Love Him to Heal Him: Heterosexual wish-fulfillment in Mars and I Sold My Life For 10,000 Yen Per Year

By: Elif Sinem Erdem March 1, 20240 Comments

Content warning: discussion of suicide, sexual assault

Spoilers for Mars and I Sold My Life For 10,000 Yen Per Year

There is a meme that recently made its rounds again on X (formerly Twitter) with the caption “the best ship dynamic.” A muscly man drawn in earthen shades stands imposingly to the left. A text informs us that he’s scarred, big, went through a lot, and tries to act tough and emotionless. To his right is a woman, endowed with impossibly big breasts, shadowed only by faint lines of blue and green. She is “just a decent woman” and has motherly vibes. In the lower half, the man lies on the lap of this motherly woman. She tells him, “It’s going to be okay.”

The romantic archetype of the scarred, strong yet secretly sad man being nursed emotionally by a female love interest is one so ubiquitous that such a meme evokes fictional examples near instantly. There are dozens of archetypes—hundreds of male characters—worth loving, but this one endures in anime, manga, and beyond. It speaks to a fantasy about “saving” this broken man. But if he gets saved, what about her? Is she saved by him from whatever sadness she has? Or does she just exist in the narrative to prop him up?

The shoujo manga Mars, written and illustrated by Fuyumi Soryu, and the manga I Sold My Life for 10,000 Yen Per Year, adapted from the novel Three Days of Happiness and published on Shonen Jump+, approach this question—the sad boy— in perpendicular angles. Looking at these series side by side, we can see the same archetype and corresponding fantasy play out in different hues for their specific target audiences, in all its glories and pitfalls.

I Sold My Life For 10,000 Yen: the invisible girlfriend

Kusunoki, the protagonist of I Sold My Life for 10,000 Yen Per Year, made a promise with classmate Himeno to marry her ten years later if both end up single. But at twenty years of age, he is down on his luck. When the lack of money and food lead him to part ways with his cherished book and record collection, the middle-aged book clerk asks him why he won’t sell his lifespan instead. Even the record store employee, a younger man, vouches for its guarantee rate. Kusunoki finds himself at a nondescript building and inside an empty store. Save for one girl around his age in formal attire, there is no one. She is Miyagi and, when Kusunoki sells thirty years of his remaining lifespan for 300,000 Yen in total (around $200 USD), she becomes his guardian to ensure he sees his remaining three months through without making trouble. 

The important thing about Miyagi is not that she inherited her late mother’s debt, or that she is a survivor of abuses by previous clients. It is that, besides being appointed to him, she is invisible to everyone but Kusunoki—a side-effect of having sold her time, rather than her lifespan. Even more important, he is exactly her type, and since she sticks closely to him, they get to do things he’s always fantasized about, such as shopping with a girl or having her sit behind him as he rides a motorbike. She even becomes his pretend girlfriend so Kusunoki can meet up with Himeno. In an extra chapter and the sole instance where we hear her point-of-view, Miyagi prays for Kusunoki to die faster so he never meets up with his marriage-promised childhood friend. Even more directly, she wants a scenario where “he’ll have no one else to rely on and be forced to cry on my shoulder.” 

She need not have worried: Himeno had harbored so much resentment of Kusunoki all her life that she kills herself after their eventual meeting. As Miyagi murmurs consoling words in his ear that night, Kusunoki wonders how much Miyagi had already helped him. She helps him more than he assumes: to the rest of the world, Kusunoki talks to himself, hugs himself, and makes out with the air. In doing so, he becomes a minor celebrity in their small town, in either case integrating him fully into society. In turn, he helps her meet her childhood friend in Volume 3, who had promptly forgotten her after she became invisible. Kusunoki—who had openly wondered a volume prior how soon help would come Miyagi’s way if he sexually abused her at an abandoned train station—now states that if he was invisible, he would kiss his long-lost childhood friend. The resulting kiss he gives Miyagi is framed as a romantic gesture.

Miyagi’s happiness comes solely from Kusunoki; he makes her happy by holding her hand and giving her headpats, the latter gesture transforming her visuals to look visibly infantile in those panels. But far from her becoming a mascot, Kusunoki wants to help her by selling even more of his lifespan to shave off her debt. Miyagi violently rejects this. She doesn’t want to live if it isn’t with him; this neediness had been lampshaded a volume prior, where she was reluctant to accept that her childhood friend could make it on his own. She asks Kusunoki not to sell his lifespan, but he does it. In retaliation, Miyagi sells off hers. They are now rich and have three days left on earth together. 

What I find so fascinating about I Sold My Life is the thinness of its concepts; themes of classism, school trauma, the mutability of time, and the fickle nature of existence are up for grabs and never taken. Its art is flat, the supernatural angle barely tied to the narrative, to say nothing of the flippant way suicide and sexual violence is treated. Romance prevails, one in which she does all the emotional heavy lifting. She’s the one folding the rest of his cranes to complete them to a thousand. She’s the one who murmurs at him consolingly when he’s down. Her desires—meeting her childhood friend aside, she also wants to dig her own grave and see a place secluded from society—do not come in direct conflict with his and are never treated with the same gravitas. All these actions come at the expense of her interiority as a character: Miyagi has her own life and traumas, ones worth exploring in detail, but as the narrative is both anchored in and endorses Kusunoki’s point of view, she is left by the wayside. 

As for Kusunoki’s sadness, it is so banal that every flashback he has seems trite, existing only to make his life a little less vacant than it is. Unsurprisingly, he develops something of a presence when he is dating her. He might be the one initiating the actions (handholding, hugging, kissing), but it is her lack of presence, her singular attention, that makes him part of society and leads him to a better life, even if it’s for three days. A fantasy emerges for the Jump+ audience: having a magical girlfriend bound only to you, who will fix your problems, makes you a more confident member of society. All that she requires is a headpat here and there.

Mars: the dreamer, the dream, and rose-colored reality

When we first meet Kira Aso of Mars, she’s not answering Rei Kashino verbally when he asks her for directions. She flips around her sketch and draws a map. She avoids boys; she avoids him specifically, a chain-smoking, long-haired, motorcycle-riding blond junior known to cause trouble. That makes Rei all the more interested in her. He pulls at her hair and, after class, asks her about the sketch depicting a mother and child. Kira is immediately infatuated, and when he saves her from getting sexually assaulted by her art teacher and makes out with the Mars sculpture in the arts room, she likens it to a birth inside of her. She promises him the full painting. Rei vows to protect her. And: “Let me know if you ever feel like fooling around… I’ll lend you my body whenever you want.” She does: she wants him to lend his body for modeling. He’s as stumped as she is at her request, but agrees.

In this relationship, Rei saves her from everything violent—which happens more often than you’d think—and, in turn, Kira helps Rei whenever she can, though in a much more tender, feminine-coded manner. When Rei is beaten up by seniors in Volume 2, it’s Kira that finds him passed out in his flat and nurses him back to health. Later, as he passes out from a panic attack in a public square, Kira resurrects him, which is framed as a kiss. Unlike all his other girlfriends, Kira senses something beyond Rei’s fiery exterior: a sadness, manifested in the colors of sunset, both rich in its violence and energy and dark in saturation. Rei, Kira thinks, “brought out emotions in me I thought I never had”: courage and love. And Rei finally has someone he cares about, something to fear: losing her. The sadness behind his tough, bad-boy exterior is brought to light, excavated by her efforts, and it enhances his beauty even more.

In those early volumes, there is a heavy focus of Rei as a fantasy, despite Kira being the protagonist and point-of-view character. Rei also has more going on in the beginning portion of the story: a dead twin brother, a dead mother, and his living father not his birth father. Kira has her demons to run away from, too, but they emerge a little later. Emblematic of the beginning section of Mars appears near the end of Volume 3. Kira, who has artistic talent, for which she sees no future, waits to hear back from Rei at the 8-hour Suzuka endurance race. She considers that while anyone can draw, only “a select few” can be on the circuit.

This is certainly correct—not everyone has the means and interest for motorcycling—but strikes especially poignant from a bird-eye view. Rei is wish fulfillment for heterosexual girls: handsome and hiding a sadness and vulnerable only towards Kira, protecting her whenever needed. He is not just one of a select few, but the chosen one. Rei will stop at nothing for his motorcycling because he is a dream of a man. Kira, meanwhile, gives up her own dream in Volume 2, saying she has no money for college. The dreamer cannot escape reality. While Rei is emphasized as being special, talented, and unique, Kira could be anyone.

But Mars is an earnest manga: earnest in its exploration of loneliness and a need for connection, sincere in its depiction of teenage love and heartbreak. Over the course of its fifteen volumes, Kira’s initial role as audience stand-in shifts as mangaka Fuyumi Soryo fills her in: in one surprising moment near the end of Volume 8, Kira admits that she thinks of inciting violence to her abusers “all the time”; in later volumes, she is wracked with guilt of not being good enough for Rei, now tasked with fending both; and when she attains economic and emotional stability starting from Volume 12, we find her more expressive.

Rei saves Kira emotionally, too: rescuing her from her sexual trauma in the middle part of the series, giving her the chance to enjoy sex as a survivor. Rei gives up his dream to allow Kira’s dream of art; Kira, upon spotting Rei’s face lightening up at the sheer sight of a motorcycle, asks his stepfather to reconsider his choice. What emerges is equilibrium, the sense that love saved them in both directions. Still, in Volume 14, when Kira says: “There’s something magical about Rei when he’s in [the motorcycling] world. I realized that’s the Rei I fell in love with,” I think back to the sunset colors of Volume 3. In the face of domesticity and the realities of a relationship, she still seeks to dream.

Love and beauty, saved and savior

Both the shoujo Mars and the shounen I Sold My Life reflect the so-called “best ship dynamic” meme in their own ways, though neither Rei nor Kusunoki are physically imposing and are much more emotionally expressive. In both, Miyagi and Kira have to console them. The men harbor stronger trauma, and the narratives center around their pain. Yet the perpendicular angle emerges. Rei is perfect until the fantasy cedes to vulnerability; Kusunoki is defined by his everyday struggles until his unique condition elevates his social status. Miyagi is a young woman so perfect she cannot be real, the state of which she cannot ever attain; Kira is a young woman who must come of age if she means to protect herself and her lover.

Despite that, the fantasy of the early Mars volumes and I Sold My Life mirror one another: you might be loved unconditionally and healed from all your pain. This, in turn, allows you to possess the power to heal someone else. It is not incomprehensible, even noble to some extent: help others to help oneself. In practice, it often plays out as an unequal partnership and a narrative weighted heavily on the male character rather than the girl who loves him. Savior and saved end up heavily gendered and heteronormative; rarely are the roles reversed. Men and boys are offered the fantasy of a magical girlfriend who will help them with everything, and women and girls the dream of being and becoming that girl who “fixes” a man, the man who will treat her right.

Such male archetypes, as well as the resulting relationships, tell the female reader to make herself as flat as possible; to submit to his whims and needs with very little in return. The static “love” and “beauty” that these male characters provide cannot be a prize by itself—not compared to the more laborious tasks of consoling them—but it is, we’re told, a worthy exchange.

Mars eschews this eventually and emerges a stronger work as a result. That is not to say that it stops the fantasy altogether: Rei is still a dashing young man with a story that is too outrageous to ever come true, and the way in which he confronts Kira’s trauma by retraumatizing her is Mars’s rare misfire. Kira wants to be saved many times by him, particularly dependent on his love in a similar way Miyagi admitted her dependency on her childhood friend. But as outlined before, Kira is saved substantially, i.e. by having her life saved by Rei, her sex life healed, as well as tuition provided by Rei’s stepfather. She is indeed saved by saving someone else; with her insecurity gone, her love gains a healthy color, too.

For I Sold My Life, however, I get the sense this was of no concern to the author of the original light novel. Further, the fantasy cedes way to a catharsis that relies solely on identifying with someone like Kusunoki. After all, who of us isn’t struggling with money and hasn’t had a childhood sweetheart? Who of us doesn’t want a perfect girlfriend who would die for you? But this type of fiction does not simply ask you to leave your identity at the door; it approaches with razor-thin blades, slicing at skin one papercut at a time. Except those male characters will never tell you it’s going to be okay.

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