CONTENT WARNING for discussion of child abuse, assault, bullying, attempted suicide, and NSFW images. SPOILERS for The Future Diary and A Silent Voice.
Mental illness is a part of life for many people. According to a 2017 report in The Guardian, depression is considered to be one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. There are over 300 million people who live with it today, and causes for depression have increased around 20 percent over the last decade. Yet mental illness is still a taboo topic that has a lot of stigma attached to it. Oftentimes it’s portrayed through a “crazy” person, and there haven’t really been a lot of realistic discussions about it. Anime is no exception.
Series show mental illness as a sort of mania that causes someone to become deranged and violent. Rather than depicting rounded characters facing complicated problems, they’re painted as scary, unpredictable, and a potential danger. They’re consumed by an incurable “madness” which makes them either a joke or a threat to the “normal” characters.
As someone who lives with mental illness, I love seeing series where a protagonist or supporting character is dealing with their emotional issues in a realistic way. But anime does not always do a great job at accurately portraying this issue. A lot of series that feature a character dealing with mental illness lean on the “mentally ill means crazy” story line. It’s a dangerous stereotype—both because it leads to stigma against the mentally ill (who are far more likely to be abused than be a threat to others) and because it takes the place of more nuanced, realistic depictions.
The Future Diary was a binge-worthy series, full of plot twists and off-the-wall action scenes that appealed to many thriller anime fans. It follows Yukiteru, a 14-year-old student who finds himself in the middle of a battle royale game where the winner becomes the god of time and space. His classmate, Yuno Gasai, is also a part of the game and obsessed with him. She promises to protect him early on, which quickly turns into violent possessiveness.
Yuno is a terrible portrayal of mental illness. In a series about terrible people doing terrible things to survive, she still manages to stand out. Otherworldly situation or not, Yuno makes mental illness seem violent, as her obsession drives her beyond protectiveness and into jealous, murderous rages at the drop of a hat. Yuno at one point even drugs and kidnaps Yukiteru so that their classmates won’t be able to separate them. She’s seen setting traps so that the two aren’t found and even force-feeding Yukiteru while he’s drugged.
In the late 2000s, Yuno became one of the most formative examples of the “yandere” archetype—a girl whose entire world revolves around the male protagonist. She’s so obsessed with you, the fantasy goes, that it literally “drives her crazy.”
As part of this, Yuno’s behavior in-series involves threatening and isolating Yukiteru so that she can have him all to herself. It’s both a dehumanizing fantasy of a girl who has nothing to live for besides the boy she’s in love with, and a dehumanizing portrayal of mental illness as shorthand for creating an unpredictable monster under a “normal” facade.
The series tries to give Yuno a tragic backstory, but it’s a mixed bag. She was abused by her mother and neglected by her father, so it makes sense that she’d be affected by that experience and possibly want to keep tight control over her environment to compensate for the lack of control she felt during her long imprisonment. But instead of controlling herself or trying to self-isolate to feel safe, like a lot of trauma survivors do, the series directly links her violent tendencies with her past trauma.
This is almost worse than just making her “mysteriously crazy.” The Future Diary understands that mental illness can result from horrific childhood events (although this is its own problem when it’s treated as the only reason someone might be mentally ill), but it still wants to use Yuno to further the show’s horror goals.
Her backstory isn’t treated as a way to seriously explore her issues, but as a way to shock the audience with graphic depictions of abuse and create sympathy for the “crazy” girl without seriously analyzing either her trauma or her abuse of Yukiteru. His growing attachment to her as a result of the abuse is treated as the two of them “falling in love,” which the series doesn’t unpack either.
While The Future Diary addresses many dark and serious subjects, it doesn’t treat them with respect. Mental illness remains a tool to shock when it’s convenient, and is ignored when it conflicts with “normal” narratives like the love story. It combines the worst ideas about mental illness and trauma and puts it all into the relationship between Yuno and Yukiteru.
Yuno doesn’t grow, but instead gets worse, until her entire life is consumed by her obsession with Yukiteru. Her status as a yandere becomes more important than talking about trauma, how mental illness affects relationships, or why getting someone help is important.
A Silent Voice is movie that, like The Future Diary, centers around the dynamic between a male and female student and the effects that trauma and mental illness have on their relationship. However, unlike The Future Diary, it’s a very raw portrayal of the aftereffects of bullying and how that can lead to social anxiety and other emotional issues. Apart from being visually stunning and intersecting disability and mental illness, A Silent Voice made life issues approachable.
The movie is about how Shouya used to bully his deaf classmate Shouko in elementary school. After he gets called out for it, his classmates begin to bully him in retaliation. Even his closest friends turn on him. As a result, he becomes incredibly withdrawn and can’t even look his classmates in the eye.
Shouya internalizes his pain and tries to make amends with Shouko, the girl he used to bully and even injured when he was younger. His story is very much about the cycle of trauma and how there is hope for ending that cycle, whereas The Future Diary is about how trauma causes people to make worse mistakes as they go along and become obsessive.
There are moments in A Silent Voice when things seem like they’ll permanently look up for Shouya, like when he begins hanging out with other students for the first time in years. But like a lot of people with trauma and social anxiety, he begins to self-sabotage those connections out of guilt. Shouya doesn’t realize that this makes Shouko, who also struggles with depression and anxiety, feel like a burden. She even tries to kill herself, but is saved by Shouya, who gets injured when helping her.
Their dynamic is very different from the toxic one between Yukiteru and Yuno, as both Shouko and Shouya think they’re doing the right thing by distancing themselves from others. Despite both feeling hurt and confused from being bullied and trying to reconcile, they don’t try to control each other or manipulate other people to meet their goals. They’re just trying not to feel hurt anymore and unfortunately stumble along the way to getting there.
Towards the end of the movie, Shouya’s story and his problems aren’t summarized in a tidy way. A Silent Voice shows how there can be a positive ending for people with mental illness, but not a perfect one. Shouya still feels timid around some people, but at the end he’s out of the hospital and attending a festival with family members and his new friends.
When he looks up, all of the X-ed out faces that he used to see drop away, and he begins to see and hear the people around him again And even though this makes him cry, and even though Shouya may still be hurt by the past, by simply looking up and noticing others, he shows himself that he’s made some progress.
Shouya and the new people in his life are going to continue making mistakes and learning, and hopefully even healing from any past trauma. It’s not going to be a linear journey for him, because it isn’t a linear journey for anyone dealing with anxiety and depression.
Some mental illnesses, especially those that come with social anxieties, can make people closely analyze a lot of their personal interactions with others to avoid awkwardness or potentially negative interactions. Putting up barriers or lying about their feelings is a defense mechanism some people use when dealing with trauma and mental illness. It can keep them safe, even if it isolates them at the end of the day.
Oftentimes this comes from the trauma of being treated badly by others in the past, which is what happened to both Yuno and Shouya. Both The Future Diary and A Silent Voice use trauma as a way to show why their main characters are the way they are and how it drives them to do certain things, like winning a game at all costs regardless of who gets hurt or trying to make amends with someone from the past.
However, despite those similarities, Yuno and Shouya respond to their trauma differently. While Yuno acts on external things, Shouya focuses on himself—specifically, on planning his own death.
Instead of taking things out on other people, Shouya organizes everything so that he can die. He sells all of his possessions, quits his job, gives all the money he made to his mother, and tries to find Shouko so he can apologize to her. Since he’s depressed, he honestly thinks he’s doing the right thing. He sees himself as a burden to those around him, which is something a lot of people living with anxiety and depression feel.
Yuno and Shoya don’t have to be perfect people who are working on themselves. Trauma and mental illness are messy, and sometimes people do change for the worse instead of the best. But relying only on the”violent madness” trope is just lazy storytelling, especially when there are already so many dangerous stereotypes that stigmatize mental illness in real life.
While Yuno fits within The Future Diary’s off-the-wall plot, she’s part of a larger pattern that allows people to scapegoat and dehumanize those with mental illness. It turns a serious issue into shock value schlock, when there’s already a lack of media dealing seriously with the topic.
Anime doesn’t have to carve out this amazing world where someone who is mentally ill gets help right away. That doesn’t even happen in reality. But constantly connecting mental illness to violence helps keep fear and misinformation alive. It stops people who live with issues like depression or PTSD from asking for help and telling loved ones what they’re dealing with.
Not all fiction has to be an educational tool, but it can be—and if some of the many, many projects out there are, it can help be a force for real-world change. The anime and manga industry still has some ways to go, but we’ve seen progress in portrayals of women and marginalized identities, so I don’t see why more stories can’t follow in A Silent Voice’s footsteps and do the same when portraying mental illness.