn't working for you in the horror department, have a taste of Happy Sugar Life instead.
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