I’m Not Okay (and That’s Okay): Happy Sugar Life and the comfort of “bad survivor” narratives

By: Aquarius August 17, 20220 Comments
Satou with her hands covering Shio's eyes

Content Warning: blunt discussion of assault, rape, pedophilia, suicide, partner abuse and child abuse

Spoilers for Happy Sugar Life

Man, do any of you guys remember Happy Sugar Life? It’s been about three years now since this was a blip on the “Shock and Awe Yuri Comics” radar before being promptly buried under everything, circa 2019. And honestly? Good on that. We’ve survived so many global crises that this manga, its demented premise, its sadistically stupid cast, and its clowncar pileup of murder and mayhem seems oddly quaint.

Here, I’ll do your search engine a solid and summarize the plot. Girl meets girl. Girl trucks girl home to become a pet. Girl proceeds to blackmail, threaten, and occasionally murder to preserve their twisted sense of a stable household. Girl, named Satou, is in high school. Other girl, Shio, is… not. By about a decade too young.

Have I lost you? Good. It’s going to get even more outlandish when I start arguing this story’s merits as an abuse survivor narrative.

Satou kneeling in front of multiple enormous photos of people with X-s drawn over their faces

But back to the bygone days for a moment. Believe it or not, Happy Sugar Life actually got some decent traction in its heyday. It got a licensed release. It got an anime adaption, something most yuri comics can only dream of. It got some decent critical and reader acclaim, despite having a premise so alienating and controversial you would think it was cooked up by a manga version of The Producers. It even got a review of its first episode on this site (albeit not a glowing one—for good reason). 

Please don’t presume that this is a series that gives a terrible first impression but redeems itself once it hits its stride. Over the course of the story, this series swings wildly through a rollercoaster of schlocky plotlines, involving highlights such as:

  • A male rape victim who developed paedophilic tendencies as a result of said rape
  • A canonically queer teenager who sniffs uniforms and is generally creepy (have I mentioned this is not a queer narrative?)
  • A man whose abuse starts with raping a woman who bumps into him, and continues in similar veins of deeply offensive farce
  • Our protagonist’s caretaker being both a rapist and one who has built her life’s philosophy around being raped (and child protective services thought “yeah, this one’s stable enough to raise a kid”)
  • The only decent girl ending up with a knife in her throat
  • Our semi-literal cradle robber and her kidnapee having their beautiful relationship end with an attempted suicide pact

I was very upset, for a very long time, that I actually dug this comic.

Satou swinging a chair toward someone's head

I could put in some defense that the original manga had a lot less out-of-place fanservice than the anime (which I’m assuming was a producer’s attempt to make the whole story more “accessible”, clearly with neither a sense of irony nor particularly creative problem solving abilities). While the manga is still macabre, I respect it trying to be psychological rather than titillating. Satou and Shio’s relationship is surprisingly chaste by design, with their interactions leaning more toward the familial rather than the romantic. Not to imply that it’s any healthier for it; at its absolute nicest, Satou is the mom who lets her dependents eat ice cream for dinner and murders the mailman for getting too wise.

But at least I can assure the audience that overt pedophilic content is mercifully non-existent. Five-year-old Shio is a kid who acts like a kid, and has a kid’s view of what relationships are. Meanwhile, putting aside her backstory of having meaningless sex to try to feel a human emotion, Satou more-or-less adopts celibacy and seems perfectly content with being Shio’s skull-pulping guardian angel.

So if you’ve come to the Jailbait Murder Married Party to empathize with Queer Women and the Queer Experience, I’m afraid you’ve missed your train… is what I would like to say, before the manga throws in this little “yikes”. 

promo image of Satou and Shio in wedding veils with the red string of fate tied between them

Start to finish, this manga is a mess. The pacing is a mess. The escalation of events is a mess. The construction of the characters is a mess. The main relationship is a mess. Shio is a mess. Satou is a huge mess. I can try to use my ancient English Degree to write an essay about psychology and absurdism and other things to desperately make myself feel better for liking it. But not only would it be untrue, both in intention and execution, it just wouldn’t be right.

So bluntly, here’s why I like Happy Sugar Life: because it’s a mess. Not a “So Bad It’s Good” kind of mess—a nonsensical, meaningless mistake. And that’s good, because abuse is a nonsensical, meaningless mistake. 

Thankfully, as a society we are slowly moving past the point of dismissing someone like Satou’s struggles. That compassion is reflected in a lot of stories of resilience, rescue and self-care that stand by the survivors of toxic relationships. Within the last couple years, I’ve watched shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power or movies like Encanto, and read manga like Run Away With Me Girl that all look thoughtfully at the struggles of people finding themselves after, and during, experiencing and observing the pain of abuse.

So there’s the solution, right? We’ve come a long way, baby. There’s better stuff to turn to now. Survivors don’t need to engage with weird garbage fires like HSL to find our stories. We can finally start talking about these issues without it devolving into kidnapping-to-marriage and a whole bunch of murder. We don’t need people like Satou to be the spokesperson of survivors. Right?

Let me tell you a story.

A teenage girl grabbing Satou's arm

About three years ago, around the time I picked up Happy Sugar LIfe, I had just come to the realization that I was a survivor of childhood emotional abuse and neglect (if you’re wondering how that’s something you realize in your late twenties, hold that thought for a moment). Needless to say, it was not a great time of my life. I was fighting through undiagnosed trauma symptoms that were destroying my career. I had only recently pulled myself out of another deeply toxic friendship with a very ugly and destructive end. But by the far the worst was realizing that I was engaging in the same abusive behavior I was acclimated to, and very nearly destroyed the remaining healthy relationships I had in my life. My loved ones forgave me, by some grace I still don’t understand, but I still see the scars that I inflicted on them, even years later.

So yeah. I was not a model survivor.

But neither was Satou. She was neglected by her caretakers, threw herself headfirst into meaningless relationships to try to understand what compassion was, and when she found it, she guarded it jealously and violently. To me, that’s where the real horror of the story comes from: Satou is trying to break the cycle of abuse while not having the faintest clue of what an even passably normal relationship looks like. She sincerely believes that she’s discovered the “real” love her caretaker did not understand, and is determined to protect it with the same broken, twisted tools that were left to her—namely manipulation, power imbalance, and a whole lot of violence.

Two scenes still stick out in my head from the manga. The first is when Satou, after a period of inner turmoil and anger, realizes that the origin of her feelings was jealous protectiveness of her broken relationship. The revelation renders her elated. She skips down the street with a dreamy smile, looking like she’s walking on clouds. Why? She was overjoyed to feel a normal, human emotion. That really hurt to read.

Satou with her hands covering Shio's eyes

The other comes at the end, and is the turning point that ultimately leads to Satou’s downfall. Satou’s one unconditional friend, Shoko, finds out about her kidnapping and tries to get her to stop. In classic tragic irony, Shoko has a healthy friendship with Satou and is willing to do what it takes to help her get better, but also willing to call Satou out for her crimes. Satou, unable to believe in her friend’s concern because of Shoko’s unease with both Satou’s history and her crimes, kills her to preserve her secret.

Sure, if you’re a survivor, you probably won’t slice your BFF’s throat open if they say “hey man, you know kidnapping a kid isn’t okay?”, but it’s easy to do things that are more realistically distrustful and destructive. I sure have. I’ve slammed doors in faces, screamed at people that they don’t get it, or found some other way to cut them out of my life. Satou is one of the few providers of a very hard lesson of recovery—you’re going to need to choose what kind of survivor you want to be. And you’re going to need to make that choice over and over again.

It makes her clumsy re-creation of marriage with Shio almost heartbreaking. A grossly idealized picture of marriage, in the absence of loving parents or healthy relationships with peers, is the only safe haven she can find. And her nightly vows with Shio, childishly devoid of the partnership and healthy sexuality that so often goes awry in Satou’s day-to-day life, seem like a desperate promise to stay beholden to a decency that neither truly understands. 

Again, I cannot stress that this story is not a lost gem. I came not to praise Happy Sugar Life but to bury it. The manga ends with a childhood suicide pact, for crissakes. And Shio, just as much a victim of recurrent abuse as Satou is, gets very little depth outside of being Satou’s motivation. Horrifically enough, the manga all but confirms Shiho’s damnation into the same twisted, obsessive cycle that Satou was trapped in until the end. I absolutely needed this manga, and I don’t regret reading it. But good lord, it is not good.

Satou running with Shio in her arms

This is a guilty pleasure that stays firmly in “guilty.” I don’t think there’s anyone out there I can safely recommend it to—I side-eye a lot of people who like it, especially when they start praising its “awesome yandere protagonist” or its worst possible take on “be gay, do crime.”  And, Christ, I would never plug this to an abuse survivor. I joy-rode this tour-de-madness, but even I still spent a week afterward somewhere between “destabilized” and “no bath or shower will make me feel clean.”

That said, reading through Happy Sugar Life was a therapy I didn’t know I needed. With its wild-eyed, camera-spinning melodrama, it managed to capture so many unwanted feelings of anger, sorrow, desperation, resentment, anxiety, and at times, a truly aching nothingness. And there is a realness in Satou’s desperation to cling to the first safe harbor of a human relationship she’s found, child-marrying and skull-pulverizing notwithstanding. If there is one way that Satou is a “good” survivor, it’s in her determination. I read her story, and really, truly believe she tried. Could she, in some alternate timeline, have cleaned up her act, turned away from her worst behaviors, and given Shio the better life she deserved? 

In the hands of this writer, probably not. The sheer audacity of this manga inadvertently turned something as unfathomable and evil as abuse into an overblown farce. But that same stupidity helped me process and rob power from feelings I thought were unbearable. Perhaps it’s not a horror classic, but Happy Sugar Life did a good horror’s job: make a frightening monster, have the monster act out the worst of our darkness, and give us a cathartic release from watching its downfall. Like a funhouse mirror, its own nightmarish distortion is what helped me look at my own reflection and realize what I’m seeing isn’t as terrifying as I feared.

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