[Interview] Makoto Kageyama discusses mental health issues in Japan and anime

The recent controversy around Logan Paul’s decision to film the bodies of the dead in Aokigahara forest has opened up discussion about Japan’s mental health crisis and the ways in which a lot of western culture has diminished, fetishized, or othered that issue. Makoto Kageyama, a former volunteer at Aokigahara, responded to the video with an in-depth thread about their experience, which was later quoted by the BBC (please be aware that the linked article uses incorrect pronouns for Mx. Kageyama).

Makoto was kind enough to speak with me about their experiences living with mental illness, how the mentally ill are treated in Japan, and how those issues are depicted in anime. To find out more about their work as a professional illustrator and read more of their thoughts, please visit @kurietachan on Twitter.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of depression, suicide, and societal prejudice against the mentally ill.

AF: We first encountered your work when you spoke out in reaction to Logan Paul’s disrespectful behavior in Aokigahara. What moved you to comment on the issue?

MK: It’s a sad story, actually. I was celebrating New Year’s with my family and right when I was going to bed, my brother Kazuma told me to not get on Twitter because he knew that I was a former volunteer for the forest and he didn’t want me to feel saddened. Because I am stubborn, I went ahead and saw what the fuss was about anyway, and I encountered his video.

All the people around me fell kinda silent because they knew about my past there, so they felt helpless. When I saw how sad but quiet everyone felt, I exploded. I did a small tutorial on a Twitter thread about how to handle certain situations if you visit the forest and basically begged for respect on the issue since I’m a strong believer of Shinto; not only that, as a human being I wanted to see a person who used to live like myself be respected.

I’m aware that maybe I didn’t use some words correctly, but I explained to each person who didn’t understand why I used some strong words and I feel very grateful that they could understand my feelings. I am happy that people who were mad at me at first could open up their minds and we could communicate through feelings.

I still feel pretty mad about Logan Paul. Disregarding the Aokigahara incident, he did many things in Japan that could be considered crimes and a danger to public safety. Plus the obvious: he thought he could get away with it because he took advantage of the non-confrontational nature of the Japanese people. I really hope this whole incident doesn’t make Japanese people think that all foreigners are like that.

Close up of Jun Narase, a girl with short black hair
The Anthem of the Heart

AF: What is your background with mental health issues? (Feel free to answer personally or professionally as you feel comfortable.)

MK: I’ll be honest, I never knew what depression or mental illness was while I was in Japan because it seemed like it was taboo to not function “normally.” I realized this in the worst way, which was feeling hopeless due to bullying (me being half, my Mom being a single mom, being LGBT…) and returning to something dangerous: suicide forums. Suicide forums are forums where people who plan to commit suicide talk about their feelings, suggest methods of suicide and sometimes even gather to do group suicides. So I ended up attempting suicide myself but well… As you can see, I am still alive.

That opened me up to see this existed and it also helped my Mom to understand she shouldn’t have tried to act like there wasn’t any problem there at all. We tried to get help from both regular health care and from an organization that helped people with mental health troubles not feel afraid to recognize the issue. By going through two different routes, it made me realize that the regular health care is pretty bad—they tend to just give you a lot of medicine to numb you more than helping you with therapy.

Meanwhile, organizations help you find the right stuff such as economic therapists or other routes that aren’t just medicine. In fact, when I went to the therapist that I was recommended, he realized that my meds had “suicidal thoughts” as a possible side effect, which was a big problem considering I’d just come back from a suicide attempt. They led me to alternative methods like art therapy and animal therapy. That last one made me become the crazy rabbit-loving nut that I am. It really helped me and still does.

From there, I joined the same organization that helped me as a way of thanking them. Which led me to try to help children, other LGBT or hafu [mixed-race], people who were recluses (hikikomori) either behind their door or online… Even though I just tried to help them by being someone who they could talk to since I am not a professional, but still… I know it sucks to be alone during dark moments, so I wanted to at least be there for people who didn’t have anyone to talk to.

Also, because I wanted to face the consequences of my actions, I volunteered in Aokigahara as a way of redeeming myself for the pain that I caused to my family and to see for myself what death really is. The experience opened my eyes since we did find bodies, as well as people who were unconscious and people who still were on the edge and thinking about it. Seriously, that place has something eerie and sad, so you have to be brave and think that you are doing good and try to come back home with more respect and knowledge about human pain.

If I return to Japan, even for a short time, I will probably do it again. But I do wonder if my spouse and siblings would approve of that!

Close up of Rei's face from March Comes in Like a Lion. Caption: but for now, I'm just happy
March Comes in Like a Lion

AF: Speaking generally, what is the common view of those struggling with mental illness in Japan?

MK: Honestly, most people who suffer from mental illness just hide it. You get told as a kid that you have to be successful and follow a path where you have to make your family proud and be the best while not standing out from a social point of view. So people just hide their pain.

Not handling the pain is kinda like a sign of weakness, and most people who actually try and get help do it secretly. In fact, most psychiatrists in Japan usually make their offices look modest and very hidden so the patients can go there without others realizing they are going to a psychiatrist.

It is a sad thing; in fact, I lost one of my best friends due to suicide and I didn’t realize ‘til she was gone that she was suffering. I only realized this because of a letter she mailed to me the same day she… Decided to go. After that happens to you, sometimes when I go to Japan and see people smiling and having a good time, I wonder which of them is actually suffering and hiding it just to not be stigmatized.

AF: How are these issues discussed in Japan’s fictional media? Is it more likely to come up in a particular medium (e.g., live dramas versus anime)?

MK: Usually it’s more discussed in “purchasable media” such as manga or regular books, and also movies. Since dramas and anime are aired publicly, it’s like they try to cut many things from plain sight. Like I said before, this is something that people try to hide as much as they can. There’s a LOT of manga that discuss things like mental illness, disabilities, and LGBT issues from a really real point of view, but those mostly never get animated to be on TV because it’s risky.

An example I can use is “Koe no Katachi” (A Silent Voice) or “Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda” (The Anthem of the Heart): one discusses disability (deafness) and the second discusses anxiety and selective mutism; both of them were released as movies, possibly because the topics were very strong to just show them for free. That’s why they are movies, because you can pay to see it or not and parents can pay to show it to their children or not.

Most anime with strong issues are aired in very late night slots; in fact, I got shocked for example that “Sangatsu no Lion” (March Comes in Like a Lion) was going to be animated considering that it’s a story about a teenager that suffers from severe anxiety and depression. But then I saw it was going to be aired in a very late night slot, so it wasn’t surprising for me. Still, I am happy it did get an adaptation, especially because SHAFT did a wonderful job trying to portray the feelings of anxiety someone has.

And well, same goes for the topic of suicide. You will mostly see it on paper media and movies rather than TV dramas or anime.

A figure on his knees in the dark, his bright white shadow extending before him. caption: At night, I would get stressed, wondering if the rest of my life would be like this
March Comes in Like a Lion

AF: What common issues or misinformation do you see in how mental health/mental illness is depicted in anime?

MK: I will be honest, I don’t like the stories where the issue gets solved magically with the power of love and friendship, it’s like a lazy way to solve things. Usually in anime, they make the issues look light or don’t explain them properly. Most of the stuff is “X-chan is sad (when clearly depressed and with a mental issue), we will bake this cake and they will see they are not alone and they will be cured from the sadness.” And after that, the issue is never mentioned again and magically X-chan is cured. Also, in media where a character does get mental health care, they are shown as crazy and somehow that gives them a bad image like… Only crazy people go to get mental health.

That makes sad even though I’m an avid anime consumer. That’s why sometimes I stick more to manga in that sense.

A brunette kid with unkempt hair leans on a piano in the woods, looking suspicious, watching a black haired child play the instrument.
Piano no Mori 2007 film

AF: Are certain issues more likely to be covered than others?

MK: Usually, the most common issues I’ve seen covered is the “hikikomori phenomena” and light eating disorders. Basically, a bullied character that becomes a recluse out of social anxiety, but… The characters don’t usually get shown correctly, since their issues are not explained properly and basically it ends up with a “Hey, see? People are not that bad, we are your friends!” and “Yay, I have friends, I am cured and I can trust others again!”

Which is not the case, because real hikikomori can take a lot of talk and patience to get them out and when they get back to normal society (if they do), they become very wary of others. And ironically, “hikikomori” has also been used as a “moe trait” in anime even though it’s a mental health issue. Which is good and bad, because it does show the issue itself but people can misunderstand something sad as a “kawaii trait.”

I know anime is supposed to make you happy again; I mean, that’s the way it’s sold. But still, it could also be good for media to help others and there’s few anime that can do that. Like I said before, there’s more manga about mental health issues than anime.

AF: How do you think portrayals have changed over the years? For better or worse?

MK: Lately, the newest anime are beginning to surprise me. Because there’s many “risky” manga that I used to read that suddenly became anime and most of them deal with very strong themes, either fantasy or real life problems. So in a way, I do feel hopeful if they continue to choose to animate these kind of things especially to be aired on TV instead of becoming a movie. In fact, I’m looking forward to “Piano no Mori” for this reason, since it deals with a lot of real issues from social issues to mental illness… If they decide to not cut things from the manga. Let’s cross our fingers!

Go go “risky manga,” get animated please!

A rotoscope-style young man examining a ping pong paddle
Ping Pong the Animation

AF: What are some portrayals of mental illness you think of as positive?

MK: I think the most accurate and positive portrayals I got were actually from Kiriyama Rei (March Comes in Like a Lion), Naruse Jun (The Anthem of the Heart), Miyamura Miyako (ef: A Tale of Memories), Takeya Yuki (School-Live!) and Smile (Ping Pong: The Animation).

I mean, they are positive because they are well shown from my point of view. Kiriyama Rei has severe depression and anxiety and it’s wonderfully shown in the anime, it gives the viewer an image of how their own feelings would look if they could be explained in some way. Naruse Jun has social anxiety and selective mutism due to PTSD and her growth in the movie is wonderful and strong. Miyamura Miyako was a refreshing character since it seemed at first like the male protagonist of this anime was the one with mental illness but flips to her in a wonderful yet graphic way; it’s a wonderful twist on her character that makes you see how sometimes the one that smiles the most is the one with most issues (I won’t spoil more, but her character needs more recognition especially since it’s a good portrayal of someone who hides mental illness for the sake of others).

Takeya Yuki is a character who has PTSD and psychosis, which is something that really surprised me because of the “moe aesthetic” of the anime, but she has this spot in my heart especially because her friends accept the problem as it is and try really hard to not get her exposed to “triggers” for her own safety and mental well-being. And last but not least, Smile from Ping Pong, which is another character with discreet mental issues that are not really mentioned but you can see them clearly, and even though nothing is explicitly mentioned, you can just see it for yourself and how it advances.

Rei from March screaming and holding his head, rendered as white pencil on black screen. Caption: and it was so painful that it felt like it wanted to tear me apart

AF: What was a portrayal you had issues with, and how would you change it?

MK: A portrayal I had issues with was Touwa Erio from “Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko” (Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl) because even if I aesthetically love the character, she was shown to have a lot of potential to explain anxiety, depression, and any other things from the “hikikomori phenomena” due to her strong backstory but her mental issue got moved aside pretty quickly for the sake of “rom-com.”

And well, most of the issues shown from all the characters in “Mayoiga” (The Lost Village). Everything gets thrown in there and some of the issues are badly portrayed, exaggerated and such. I finished it because I was watching it with a friend and the premise and the characters looked interesting at the beginning, but then everything became a mess.

AF: What would you like readers to be aware of or pay attention to regarding Japan’s approach to mental health?

MK: I would like the readers of this article to not consider characters with anxiety or certain issues as “moe” since there’s nothing “moe” about being a recluse or having social anxiety. I would also like to encourage others to try and seek out the rare jewels of anime that discuss serious issues and try to read more manga since there’s less censorship there when it comes to these issues.

Last but not least, if you ever visit Japan please be aware that maybe someone around who looks cute or is smiling might be actually hiding something sad in their hearts. And if you visit Aokigahara, please be respectful; even if you don’t have a gruesome encounter there, please pray that the ones who are gone find a happier afterlife.

 

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