**As the title implies, this post speaks towards suicide—how we consume it in media, how it functions culturally, how it affects personal experience. If this is a sensitive topic for you, be mindful of continuing.**
High school was the first time suicide directly impacted my life. A minor friend of a few years had convinced himself he was unworthy of living and killed himself in his middling teenage years—dead before he started. I was not overly familiar with his life, and only tangential in the scope of his social circles, but he was the widely beloved class comic. Witty without effort, smart in how he spun situations to create entertainment for others. Common class-clown things that highly depressed people are often good at. It was one of those things that is obvious in hindsight.
Despite him not being one of my closest relationships, that loss still pried open the gates to a world that, up to then, my naivety had kept in a fantastical land. Intellectually, I understood suicide was a thing that could happen. I had simply never imagined it happening to him.
Suddenly, no one was safe.
Suicide would not have any intimate brushes with my life again until much later, in the tail-end of my college years. This time, it would be a little more personal. This time it was family.
Almost family, anyways. Thank God that darkness was made to retreat, though not without years of heavy battle against some inner demons and leagues of external intervention. It was a wildly complicated ordeal, and I will not unpack it here, because ultimately it’s not what I want to talk about. I only bring up these two circumstances because they served to re-appropriate the emotional energy in my heart and made the topic of suicide one I hold up in both personal and professional interest. I spent years studying the psychology of killing oneself and interacting with people who had tried or wanted to or planned on executing that final act.
Suicide, for all its macabre implications, is important to me. And that’s why I appreciate when I see an honest, realistic portrayal of it in the media I consume. Suicide has a history of being a gimmick, a basic inciting incident or historical cornerstone in a character’s background, but is rarely made the focus of a narrative—probably out of the risk of it tonally disrupting an otherwise happy story.
But that’s what I want to talk about with this article. I write about anime for Geeks Under Grace. I’ve been reviewing anime here since before we had an “anime team,” and I’ve been aching to write an article of this nature for over a year. What eventually made me decide now was the time came after my exposure to the film A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi), which blew up in 2017, following the international commercial success of Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa). This article is not strictly about A Silent Voice, neither the anime, nor manga versions (both of which have my meteoric recommendation), but I will be drawing on pieces of it, as well as several other anime, to reach my conclusion.
Before we go any further though, I wanted to touch upon suicide as it relates to Japan, the land where anime is traditionally forged. Japan has a long history of suicide, even if the kind we see now is different from the days of old. It’s no secret ancient Japan helped “popularize” the concept of seppuku, or the “honorable death.” You are a samurai who failed to protect his benefactor? Rend open your belly. You had inappropriate sexual relations with somebody outside your family’s favor? It is your duty to atone for the dishonor you have brought upon them, and this means willingly (often publicly) bringing about the end.
And you see, that honor… it never really went away. You can see the echoes of it in contemporary Japanese society. The nuances may be different, but the underlying spirit of the problem remains the same: if you cannot be the steadfast rock your family needs, or find success in a cutthroat professional climate, or contribute to the greater whole of Japan as a nation…well, you can always just kill yourself. Under a magnifying glass, if you break down the various economic and social factors that permeate every angle of Japanese culture, you’ll notice it’s a country almost designed to encourage self-destruction. The tides of difficulty that press against every youth and adult are so staggeringly insane that they’d almost be hilarious if they weren’t real, and the result is that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the entire world.
As such it’s encouraging when I see an anime that takes a no-nonsense approach to the subject, because suicide and the mental elements that surround it are something Japan obviously needs to address with more frequency and greater efforts (something their government is finally taking strides to accomplish). Historically, it’s not as if anime development studios (and any prerequisite creators) have been completely adverse to showcasing suicide in their creations; it just seems to be coming into greater prominence now than years past. Suicide has shown up in many series: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Welcome to the NHK, Orange, and even Naruto, to name a few.
But more often, if a character is killing themselves, it’s not out of an innate desire to end their own lives. I want to make this distinction. Dying as a mode of martyrdom, sacrificial protection, or ignorant abuse of one’s own health are not the same things, and should not be confused with what we are talking about. This is intentional self-obliteration, because you’ve found yourself in a situation where you simply don’t want to live anymore.
I recently watched an anime called Made in Abyss, which had one of the most realistic conflicts orbiting suicide I’ve seen inside or outside of the medium. It was a short, gripping scene—one I cannot talk about without spoilers, so if MiA is on your radar, skip down to the bold sentence below and continue reading from there.
I’ll keep this pretty complex scenario as simple as possible. Nanachi is a young girl who has been through a lot. She was enslaved for use in human experimentation by a sadistic madman alongside her best friend, Mitty. Mitty got the far worse brunt of aforementioned experimentation, and now cannot die, despite being in a constant state of suffering. She cannot even die when Nanachi tries to kill her. In so doing, Nanachi only torments her friend more, even after escaping the clutches of the monster who made them this way. Then come the protagonists of the series, who are in a bind. Our lead girl, Riko, is on the cusp of venomous death, but Nanachi can save her, and does. Recovery takes a long time, during which Nanachi becomes friend with our other protag, Reg. Nanachi learns Reg possesses a means of killing Mitty. If Mitty dies, Nanachi can finally be free of the overwhelming emotional burden placed upon needing to take care of her, and all the suffering she has inadvertently caused.
But if Mitty was gone, Nanachi would also have no more reason to live. Reg picks up on this and, when approached about whether or not he’d be willing to kill Mitty, says, “Okay. But you’re not allowed to die after she’s gone.”
Nanachi pauses. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to take care of Riko and make sure she’s all better, too.”
“Even after that!” Reg bites down on the moisture in his eyes. “Even after that. You need to promise.”
“Oh,” Nanachi contemplates the pool of water at her feet, a sad ache reflecting in her eyes. She resigns. “That’s so cruel… fine. I promise.”
And Reg destroys Mitty in one of the saddest death scenes in recent memory, fulfilling his part of the deal. Nanachi then joins their party afterwards because, well, she has nothing else.
I loved this interaction. My writing of it now cannot convey the heartbreaking rawness of the scene, but the subtle context of Nanachi wanting to die was never explicitly mentioned or given heavy foreshadowing. It was implied through small phrases and gestures leading to this moment, which Reg, being emotionally alert, was able to notice and act against. The audience is trusted to be intelligent enough to understand that Nanachi was planning to kill herself before this confrontation. And Reg—sweet, broken Reg—called her bluff in a gambit to save her life. Being as young as he is, Reg doesn’t have a good solution, so he basically resorts to blackmail. It is an honest, if brutal means of protecting one of his only friends.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Misa from Death Note. Spoilers for this, as well. There’s a bold line for you, too.
Misa Amane is an immensely tragic character. She is gifted in all the wrong types of intelligence, and none of the ones that save her from abuse and harm at the hands of our favorite sociopathic pile-o-trash, Light Yagami. Misa is practically designed to be emotionally manipulated into supporting whatever vague, justice-centric whim passes through the miasma of sludge that is Light’s ego, falling intensely in love with the mass-murderer because, as she perceives it, he dealt justice against the man who killed her family. Misa’s entire existence rotates around supporting Light.
So, when Light is eventually caught out by the investigation agents and brought to an untimely demise (or not soon enough, depending who you ask), Misa’s world goes with him. While we never see her commit suicide, the last image we have of Misa is one of her standing alone on the edge of a tall building. With all we know of Misa, it’s not hard to pick up on the implication that she jumped, forfeiting her life, as Light was no longer in it.
Misa was bright, popular, enthusiastic, and showed kindness to others. The number one complaint fans have against her character is how easily she was manhandled by Light’s nefarious charm. Like, we know she’s smart, so why is she so oblivious to the awful personality of the man she loves? That’s not realistic at all…
I’m obviously being sarcastic. The most tragic part of Misa’s narrative is that she is a loose manifestation of thousands of people who, at any given moment, are betrayed by their better judgment into trusting people who are not worthy of trust. Misa, for all of her dimensions, was ultimately a simple character. She wanted to love, and be loved in return. She wanted to be useful to somebody, even at the cost of herself, because self-sacrifice is further evidence of how much you love someone. She would forego her happiness in favor of Light’s happiness. And, because of the precarious situation she was in, once Light was no more, she had nothing to fall back on. There was nobody else who would be prepared to save her.
Misa is tragic, because she could have been saved if people had known the whole story. She is a superb example of why we should reserve judgment against others. It’s difficult to ever truly know somebody or the struggles they endure, so it’s imperative we be kind to one another. It’s easy to hate Light, because in this example we were allowed inside his mind. We had first-hand evidence he was rotten. If we were on the outside, among his peers—among Misa—it’s likely he would have duped us, too.
There are honestly so many examples I want to explore, but instead, let’s circle back to the beginning. A Silent Voice.
A Silent Voice tackles many heavy subjects. In the roster along suicide, there’s depression, social anxiety, bullying, and living with disabilities, to name the big ones. It’s not really spoilers to say that both of the protagonists, Shoya and Shoko, face suicidal ideation at some point in their respective lives, and for entirely different reasons. Unlike the last two examples, I’m not going to dive into this one, because the idiosyncrasies and emotional buildup are what make the movie memorable, and I cannot adequately communicate those things with words. But A Silent Voicedoes something remarkable, which is not often seen in this industry. It takes realistic characters, in a real setting, with real hopes, goals, and motivations, places them against real problems, and doesn’t water it down for the sake of the audience. But more than any of that, it doesn’t cast these struggles in a blunt light. They are not hideously dramatic or tragic. They are commonplace issues, dealt with by commonplace people, and we see the power of unity as friends and family support each other through the little ways the world falls apart every day.
I don’t want to deviate too hard from the subject, or feel like I’m bashing you over the head with what I think you should watch, but I cannot stress enough the merits of seeing this film. And, if you liked that, I recommend you read the manga, too. The latter further fleshes out the characters and narrative that the movie, while great, did not have the screen-time to capture.
I guess what I really wanted to do with this article was say thanks. It’s a wide, open letter to every creator who had the skill, courage, and insight to brave the trenches of suicide in narrative. It’s not an easy thing to do, even from a technical vantage. It’s a story that can be easily cheesed without setting the proper tones and expectations for the audience. Yet, it’s one of the heaviest and most needed stories of our modern day.
I’m not expecting any isolated anime, book, video game, or movie to be enough to “save” somebody who struggles with suicidal ideation. But if it can reach them and help them realize they aren’t alone in their struggle, that’s a worthy thing to ask of “entertainment.” Maybe if they see a story in which depression is toppled and anxiety is overcome, they could even find it in themselves to seek help.
If this is you, please understand you are stronger and more important than you believe. Please, if you have an authority figure or religious leader you can trust, reach out to them. If not, the 24-hour suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and talkspace.com has an affordable, online therapy match-making program, which I have on good knowledge to be worth its weight.
You have my prayers. I believe in you.
Thanks for reading, and God bless.
(This article first ran in geeksundergrace.com, in April of 2018.)