Spoilers for the Skip Beat! manga.
Content Warning: Discussion of abuse, parental neglect, sexual assault, and bullying.
Skip Beat! has been celebrated as both “stereotype breaking” in its genre and as an important depiction of feminine rage, among other things, in the 18 years since its first chapter was published. While Yoshiki Nakamura beautifully, almost painstakingly, develops a single year in-universe through 44+ volumes, there’s much to be desired in the portrayal of protagonist Mogami Kyoko’s growth… or lack thereof.
As Kyoko struggles to recover from abuse and trauma, she is encouraged to forgive everyone around her, put her own happiness last, and believe that love cures all. Skip Beat’s prioritization of these ideals over actual healing processes perpetuates unhealthy, even dangerous ideas about recovery.
At the onset of Skip Beat, 16-year-old Kyoko has her heart broken by her childhood friend Fuwa Sho, a rising visual kei star. She has spent her entire life devoting herself to supporting him, so when she overhears him putting her down, she resolves to get revenge by becoming a successful performer herself.
Though a jumble of failed auditions and impressive tenacity, Kyoko joins the brand-new Love Me! section of the talent agency LME. The section was created with her “flaws” in mind; LME President Lory Takarada believes Kyoko is talented, but lacks the one thing that will allow her to succeed—the ability to love. The manga follows Kyoko’s quest to learn to love again. However, instead of being able to heal slowly, she is forced to process her pain in front of a camera and learns that the best way to overcome hurt is to take in stride and get over it. In acting, there is no true hurt, only acting fodder.
Kyoko’s first lessons in love start with the harmful notion that others’ happiness and well-being come before her own. She totes an unpleasant diva’s luggage and carries an unreasonable pop star up a mountain. She must do so without complaint, because to love is, apparently, to be overly-accommodating. While the logic is troubling to begin with because Kyoko’s first lesson is that others’ happiness outweighs her own accomplishments, the ideology is later applied to stalking and attempted assault.
During a drama shoot, Kyoko is cornered in the woods by Reino, a visual kei artist interested in her for her association with Fuwa Sho. His intention, he makes clear as he undoes her dress, is to “ruin” her for Sho and humiliate the singer. When Kyoko manages to escape, Reino’s uncountered insistence that the repercussions of a no-name actress speaking out against a big artist isn’t worth the effort clouds her judgement, and she decides not to report the attack.
Kyoko isn’t worried about personal repercussions or being put through a punishing justice system; above all else, she worries about tarnishing the name of the drama she’s shooting. She cries: “I don’t care about my image! But I can’t let my role Mio…be tarnished by someone like him!” The scene is a turning point for Kyoko’s development as she understands the lengths she must go to protect her roles. The message is clear: her image first, her safety second.
Her sacrifice is intended to be read as gallant or altruistic—the sign of a true actress. However, Kyoko’s selflessness hinders, not helps, her healing process. In Psychology Today’s article “The Unselfish Act of Prioritizing Yourself,” Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. claims “one risk of becoming lost in all the things we ‘should’ be doing for others is that we stop feeling for ourselves.” This is what happens to Kyoko. By forfeiting her right to process her attack and instead embodying what LME has defined as a “true” actress, Kyoko trivializes her own emotions. At this point, she should be standing up for herself and refusing to back down, but she does the opposite and unravels the development leading to this moment.
Kyoko isn’t the only LME employee to internalize this pseudo-altruistic ideology, but it seems doubly counterintuitive when placed into the context of attempting to overcome her previous doormat tendencies. Her impulse to prioritize loved ones over herself is what led to her initial heartbreak. So, why do LME’s first lessons in love include relearning a harmful practice? In an attempt to “fix” herself, Kyoko becomes an arguably worse version of her past self.
With no direct psychological fallout from the previous arcs, Kyoko embraces a philosophy of forgiving and forgetting. While forgiveness can be an important step in healing, it doesn’t need to be applied to everyone. Amamiya Chiori, her co-star on a new drama, pushes Kyoko down the stairs and sprains her wrist when she realizes Kyoko didn’t suffer the same performance anxiety she did after performing an iconic role.
The injury initiates an intense improvisation the next morning: when Kyoko’s gang leader character, Natsu, uses her knowledge of Amamiya’s attack to blackmail her character, Yumika, into “level-four bullying.” The bullying includes Amamiya’s character Yumika forcing their classmate to drink nail polish remover and holding a lighter to her face. The scene affirms Natsu’s control over her friends and exposes Yumika’s, and Amamiya’s, vengeful tendencies.
But the girls’ conflict is ultimately solved when the scene cuts. Kyoko takes the opportunity not to report Amamiya’s assault, but to forgive her. When Amamiya refuses to accept forgiveness, Kyoko goes one step farther. She thanks her, saying: “I feel as if I’m exploring an unknown world. I’m so excited. I think you pulled this sensation out of me, so I’d like to thank you.” Kyoko contextualizes her words with her history of childhood bullying—making her thankfulness worse. Forgiveness may have been reasonable, since Kyoko needs to continue to work with Amamiya, but thanking her pushes the situation into absurdity.
This goes back to Kyoko’s kindness, where she’s distancing herself from her pain to be a better actress as opposed to a better person. Psychology Today defines the process of gratitude as “involve[ing] a process of recognizing, first, that one has obtained a positive outcome and, second, that there is an external source for that good outcome.” Kyoko attributes her success in the scene to Amamiya’s bullying rather than accepting her own talent or childhood experience with bullies as contributing factors.
Instead of a positive source leading to a positive outcome as defined in traditional gratitude, Kyoko finds the silver linings in malicious actions. The forgiveness and thankfulness work out in that it inspires Amamiya to change her outlook on life and acting. However, it leads her to the same place as Kyoko: the Love Me! section. This is one Kyoko’s tamer apologies through the duration of Skip Beat! but it sets a nauseating precedent for her apologies to be paired with gratitude for pain.
The Love Me! section’s doctrine of finding light in the dark teaches Kyoko to prioritize her search for love over her well-being. This includes finding good in her complicated relationship with her mother, the infamously cold-blooded lawyer Mogami Saena. Kyoko spends 39 volumes dealing with resentment directed at her neglectful mother, only for it to be waved away with a tragic backstory. When Kyoko learns that she is the byproduct of rape-by-deception, her resolve to hate her mother dissolves. She decides she will help Saena overcome her trauma by becoming a child she can be proud of. As they part, she proclaims: “I’ll stop wanting to stop wanting you to love me.”
Saena wasn’t precisely abusive, but the way she distanced herself from her own daughter was emotionally neglectful. Emotional neglect, according to Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D. in “What Emotional Neglect Does to a Relationship” on the Psychology Today website, can be described as actions “involve[ing] neglectful omissions, that is, omitting to do things that tend to promote emotional well-being.” Cohen recommends that people in emotionally neglectful relationships, whether parental or romantic, address the problem and determine the best way to solve the emotional rift either through counseling or severing the relationship. Kyoko’s declaration shows that she is amenable to her mother’s continued neglect and will continue seeking the affection a child seeks from their parent.
It isn’t healthy for either of them to continue this way; but because it neatly solves another one of Kyoko’s setbacks on her road to love, her acceptance of Saena is seen as a moment of strength. Kyoko has become fully immersed in the Love Me! section’s doctrine. The belief that a child should love their mother for bringing them into the world, regardless of neglect or abuse, solves Kyoko’s 17 years of trauma in the matter of an hour.
Kyoko’s road to recovery from a broken heart is filled with the pit stops expected in a narrative centered on healing. Though she discovers a love for acting, her passion becomes a double-edged sword as her show business encounters lead to worse pain. She is taught to ignore her hardships and to define herself with the love she receives. Through a stalker, a spiteful castmate, and a neglectful mother, Kyoko is encouraged to forgive and thank those who hurt her because it makes her a better actress.
Kyoko will be able to love romantically at the cost of her self-worth for her LME-sponsored debut, and it will be okay because she’ll be in the arms of a man. That doesn’t sound “stereotype breaking” or like a positive depiction of female rage. It sounds like Kyoko is being told to sit down and shut up.