LIFE (Raifu), by Keiko Suenobu. First published in 2002 and first published in North America in 2006.
Ayumu is struggling with her junior high school exams like a lot of girls her age. She enlists the help of her best friend Shinosuke, and it works beautifully – Ayumu passes and gets into Minami High School! Unfortunately Shinosuke does not, and this results in a big fight and the end of their friendship. Ayumu feels so guilty over the whole thing that she begins to cut herself as a way of coping with her pain. At Minami, things don’t really get better. Sure, she makes a new friend named Manami, but Manami is snobby and shallow and makes Ayumu feel worse. Now Ayumu is torn between her dependence on cutting to deal with her emotions , fear of others discovering evidence of her cutting, and the self-loathing and the insecurities that drive her to cut.
Suenobu has made her bread and butter by presenting the darker side of shoujo. While the events of her stories tend towards the melodramatic, they are rooted to some degree of reality. Thus, even as terrible as things can get in Life, they’re things that have and do happen to teenage girls everyday, and Suenobu is simply trying to understand why someone would do something as drastic as self-harming.
Ayumu seems on the surface like any other hapless, naïve shoujo heroine on the surface until the end of her first friendship. From there, she becomes very introverted and introspective, and we learn that Ayumu does have a lot more going on beneath the surface. The only problem is that all that is going on in there is negative, and she feels she has no one to share those feelings with. Thus, those negative feelings twist her personality and behaviors into a spiral of depression, as if it were like an addiction. Suenobu really gets inside Ayumu's head to understand the reasoning behind her cutting. What started out as a drastic measure to keep herself awake during intense study sessions becomes a distraction from her overwhelming emotions. Later on, Ayumu starts to see it as a way to physically purge the emotion from herself, as conveyed by a beautifully evocative series of images midstory of her pain personified as a girl, fleeing from the cut and screaming upon releasing as she turns into a trickle of blood. It’s not that she doesn’t try to stop, but every time she tries to reach out to others, she is blocked either by circumstance or by the influence of others. This is deep, dark, and depressing material, but it's written with a vividness and compassion. It’s rare to see shoujo that delves so deep into its heroine's psychology, much less show them in such a negative light.
Of course, you can’t help but feel for Ayumu when she’s surrounded by someone as toxic as Manami. While she is outwardly friendly and bubbly, she’s also a total snob, keeping Ayumu away from others who are more genuinely friendly and less socially popular. One gets the feeling that Manami likes the degree of control she has over Ayumu, even if she would only see it as making sure Ayumu hangs out with the ‘right’ crowds. By volume’s end we see that this pretense is mostly a lie – Manami is just as insecure and desperate as Ayumu, even attempting suicide after her boyfriend breaks up with her for not putting out. By volume’s end, the two are probably on the most equal ground they’ve ever been on, emotionally, and it doesn’t take a genius to see where this is likely to go.
The most depressing and frightening thing about Life is how true to real life it is. As terrible as things are going for Ayumu, the struggles she has with others and herself are the same as those experience by countless other high school girls every single day. She doesn’t suffer because evil people are acting evil, but because friendships change and because teenage girls are prone to being insecure and either projecting those insecurities on others or lingering on them until it becomes a problem. It doesn’t glamorize Ayumu’s suffering, it only wants you to understand why she would resort to such drastic measures. As such, Life is a powerful portrait of teenage despair.
I think part of what makes Suenobu’s writing so effective is because the artwork is so seemingly unremarkable. Much like the characters, it looks ordinary on the surface, with all the big shining eyes, pretty faces, and school unforms. There’s a lot of emotion to them, though, which is important considering all the strong emotions going around. There’s also the all too brief moments of more poetic imagery, like the metaphor described above. Panels tend to be big and layered loosely over one another. Backgrounds are solid drawn, if mundane, and the so-called ‘lighter’ moments they tend to be replaced with wacky patterned screentones.
There’s an epilogue from an actual psychiatrist which serves to both explain on a more technical level what cutting is and to serve as a disclaimer against the actions seen here as well as suicide in general.
Life’s generic title and superficially shallow art belies the depth and tragedy of this story. It’s heartwrenching, melodramatic, and disturbing in how true to life it truly is.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 20 volumes available. 9 volumes were published and are currently out of print.