「私たちは、月の周りを回っている」 (Watashitachiha, Tsuki no Mawari o Mawatteiru)
“We Revolve Around the Moon”
I was in Japan one time, and someone was telling me about how safe it was compared to other tourist destinations. When in London, or in Paris, the first rule as a tourist was to guard your bags at all times and chain your wallet to your leg. But in Tokyo, he claimed, one can leave their bag on a park bench in the morning and come fetch it in the evening, and nobody will have touched it. This is not, I was told, that the Japanese are particularly more moral than other humans. The bag will be untouched not out of ethics but out of paranoia. Fear trumps curiosity for them, apparently, and their first reaction to a suspicious bag is to leave well alone. The implicit rule in their society is to keep your head down, mind your own business, and don’t get involved.
I can’t help but remember this anecdote when I’m watching an anime where there is explicit child abuse, all the neighbours know about it, but nothing is done. And I wonder if this is just the Japanese way, to keep to their own social circle, to not get involved, and to avoid risk. If Happy Sugar Life was set in Australia, where I live, somebody would definitely have called the cops within five years. This is not because there’s something in the Australian air that makes us more conscientious or anything, but because, culturally, calling the cops is a perfectly natural knee-jerk response to a perceived problem and if the cops don’t make the problem go away we complain very loudly about it. Plus, our Department of Child Services is quite zealous and will definitely swoop in and take the kids away at a moment’s notice. Perhaps this is not the case in Japan.
One of the reasons why Western audiences find Japanese horror particularly compelling (cult fans of The Ring will rant about its superiority for far more than seven days if you let them) is that horror relies on the uncanny, and for us Japan is inherently uncanny. They have their own culture and their media draw on a set of history, social norms and imagery that Western audiences may be unfamiliar with. So it may be with Happy Sugar Life, where we see a setting that should be very similar to our own but still feels ‘off’ sometimes. In Happy Sugar Life, child abuse is reprehensible and its perpetrators are portrayed as monsters. We expect society to react against it, to condemn it and extirpate it. But in Happy Sugar Life, it does not. It continues unopposed and ends meaninglessly. Hopefully that makes you uncomfortable, and in that discomfort the seeds of psychological horror are sown. There’s a fine line, though, between the uncanny and the unrealistic. It’s one thing for a setting to feel off, for Happy Sugar Life to be a dark, overlooked part of the world where the unhinged and the depraved thrive. But we wouldn’t want it to veer into fantasy, for us to conclude that it can never happen. The best horror is horror that lingers, horror that crawls under our skin and makes jump at small noises. If the audience can rest easy with the comfort that ‘this could never happen in real life’, then the horror fades. I’m sure you can all think of at least one anime plot that simply would not have happened if the protagonist sensibly consulted the police/a psychiatrist/anybody else, and we basically have to treat those stories as complete fantasy. We don’t want that for Happy Sugar Life. It should be about ‘a world where the crazy festers’ but rather about ‘the crazy that is festering in our world’.
Next week, we’ll probably talk about Shoko. She is the ‘plain’ girl, currently peering over the line between the normal and the uncanny in Happy Sugar Life. Will she be cast out and denied the qualifications to confront true darkness? Will she manage to redeem Satou? Or will she be dragged under as well? I guess we’ll see.