It would be simple, and perhaps even pleasant, to dismiss Keiko Suenobu’s Life as a bygone era given that it was first published in 2002 and largely released by Tokyopop not long after. This wishful thought is supported by the artwork, which features eyes and lips drawn in a style reminiscent of the early 2000s, as well as flip phones, a lack of social media, and artistically wrinkled “tall socks” worn by the trendy girls. However, nostalgia isn’t the reason Kodansha saved this license. Life paints a brutally identifiable depiction of the social wasteland that middle and high school can be even two decades after its initial release.
The protagonist of the novel is Ayumu, who we first encounter in the third and last year of middle school. Her best friend, who she considers to be her academic rival, has her sights set on a particular, respectable high school. (A casual remark implies that although it is intellectually superior to where Ayumu initially envisaged herself, it is still not the best school available.) Ayumu says she will aim for it as well because she has always wanted to travel there and she is determined to stay with her closest friend. Ayumu puts a lot of effort into her studies and significantly raises her grades as a result. As a result, she outperforms her “smarter” buddy and enrolls in the friend’s dream school while the other friend does not. Ayumu’s buddy betrays her out of hurt and rage, ending their friendship.
The ramifications of this introduction, which is the volume’s first double-length chapter, are somewhat troubling. One of the most important of these is that Ayumu’s companion may have appreciated being “the smart one” of their pair and spending time with Ayumu since it made her feel more confident. This is corroborated by the way she revels in Ayumu’s compliments on her intelligence and frequently begs for assistance from her buddy with her own homework. She is unable to handle it when the façade is exposed for what it truly is, and her agony leads her to turn on the girl who has supported her. However, it was also hinted that Ayumu was never the group’s dimwit. Ayumu’s mother ignores her until she says which high school she plans to apply to, which is depicted in home scenes as being considerably more devoted to her younger sister. It appears that Ayumu gets any notions about her own stupidity from her mother, who doesn’t even bother to pay attention when her older daughter tries to chat to her about school or acknowledge her when she enters the house with a “I’m home.”
It is hardly unexpected that Ayumu turns to cutting in light of these circumstances. The majority of teenagers who cut, according to Johns Hopkins, are dealing with intense emotions. They may believe that cutting is the only way to communicate or break up sentiments that are too strong to bear; frequently, they are going through emotional agony or trying circumstances that no one else is aware of. This is unquestionably the case with Ayumu, and Suenobu’s use of her cutting demonstrates that this isn’t simply some lame teen gimmick that she threw into the comic to make it seem more “real.” Ayumu says carrying her box cutter in her pocket is like having “a safe space in my pocket.” In one shot, she can be seen scurrying through the night toward a crack in the darkness; when she falls through, she turns into a drip of blood. This scene shows how well-versed the author is in her craft and is also quite powerful.
Another result of Ayumu’s cutting is that she feels more self-conscious. By the time high school begins, she has scars on her forearms and is starting to worry about having to wear the summer uniform and what others will think if they see them. This worry is understandable, especially given that she is now predisposed to fear interacting with other girls in her class. She wants friends but is afraid to make them, and she finds that crouching in a little gap between two buildings on the school roof gives her the most calm. I’ll say it again: the image of her hiding in the shadows behind a fence, surrounded by cigarette butts and other trash, is quite potent. When I was a teenager being tormented, I used to seek out places like this because there was protection in being someplace no one else would think to go. Even while Suenobu doesn’t explicitly state this as she does with the cutting, this portrayal of Ayumu’s inner conflict nonetheless has a great emotional resonance.
Eventually, Mana, a self-aware cutesy classmate who appears to define herself by her adorability and her boyfriend, and Ayumu become friends. Mana also makes an effort to separate Ayumu from the other female students in the class while simultaneously assimilating herself into the group that is most likely referred to as the “popular girls”—those who believe they are more mature than other students since they are having sex and are more covered up. Unsurprisingly, mana turns out to be unstable, and by the end of the volume, it seems as though this has made Ayumu’s condition even more perilous. At the conclusion of the volume, Mana may not have intended to utilize Ayumu for her own purposes, but that option seems alarmingly possible.
Life comes with strong content warnings for bullying, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. It doesn’t want to sugarcoat anything, and for some readers, it might err dangerously near to being torture porn. Suenobu is attempting to capture how being a teenager might feel, particularly if you are outside of social conventions. It’s not an easy read, and I don’t know if I could have managed it if I hadn’t lived through it so long ago. However, it’s a book that must be written and one that is worthwhile to read.