In Happy Sugar Life, Satou Matsuzaka is a high school first year with a reputation for promiscuity. She “goes through boys like cake” according to her coworker and seemingly only friend, Shouko. There’s an emptiness in her life that she can’t seem to fill, until she falls in love at first sight with a girl. But not just any girl – a mysterious, roughly elementary school-aged little girl named Shio. Satou feels that the hole in her heart has been perfectly filled by Shio, so she goes to great, destructive lengths to make sure that hole never empties out again.
Happy Sugar Life plays with a visual conceit that, to me anyway, no longer feels original. Author and artist Tomiyaki Kagisora pairs conventional moe character designs with disturbing themes, in hopes that the gap between the visuals and the content make the horror elements that much more horrifying.
The idea has certainly existed long before Happy Sugar Life, and in the early 2000s with series like Elfen Lied and the Higurashi visual novels, this sub-sub-genre of horror picked up some steam. But, in my opinion, it was 2011’s Madoka Magica that made it boil over, and now it seems like barely an anime season goes by without some show about cute girls getting threatened, abused, tortured, dismembered, killed, or all of the above. And that’s leaving manga out of the equation entirely, where plenty of similar series can be found.
Suffice to say that Kagisora’s approach to the visuals in Happy Sugar Life wouldn’t have caught my attention 5 years ago, much less now. Moe horror conceits aside, I’d be more forgiving if the overall quality of their art was very high, but it’s nothing to write home about. The character designs are cute and Kagisora makes some good use of classic horror movie camera angles and visual tricks. However, it does little to visually differentiate itself from other series in the same vein.
Happy Sugar Life does stand out in some respects, though. Series like Elfen Lied, and more recent examples like Magical Girl Site or School-Live, try to gross you out with splatter. Happy Sugar Life, on the other hand, aims to make you profoundly uncomfortable by putting you in the head of a violent pedophile. Its creepiness is entirely psychological too. For a series that sets itself up for truckloads of murder and lolicon fanservice, this first volume is incredibly tame in its imagery. There are just a few blood splotches and a single G-rated bath scene.
This is for the better, because if it had gone the “shock and awe” route, it may have lost all of its impact by being too over the top. At times, Satou almost seems to speak directly to the reader, justifying her “pure” love and abusive actions. Yet the story never seems to glorify her choices, in large part because it doesn’t revel in violence and perversion. Even when she encounters other severely twisted people and beats them at their games, the fact that she then goes home to a child she treats like her wife makes it real tough to see her as even an antihero. She’s a pure villain, and you’re along for the ride.
This manga is going to be a hard sell for most people. For the average person, a story where the protagonist is a teenage pedophile is just going to be too far. But it probably lacks the blood, guts, or graphic sexuality necessary to rope in fans of extreme horror. And it’s so different from the majority of other girl/girl romance (if you can call this romance) manga in the English market, even other “trashy” series like Citrus, that I can’t see yuri fans lining up to buy it either.
Happy Sugar Life accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to be deeply, quietly disturbing, and I respect it for that. An 11th-hour twist implies there’s much more to Shio than she appears, and that managed to hook me enough that I’ll probably read the next volume. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone I know, though. As much as I respect what Kagisora is going for, I’m not sure I’d call Happy Sugar Life “good” in any conventional sense.
For more information about Happy Sugar Life, visit Anime-Planet.
Huge thank you to Yen Press for providing us a copy to review!