In the next two weeks, we’re going to look to anime for a rather serious topic: physical and mental illness. These are two subjects that lots and lots and lots of media cover extremely poorly, some to the point of offensive for different reasons. This week we’re going to focus on physical illness.
Physical illness, particularly terminal illness, is often used as a gimmick in films to portray a strong, sweet soul, pushing through their lives despite their sickness, only to die in the film’s climax because it’s “sad”. Films like this ring hollow to the extreme because it’s so emotionally manipulative. It’s just a tear jerker ending to tug at the heart strings. It’s cheap and its cliché.
Particularly egregious is Nicholas Sparks’ Walk to Remember, partially because we never see the horrible reality of our main heroine’s illness. We barely see any symptoms or hospital rooms. Our main character looks pretty, acts strong, and goes quietly into that good night without much kicking at all. This is not the way to write physical illness. Physical illness is often debilitating, painful, and has a clear effect on the afflicted and those around them. Actually, I think the Fault in our Stars did this well because it focused on Hazel’s daily struggle with cancer. It was everywhere, from the pills and her oxygen tank to the hospital visits. Your mileage may vary on how Fault in our Stars handles other things but that’s a topic for another time.
I bring this up, because anime does this kind of thing too: regularly. Plenty of anime end with a death from a physical illness just to make you cry. It’s pure emotional manipulation without showing any of the harder parts of illness. But Your Lie in April is one anime that handles sickness well.
Yes, it’s is easy to see Kaori as the suffering but strong heroine at the beginning. A manic pixie dream girl who’s going to help our main hero change. But she isn’t just an inspirational figure. She’s loud and brash, living life impulsively because of her illness. To hell with what anyone else thinks. She wants to get the main character to play a duet with her since she has admired him as a pianist and she’ll do anything to push him onto the stage. She honestly has a lot of character that is not based around our leading guy.
But of course, she’s sick, which you figure out pretty early on, and her slow loss of health is not an easy or gentle thing. As time passes she starts snapping at her friends more as her emotions come unhinged. It becomes clear that her bubbly personality was often a mask to hide her illness. She takes more falls, her legs stop working right and we even get a scene of her screaming and hitting her legs in the hallway, begging them to stand. We see her seizing up on the hospital bed. Even her coloration grows paler as the show goes on.
However, Kaori’s illness doesn’t define her. She is bursting with personality outside of her eventual death. That’s one of the keys: her illness affects her life in a variety of ways but it also doesn't dictate who she is. Its not just a one off note to make the audience cry but she’s not just that sick girl we should feel sorry for. She’s a nuanced human being beyond her struggles.
Because people who are sick aren’t just there to make people cry or develop able bodied characters arcs. They get arcs of their own and they are their own people, and Your Lie in April gives a stirring example of that done right.
We’ll talk about mental illness in Your Lie in April next week. Until then, happy writing!