“Someone once said, ‘A person’s heart is like a jar.’
You can stuff lots of things inside, but once it breaks, that person breaks, too.”
-Shio, Happy Sugar Life episode 10
Life can be so bitter, disappointing, and empty. People around us let us down. Some of us were traumatized. Some of us are empty. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t find a healthy sense of contentment. Our thoughts become clouded with despair and disgust at the world we didn’t even ask to be born into. Or perhaps we feel nothing at all. That’s why we need a little something sweet to get by. When life, family, or society have screwed us up so badly, we will pursue sweetness and satisfaction in whatever form it presents itself. We want to fill the jars with candy– those jars that are our hearts.
“Happy Sugar Life” is an intentionally deceptive and sardonic title for a rather controversial anime. The show aired in summer 2018 as the first work of the new studio Ezola. Psychological, horror, and drama are the main genres. The story follows Satou Matsuzaka and her desperate attempts to protect her life with Shio, a child she essentially abducted. Although I will briefly touch on themes and controversy in this anime, what follows is more of a technical review.
HSL doesn’t have particularly strong visual aspects. The art isn’t usually very detailed and the animation isn’t smooth. To me, the lighting and contrast never look quite right. I don’t like the way that characters are outlined with different colors rather than the obvious choice of black. For example, sometimes, Shio or Shoko would be drawn with blue linework. This technique can sometimes be used well, but it’s pretty rare. It looks sloppy and out of place in HSL. The face expressions are sometimes way over-the-top. However, there are also really good ones.
However, I would still rate the visuals as 7/10 due to a number of positive and impressive elements. The character designs are simple but not bad, especially for Shio, Satou, and Satou’s aunt. I enjoyed the visuals for the opening song with the mixture of happy imagery (candy, bright colors, etc.) and brief flashes of unsettling imagery (like inverted colors, a splash of blood, or the part where Shio is dancing between giant hands.) The glowing eyes on some shots are effective at being creepy and strange. When Satou is starting to lose her grip mentally, her pupils shrink and her eyes become red. I like this effect as well.
Though simple, the black and white static appearing at “bitter” moments was a good effect. I also love the consistent imagery of a jar representing a person’s heart and candy representing love. There are several other instances of solid visual imagery, such as Shoko being the metaphorical canary. Finally, it’s worth noting that the shots and angles throughout HSL are fairly diverse and creative. The art and animation definitely leave some things to be desired, but they are by no means poor.
Story and Themes: 8/10
HSL is full of excellent content for those interested in character psychology and psychoanalysis, particularly related to crime. Satou is a criminal who has committed two murders and kidnapping by the end of the series. She meets some criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder, but is an unusual case, having a variety of emotions, including an idea of love. Though his character is a bit over-the-top, Mitsuboshi provides fascinating and disturbing insights into the mind of a sexual abuse victim. Other psychological topics are included too, such as domestic abuse, attitudes about sexuality, and the emotional fragility of humans.
Surprisingly, HSL is mostly without pushy messages meant to steer audiences to one way or another. The show doesn’t glorify or justify unethical actions, and also doesn’t preach any kind of set morality. The ethics (and lack of ethics) are seen through the characters and their individual points of view. This means audiences can interpret things as they wish according to their values. For example, some viewers cheered for the romance between Satou and Shio for the entirety of HSL. Others detested the notion from the very start. I appreciate the lack of pushiness.
Now let me make a few notes about the “controversy” of this anime. The reception for HSL was mixed, but overall not too positive. Why? Our protagonist is a sociopath who is keeping a small child away from her family and treating her as her romantic beloved. That doesn’t sit right with many viewers. I think HSL is a great story about a mentally ill kidnapper/killer and those around her as they live in a corrupt world. I don’t think Satou is a “good person” nor do I get behind her actions, though some fans may argue. If the show applauded everything Satou did, I would feel uncomfortable with it, too. As mentioned above, though, this is not the case in HSL.
The only way you would know for sure that Satou’s character isn’t condoned would be to watch the series. But a lot of viewers dropped the anime after a few episodes. That’s most likely because they misunderstood the premise in one of two ways. They may have thought HSL was going to be a cheerful anime, until they started watching and were turned away by the dark content. Similarly, some people might have wanted to see a good yuri romance, only to find the story of a kidnapper with a kid half her age. I don’t blame the story in HSL for these issues. The narrative is not at fault. If viewers turn away from anime like this, it’s their loss for being too set on their expectations.
Now that we’ve addressed that, what about the actual story-building in HSL? The narrative is exciting and well-structured for optimal enjoyment. There are some good plot twists. The screenwriting is great so the atmosphere feels just as it should with each scene– peaceful when it’s supposed to be, and unsettling when it’s supposed to be. HSL is also thematically strong. There are so many interesting themes, including the eternal question, “What is love?” Another theme is trauma or emotional hardship that prevents young people from finding happiness as they become adults.
What with good themes, story concepts, plot twists, structure, and pacing, it’s easy to see why I gave HSL an 8/10. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s also worth saying that the anime has an interesting conclusion that I didn’t see coming. I now think it is the most fitting way the story could have ended.
Audio elements had ups and downs much like the visuals, but were good overall. The main issue was the directing of the voice-acting, leading to many over-the-top and frankly ridiculous performances. Kaito Ishikawa and Natsuki Hanae, for instance, are great seiyuu whose acting in this case was impossible to take seriously. (They played Kitaumekawa and Mitsuboshi, respectively.) I like the entire seiyuu cast, so I can only think it was the directing that was poor. Luckily, the ones who delivered their roles the best were main actresses Kana Hanazawa (Satou) and Misaki Kuno (Shio).
Opening song “One Room Sugar Life” by Akari Nanawo was memorable and fit the show well, though it’s not my style at all. I really loved the ending song, “Sweet Hurt” by ReoNa. The same artist also performed “Canaria,” the insert song in episode 9. This is a truly beautiful and heartbreaking song, perfectly suited for the saddest scene in the anime. As far as instrumental music, I noticed a few good pieces scattered throughout, so I think it was decent. I was orginally thinking the audio category would be a 6/10, but I was swayed by ReoNa’s music as well as the stronger moments of good voice-acting.
The character category for HSL is strong indeed. Characters have sound concepts and are developed and explored well. They might be “likable” in that most of them are deeply flawed and mentally unwell, but that’s the point. HSL presented broken and hard-to-swallow characters with excellence. Sometimes, characters push the bounds of being believable, like Kitaumekawa-sensei and Satou’s manager from episode one. However, this is important for the story, as it shows how corrupt humans are in the supposedly normal adult world.
To me, the best and most interesting characters are Satou, her aunt, Asahi, and Shoko. Satou’s unnamed Aunt is a walking mess of convoluted beliefs and ideas, some of which are not at all bad in themselves (for example, polyamory). But there are many more areas where Aunt fails terribly, both as a caretaker, and as a respectable person. She has mental issues that she doesn’t seek help for. Aunt’s version of “love” is the acceptance of all people and whatever they have done or want to do. This twisted and unwell character was fascinating to me and important for the story of Satou.
In complete contrast to Aunt, we have Shoko, a mentally typical character with very understandable issues such as difficulty committing. Seeing her overcome her hesitation is beautiful. She grows so much in a short time span, and she’s the best friend anyone could ask for. Asahi’s determination and strength to survive abuse and reunite his family is stunning. But the most intriguing character– and perhaps the most demented– is Satou. The show’s exploration of her mind is what boosts the character category from 7/10 to 8/10. For now that’s all I’ll say about the characters, but there’s so much there to unravel that I may write more detailed posts about them in the future.
Personal Enjoyment: 8/10
There was no shortage of enjoyable elements in HSL, for me. I have much respect for the themes and topics raised in the anime, such as mental fragility, abuse, and the variant nature of love. In addition, I appreciate learning about the psychology of a well-written yandere girl. Other characters such as Asahi and Shoko were great, too. HSL is thrilling and well-paced, something else I love in a good story. Finally, hearing Kana Hanazawa play Satou is another example of something I enjoyed in this anime.
The main things taking away from a sense of enjoyment were over-the-top voice-acting, sometimes aggravating supporting characters, and minor complaints about the art style. Also, sometimes HSL can be hard to watch because of a sad turn of events or an uncomfortable scene. Still, I really appreciate this anime and what it has to offer.
Overall Score: 7.6/10.0 Good
The overall score is calculated by taking the average of the five categories we discussed. According to my scale, anything in the 7s range is pretty good, while series in the 8s range are excellent. Happy Sugar Life isn’t for everyone and has some issues, but it still came out with quite an impressive score. The current score for this anime on MAL is 6.91, and I think that’s mostly because of the controversial elements. It’s quite an unfair rating though, if you ask me.
I recommend this anime for people who are interested in abnormal psychology, yandere girls, and anime thrillers with strong elements of drama and romance. Don’t bother watching it if you are expecting something cheerful or conventionally comfortable. Thanks a ton for reading! Take care and stay awesome!