Suicide is a serious issue everywhere, but in Japan it's a particular problem. The nation typically ranks among those with the highest suicide rate worldwide every year. Approximately 21.7 per 100,000 Japanese nationals commit suicide annually. Thankfully, those rates are going down, but the prevalence of the issue ensures that it will show up in all forms of media, including anime.
Suicidal characters in anime appear in all genres, from shonen epics like Naruto to tightly focused slice-of-life shows like Orange. Some anime featuring suicide deal with this dark subject in a nuanced, respectful way, while others handle the issue poorly. Through the anime that does it well, viewers can better understand suicide and develop empathy for those it impacts. Through the anime that doesn't, we can start thinking about how media can better reflect our reality.
In Orange, a tight-knit group loses their friend Kakeru to suicide. They send letters back to their past selves with advice on how to prevent this tragedy.
At the start of the story, Kakeru's mother commits suicide after Kakeru refused to accompany her to a doctor's appointment. He wanted to spend time with his new friends, and felt stifled by her emotional needs. Kakeru blamed himself for his mother's death, and the guilt drove him to suicidal despair. The circumstances that led to his mother's death also made it difficult for him to turn to his friends for help. The advice in the letters focuses on not allowing Kakeru to isolate himself, and also making sure that the budding romance between Kakeru and the protagonist, Naho, actually blooms.
Romantic relationships somehow solving a person's depression is a well-worn and terribly inaccurate trope, but Orange manages to subvert it. Although Kakeru and Naho do end up together, it doesn't cure his depression. It's one of many subtle changes in his life that ultimately help him avoid death. He comes close to suicide, but his friends pull him out of that moment.
Orange doesn't conclude that because Kakeru falls in love, he will never be sad again. Rather, it concludes that being honest about one's feelings, and opening up to others, helps make happiness possible.
Welcome To The NHK
Welcome to the NHK focuses on the relationship between Tatasuhiro Satou and Misaki Nakahara. Satou is a college dropout and hikkikomori dealing with depression and paranoid delusions. Misaki offers him amateur therapy sessions and a self-styled "program" to help Satou overcome his inability to leave the house.
Misaki hides her own depression, but eventually, it is revealed that she's just as miserable as Satou, if not more so. Rather than trying to help him, she's actually been using him to feel superior, because he was the only person around she thought was lower than she was.
Misaki's emotional manipulation, and her suicide attempt when Satou rejects her romantic advances, are truly disturbing. What follows, though, is actually quite touching. The two make a reverse suicide pact, agreeing that as long as the other is alive, neither Satou nor Misaki are allowed to kill themselves. Instead, when they want to die, they have to call the other and talk about it. Morbid, yes, but it's a meaningful coping mechanism that helps both characters move forward.
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Colorful, an award-winning movie released in 2010, focuses on an unnamed soul who arrives at the border between life and death. The soul is told that it will get another chance at life, if it can figure out what mistake it made during its last six months alive. The soul possesses its previous body, a middle school boy named Makoto Kobayashi, immediately after he attempted suicide by overdose.
The soul, who lacks memories of its former life, has to find out why Makoto wanted to die. Makoto doesn't get along with his family, and he's deeply troubled by the sexual and moral indiscretions committed by his mother and his crush. With guidance from the unnamed soul, Makoto is able to adjust his attitude and give life another chance. The conclusions might be a bit too neat and reminiscent of It's A Wonderful Life, but it's still a heartwarming film.
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In Myself; Yourself, the two main characters, Sana Hidaka and Nanaka Yatsushiro, both have a history of suicide attempts. Sana was bullied severely in middle school, which caused him to slit his wrists. Though he survived, he's left with a debilitating fear of blood.
Meanwhile, Nanaka is repressing a traumatic memory. Her father burned himself and her mother to death when he found out that Nanaka wasn't his daughter, but rather the result of his wife's infidelity. When the memories return, she can't cope, and she attempts suicide. Sana saves her life, overcoming his blood phobia to do so.
The series has been criticized (correctly) for glossing over the serious nature of the suicide attempts, and instead focusing more on romance and unrelated subplots than the legitimate mental health issues that come up.