Happy Sugar Life

You know, sometimes it’s easy to forget just how much anime is released on a constant basis to little or no fanfare. MyAnimeList alone has over 19,000 separate anime entries in its database—far more than anyone could realistically watch in their lifetimes, and only getting larger by the day. Among the tens-of-thousands of existing anime adaptations out there, only a handful remain relevant and see any great financial success—Re:Zero, Cowboy Bebop, Death Note, My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan, Sword Art Online, Fullmetal Alchemist, One Punch Man, Overlord, and a whole host of other easily recognizable names dominate the market. The success of those major players is far from being a tragedy, since it’s usually deserved even if there are a handful of cases where it isn’t; and honestly, all that really matters at the end of the day is that people are enjoying themselves and getting something out of the time investments they’re choosing to make. Sometimes shows succeed because they’re chasing after trends, sometimes shows succeed because they’re good enough to set the trends, but more often than not, they don’t succeed. Maybe that’s a blessing; if every single anime ever released was worth your time, it would be impossible to appreciate them all. Plenty of bad or mediocre shows are deserving of their place at the bottom of the food chain. But the sad reality of it all is that every now and then, shows that genuinely deserve to be up there with all of the other household names fail too. Happy Sugar Life is an anime adaptation released in 2018 by a small animation studio called “Ezόla” responsible for making only three shows between 2018 and 2020. From what I can tell, they may very well not even exist anymore. But holy fucking shit, the legacy they’ve left behind in Happy Sugar Life is something to be celebrated. If you read these reviews just to see whether or not something is worth watching, you can just stop reading right now and go watch Happy Sugar Life because it is more than deserving of your attention; an unbelievably well-crafted hidden gem, easily among the best of all the shows I’ve seen and something absolutely everybody should take the time out of their busy schedules to experience. Does it have flaws? Sure—every show does. But none of the flaws that it has are enough to devalue the viewing experience in any kind of truly significant way. Before we continue, let me break down the premise—Happy Sugar Life is a psychological horror and dark, twisted romantic drama about the relationship between joint protagonists Satou Matsuzaka and Shio Koube, the former being a highschool girl and the latter being a small child between the ages of 5 and 7. Satou shares an apartment with Shio in secret and has resolved herself to protect their idyllic lifestyle by any means necessary… and that’s pretty much all I can say without spoiling the show for you. The first thing I’d imagine most people are thinking is “Woah, a romance anime about a highschool girl and a 7 year old? The fuck?” and you could be forgiven for that since I was worried about the same thing, but the primary aspect setting Happy Sugar Life apart from its peers is how self-aware it is regarding the dark undertones of its premise. Earlier, I called the show a “twisted romantic drama”, but actually it’s not really a romance at all. The relationship between Satou and Shio is a completely platonic and borderline familial one—so when I say the show is a twisted romance, that’s mostly in reference to the way in which it explores various different romantic themes within its narrative. Does that make it right? Absolutely the fuck not, and the show recognizes this; it expertly deconstructs both pragmatic and philosophical misconceptions about love and romance, starkly contrasting emotionally charged unhealthy obsession against blind acceptance of others under the false notion that they can be redeemed solely through understanding, with true, honest love caught inbetween those two twisted extremes, fighting a losing battle as we the viewers watch on with little to no hand-holding or obvious direction as to what is right or wrong. Very much the opposite actually—Happy Sugar Life is a fucking masterclass in subversion, emotional manipulation and how to make the viewer feel the way you want them to feel no matter the context of what’s happening onscreen or the subtext of what those events actually mean. The directors expertly use their audiovisual building blocks in order to create what can only be described as the definition of ‘emotional rollercoaster’, and I would go so far as to say Happy Sugar Life is a shining example of what anime can be as a medium when its strengths are truly taken advantage of. Studio Ezόla make an absolutely mean effort with Happy Sugar Life to try and put themselves on the map and it shows—manga adaptation though it may be, it is no less of a genuine passion project spearheaded by directors and writers who could not have cared more about taking the source material and making other people care about it as much as they did. The artwork is solid and the animation is acceptable, but my God the music and the direction are absolutely incredible, second to none; a clear showcase of how visual spectacle is something requiring contextual support and clear vision for it to actually matter. The original soundtrack here composed by Koichiro Kameyama combines contemporary harsh electronic music, dark ambient horror and sweeping, dramatic orchestral music in an extremely deliberate way to create intentional tonal whiplash, binding everything together with an excellent motif; the soundtrack is awesome and I’d highly recommend listening to it on its own after finishing the show, there are a couple tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in a Final Fantasy boss fight and a couple others that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear in a Shin Megami Tensei game. A story is expertly crafted here where we care about the characters despite most of them being extremely fucked up people and none of them being traditionally heroic, an over-the-top yet simultaneously brutally real depiction of what happens when people see themselves as being the protagonists of their own stories, desperately resorting to extremes for the sake of fighting for what they believe in. For the record, I want to point out that I usually despise the yandere character archetype; more often than not it’s gimmicky, poorly executed or played for laughs without actually being funny. Here, that could not be further from the truth; it is depicted in a genuinely believable way with real depth, a legitimately disturbing window into a horribly twisted yet realistic perception of love and devotion. Happy Sugar Life expertly depicts an evil far more honest and haunting than the comic, overt evil we usually see in media, yet still manages to make you question how much of what happens in it was justified. It makes you wish that things could’ve played out differently, but still leaves you feeling wholly satisfied with your viewing experience anyways, forcing you to sort through your own feelings about whether the tragedies within it were meaningful or not. Everything ends up converging on the protagonists in such a way that it avoids being contrived, and instead feels like a natural progression of events—like pieces slowly being removed from a Jenga tower until it inevitably comes crashing down. But in the end, there is no punishment exacted or justice wrought upon anyone. There is no cathartic pleasure derived from seeing the villain’s machiavellian scheme thwarted. Instead, all that we’re left with is the aftermath of a tragedy, and all anyone can do is hope for a better future for those who survived, be thankful that nobody else will get hurt and recognize the value of the lives that were lost. And let me tell you, trying to write an entertaining story with such a depressingly realistic resolution and make it genuinely mean something is no easy feat, so the fact that the writers of Happy Sugar Life have nailed it so god-damn well is seriously impressive. The pacing is absolutely spot-on; I was absolutely enthralled through the entirety of the show’s 4 to 5 hour runtime, hooked right from the opening with eyes glued onto the screen all the way to the very end and constantly thinking about how impressive it was that the show was juggling so many different plot threads and exploring so many different themes before I had even hit the halfway point! The plot is simultaneously unpredictable and steeped in a constant sense of doomed inevitability, with foreshadowing all revolving around the idea that there’s no possible way things can end well here. To be honest, I think part of the reason why Happy Sugar Life didn’t see the success that it deserved to has to do partly with how drastically different the takeaways of different people will be after watching it; it’s an open-ended narrative exploring tons of different themes with no blatantly obvious message, and expects you to think and decide for yourself what it’s actually trying to tell you. But contrary to what you might believe on initial inspection, not having a blatant message does not mean the show is not breaking down its subject matter in an extremely mature, meaningful and intelligent way. Instead of spoon-feeding you its view on the right and wrong of the story it’s telling, it’s forcing you to read between the lines, analyze the subtext and make judgments about the narrative while trying to emotionally distance yourself from it, forcing you to pay close attention to the ways in which its trying to manipulate you. It’s thought provoking and genuinely impactful, an honest-to-god work of literary genius with incredible depth and creativity, a scathing commentary about common, warped perceptions of romance and love bordering on satire, a complete deconstruction and unrelenting mockery of the entire romance genre and the cutesy anime aesthetic as a whole, and a genuinely excellent take on how the romantic notions of forbidden love or unwavering devotion are incredibly dangerous and unhealthy. It’s unlike any other show out there, constructing its own unique brand of subversive psychological horror and making it work far better than it has any right to. It depicts constant unrelenting drama yet never devolves into the realm of soap-operatic melodrama and never feels overblown, depicting its various dark themes for a reason and in a mature way—anybody who tries to tell you this show is edgy and lacks substance is full of fucking shit and clearly didn’t pay attention while watching it, period. And look, I can understand finding a show touching on this kind-of subject matter distasteful—if you don’t like it for whatever reason, that’s totally fine. Different people have different tastes and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying cutesy slice-of-life anime or whatever exclusively while ignoring stuff like Happy Sugar Life. But that does not give anybody an excuse to write it off as being shallow or meaningless, predicated on shock value or grimdark which it simply is not and I would go so far as to say that’s an objective point of fact, even if it does contain dark elements; that’d be like saying Iron-Blooded Orphans is edgy because kids die in it, completely disregarding and ignoring the context as to why that was being depicted in the first fucking place. Studio Ezόla should be beyond proud of what they’ve created here, and I hope everybody involved with this project took any scathing criticism they got on the chin (though I don’t imagine much of that criticism was exceptionally intelligent). And you know, there are criticisms to be made; the artwork and animation can be pretty basic at times, you could argue that some characters are a little too over-the-top, you could say that the plot doesn’t play out realistically enough, you could argue that the world depicted here is unreasonably bleak, etc. But at the end of the day, this was one of the best shows I have watched since Re:Zero and you need to go and watch it right the fuck now if you haven’t already seen it, this is a show so good and so criminally underrated that I feel compelled to become a walking advertisement for it for god’s sake! To be honest I can’t even take the credit for spotlighting it here since I would likely never have known this show existed if not for my best friend pointing it out to me on his quest to find a good Yuri anime for me to watch, and my god am I glad I was given the opportunity to experience it. Go watch Happy Sugar Life immediately, #JusticeForShouko the god-damn American hero, stay in school, don’t get drunk and high at the same time, and stay epic my fellow gamers.

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