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.see more on Colorful
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.
Asuka Langley Sohryu, one of the protagonists of Evangelion, is a self-assured, aggressive workaholic who serves as a foil for the meek and morose Shinji Ikari. Beneath her brash nature, however, lies a childhood marred by her mother's depression and eventual suicide. Due to her mental illness, Asuka's mother was unable to give her young daughter the love that she needed. In fact, there are times when she's outright abusive.
One day, Asuka found her mother hanging from a noose after a successful suicide attempt. After that, Asuka gave up on genuine emotional connection, and funneled all her energy into her work, including her job as an Eva pilot. We learn little, if anything, about what drove Asuka's mother to such depths of despair.
Like most of the characters in Evangelion, Asuka and her mother were used as sounding boards for seriescreator Hideaki Anno's own emotional troubles. During production, he suffered a nervous breakdown, which is said to have influenced the direction of the series.
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Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is about teacher prone of fits of misery. He attempts suicide at the slightest provocation. He also spreads his negative outlook to his students, going so far as to try and persuade them to commit suicide, too. Because Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is a comedy, suicide and other mental mental health issues are played for laughs.
Considering the high rates of suicide among both teachers and students in Japan, there are two ways to look at this. One is that a serious issues are best handled through laughter. The other is that attempting to wring humor out of such a painful and widespread problem is insensitive and counterproductive. You really kind of have to watch Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei to judge for yourself.
Genshiken, a series about a college anime club, features a character named Chika Ogiue. She throws herself off a building after her "friends" traumatize a classmate by showing him a pornographic drawing Chika had made of him. She survives the suicide attempt.
While the show takes this particular event somewhat seriously, it's played for laughs throughout the series. Chika regularly attempts to leap out the window whenever she gets embarrassed about other people seeing her explicit artwork. The tone is more "haha, she draws yaoi and it's hilarious," rather than examining the implications of repeated suicide attempts, or the fact that drawing porn of real people and then letting them see it is actually a form sexual abuse. Frankly, it comes off fairly tone deaf.see more on Genshiken
One of the main themes of Naruto is the impact social isolation has on a person's psyche. While the eponymous protagonist reacts to being rejected by his village with forgiveness, love, and determination to change his village for the better, not everyone in the series does the same.
Sakumo Hatake, Kakashi's father, was rejected by his village after a tactical error caused him to fail an important ninja mission. Although the error involved him prioritizing saving his comrades' lives over finishing the mission, the community vilified him for it. Even the people whose lives he saved rejected him. As a result, he fell into a deep depression, and eventually committed suicide. While honor killings have a long history in Japan, Sakumo's death is perceived as a tragedy, not an appropriate response to being disgraced.
Because Sakumo is a secondary character, we don't learn much about what led him to that point. Instead, it's an important part of Kakashi's backstory. By the time the series starts, Kakashi has lost almost everyone he ever loved, and his father was the first. Kakashi attempts to use this loss to relate to his student, Sasuke, whose whole family was brutally murdered. However, he never uses to to relate to his other student, Naruto, who was a social pariah just like Sakumo. So overall, it's a bit of a mixed bag.
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