Content Warning: This article contains art that depicts, and frank discussion of, suicide and self-harm. Reader discretion is advised.
The Manga Shelf is a column where I go over whatever I’ve been reading recently in the world of manga. Ongoing or complete, good or bad.
“Monsters of the dark mind–Disappear!”
One of my original goals in starting the “Manga Shelf” sub-column was to shine a spotlight on stuff where my opinion may not’ve been totally settled, but I did definitely think it was at least interesting enough to be paying attention to. And today, we have something that fits the bill perfectly, and with one hell of a high concept. Suicide Girl, to not bury the lede, is a manga about a depressed magical girl who is conscripted by the owner of a mysterious café to combat and hopefully rid the world of “suicide demons” called Phobias, which cause people to kill themselves.
As far as elevator pitches go, it’s both wild and initially quite offputting. I’ve never been shy about being a skeptic of the whole “dark magical girl” movement. Even if in recent months (and hell, days) I’ve come around somewhat. Add to that the understandably extremely touchy issue of suicide and the manga’s irreverent, sometimes jokey tone, and Suicide Girl really feels like it should be a complete disaster.
However, while it’s too early to definitively say that Suicide Girl is a total success or anything like that (only five chapters are available in English at the time of this writing), it does feel, strangely enough, like it actually does have its heart in the right place.
To explain, first some brief recapping: our lead is Kirari Aokigahara (named after the suicide forest, yes). She meets the aforementioned mysterious café-owner while attempting to kill herself. The man foils her attempt (it’s complicated), and senses within her the power to fight the Phobia. She has a vision of, and is sent to, the site of a suicide-to-be. There, she seemingly talks the would-be victim out of her mistake, only for her to suddenly fling herself onto the tracks anyway. So far, so edgy.
It’s in the second chapter, where we get a bit of Kirari’s backstory, that Suicide Girl started to pick at the heavy coat of skepticism I’d built up from reading too many seinen manga in my day. And where, I suspect, it’ll do the same for others. The gist is simple: Kirari had a fiancé once. She doesn’t anymore. Adding to the weight of her retelling is the art; Suicide Girl‘s panel composition is something to behold.
The image of the looming silhouette of a building physically shunting Kirari’s flashbacks off to the side of the page, as though dominating her memories of the event, struck me. My initial (admittedly unfair) assumption had been that Suicide Girl was essentially a deliberately way-over-the-line gag manga. And while there is an element of that, this was the page that convinced me that it was trying to tell a meaningful story, too.
I don’t mean to sidetrack into my personal history too much. But while I’ve (thankfully) not struggled with physical self-harm in many years, suicidal thoughts have never entirely been gone from my mind. And I struggle with my self-worth every day. The externalization of suicidal ideation present in Suicide Girl–that is to say, the Phobias–initially struck me as crass. I generally hate it when stories try to pin real problems on supernatural causes. But ruminating on it, I had a different thought.
The chemical imbalances and societal factors that cause depression do have real scientific or sociological explanations. However, to those suffering from them, suicidal thoughts can certainly feel as arbitrary and loathsome as being possessed by a demon. It’s a thought I myself have had before, if not in so many words. In that light, what followed in that first story arc struck me as less frivolous and more, perhaps, as cathartic.
First: Kirari learns that she has not actually failed her mission quite yet. The death of a Phobia victim comes with a timer. If the Phobia itself can be defeated in time, time resets, and their victim returns to life unscathed.
So off she goes. In fighting the monster, she transforms for the first time. Again the art plays a big role in bolstering the manga on the whole. Her henshin sequence is striking, morbid, horrifying, and incredible.
Yes, she hangs herself to transform. What I might’ve otherwise considered to be a gross parody of a traditional transformation sequence strikes me as a lot more nuanced in the broader context of Suicide Girl. Kirari, finally understanding that her boyfriend’s suicide was not her fault (nor, indeed, his) rejects literal death as an escape and substitutes it with a metaphorical and transformative death of the old self.
It is also partly a parody of traditional magical girl-isms, of course. A nod to the famous “Precure leap” gag occurs just pages later.
It is worth noting that Kirari does not immediately and instantly turn her entire life outlook around. She still misses her departed boyfriend, and when she tries to go out and act like everything’s fine, she can’t. What a later chapter proposes is that if one can’t find happiness within the self, they can find it by helping others. An idea that is, for something as ostensibly edgy as Suicide Girl, an emotional thesis that is perhaps surprisingly mature, even optimistic. Add this to the catharsis mentioned earlier that just comes from seeing Kirari beat the living daylights out of physical manifestations of the worst parts of the human mind, and Suicide Girl seems less like it’s making fun of those with Brain Issues, or using us for storytelling fodder, and more like it’s actively rooting for us.
There’s another, even simpler, layer to all of this. Which is that Kirari also has another of my favorite traits in a magical girl; she’s kind of a huge badass. An almost dorkily-grimdark one? Yes, but tell me you don’t think dialogue like this is cool on at least some level.
In general, Suicide Girl manages to pull-off an impressive tight-rope-walk between being grim almost but not quite to the point of corniness, genuinely pretty cool, and surprisingly sincere when and where it really counts.
Now, Kirari and the café owner’s stated goal of eliminating suicide from the world may be a little ambitious. (The café owner himself points out that Kirari was not possessed by a Phobia when they first met.) So time will tell how the manga handles that plot point. There are other wrinkles on the page, too. A second Suicide Girl (a burned-out idol named Manten) debuted in the current arc, and her philosophy is almost perfectly counter to Kirari’s, adding an interesting twist to things.
It’s hard to say if Suicide Girl will prove if it’s “earned” the right to its doubtlessly controversial subject matter or not. It is, of course, entirely possible I’m simply wildly misreading the whole thing and it actually just is supposed to take the piss, but there’s worse sins one can commit as a commentator than giving something too much credit.
And, of course, as much as I’ve found watching Kirari pummel literal emotional demons to be cathartic and even oddly liberating, not everyone is going to take it that way. It must be emphasized that that’s perfectly fine; people deal with things in different ways.
But for me at least, many of my favorite magical girl stories are, ultimately, feminine power fantasies. Stories where empathy, love, and hope do always win out over evil in the end. Time will tell if Suicide Girl follows suit, but at the moment, it certainly seems to be headed down that road. It’s just taking a darker side-path than most.
All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.