Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Happy Sugar Life
When Sato doesn't come home on time, Shio leaves the apartment to look for her, putting her in the path of not only Taiyou, but also her own memories. Could it be that Sato really is the best choice for her? And how will Sato react when it looks like her happy sugar life is gone?
What keeps Tomiyaki Kagisora's Happy Sugar Life from slipping over the edge from horror to torture porn? For some readers, the answer will be “nothing” – the story is firmly rooted in the terrible things that can happen to people, and the fact that most of the cast are children may make this an inexcusable exercise in taking things too far. But for other readers, the answer is that none of the characters are fully broken yet. They've been twisted nearly to that breaking point, forced to contort themselves emotionally in order to keep on surviving. That's not easy to see in any medium, and the source manga of Happy Sugar Life does perhaps have an edge for sensitive consumers in that it doesn't have an audio component. But it's still a grim tale, and volume two feels like we're only just dipping beneath the surface of Shio's story, even as it promises more horrors to come.
That the focus shifts to Shio from Sato in this second volume means that the tone also moves over. When Sato is the main character, the story works much more in the horror genre, meaning that it's what we see (gore, rape) that's shocking. For Shio's narrative, the book functions more as terror, a genre in which it's what we don't see that's the source of fear – terror is all in our (and Shio's) mind. Since Shio is so young, that makes sense in terms of the series staying relatively close to the realm of what's actually possible; Shio's age puts her more in the “monsters under the bed” phase of life, because fortunately Kagisora's not willing to get her into the same situations as Taiyou in volume one. Shio's age also means that she's less fully aware of what's going on around her or in her life, so her own memories have taken on the hazy quality of a nightmare rather than the photorealism of Taiyou's or Sato's memories. When she leaves the apartment to look for Sato, she's stepping back into the nightmare Sato pulled her from, going back to mingle with the monsters who possibly only live inside her head now.
That the faceless woman she (and only she) sees while she wanders the nighttime streets is her mother isn't explicitly said, but feels like a given. We don't know what happened to her or why, specifically, Shio was taken away by her in the first place, but the very fact that we don't know is what makes the story effective. Taiyou, whom Shio meets up with, can put a very specific face and body to his trauma, and the ending words of the volume imply that Sato can as well. But Shio's monsters are much more nebulous, like the Thing you knew was in the dark corner of your bedroom as a child. In both terror and horror storytelling, this is a particularly effective device, and that Kagisora contrasts it with the more solid monsters of the other characters' narratives – and that she's a solid reality for the boy who may be Shio's brother – makes it work especially well here.
Of course, it wouldn't be within its genre(s) if Happy Sugar Life also didn't get truly uncomfortable for other reasons, and the scenes with Taiyou and Shio definitely do that. While Taiyou never physically crosses a line with Shio, the degree to which he idolizes her and to which he's transferred any sexual feelings is, to put it mildly, alarming. Taiyou sees Shio as the ultimate in purity and goodness, and if you've read the Perfect Blue novels (or watched enough Law & Order: SVU), you know that that's never a good thing. Right now everything's relatively okay, but the faces Taiyou makes as he thinks how soothing and pure Shio is are definitely sexual in nature. While it doesn't feel fair to say that he's truly sexually attracted to her at this point, his definition of her as pure, and the equation of that with “good,” spells danger for Shio and possibly Sato going forward – because what's “pure” must never then be defiled or sullied, and the definitions of those two words in this context are alarmingly flexible.
The actual main story of the book only takes up about three-quarters of the volume, which is a little disappointing. The rest of the graphic novel is devoted to the short(ish) story that came before the series was expanded, so basically the rough draft of what would become Happy Sugar Life. It is interesting to see what Kagisora ended up keeping and changing, with Taiyou being the most different in terms of character and plot progression. What Kagisora eventually went with is much more effective and different in terms of the genre as a whole and the story specifically, but leaving the main plot off on a cliffhanger in favor of including the rough is a bit of a let-down.
Happy Sugar Life's second volume on the whole isn't quite as strong as its first. It doesn't take quite as many storytelling risks and the initial shock factor is mostly gone. But it is still creepy, upsetting, and disturbing, as all good horror and terror should be, and the blend of the two genres is well done and contrasts well with the round, sweet art. It's definitely not a series for the faint of heart, but if you like your tales twisted, the series' sophomore volume continues to carry that torch.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Nice blend of horror and terror, slow breakdown of the characters works well
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