Nagisa Yamada is a junior high school student who lives in the remote countryside town of Tottori. Her father has passed away years ago, and her mother does part-time jobs to support the family. She is a realist, and wants to graduate as soon as possible to live her own life. Mokuzu Umino is a melancholic and very mysterious transfer student. She claims to be a mermaid, come to land on a mission to find a true friend before the storm comes. At Tottori, the two girls meet, develop a unique friendship, and do what they can to keep living.
“What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all that's nice,
That's what little girls are made of.”
According to this popular rhymes, the famous genre referred to as “cute girls doing cute things” so deeply ingrained in the media of japanese animation doesn't sounds nearly as much preposterous as many want to believe. Yet there are certain occasions when the concept is simply turned upside-down and girls suddenly become interested in “snips and snails”, be it for the sake of including in the story a stereotypical tomboysh character or to justify the existence of said character in its apparently sugar coated
This review won't be so assumptive as to think that A Lollipop or a Bullet is the first or the most successful story using such plot device, it will be made clear though how Kazuki Sakuraba, better known as the authoress of the mystery/romance Gosick series, managed to give great care and balance in her own coming-of-age story.
A Lollipop or a Bullet starts in a very by the book way, presenting in the first page the protagonist of the story, Nagisa Yamada, seeking a “dessert for nobles” in the mountains, then shifting the scene one month prior to narrate the events that eventually lead to that search. Nagisa is a middle school girl without much faith in the world or in life; during an age when most of the children are too busy having fun to think about their future she already chose that none of that matters to her. People would find her country town to be a pleasant tourist destination, yet she can only think about the nuclear plant, the reformatory, the prison, the mental hospital and the military base located in the outskirts, places everyone avert their eyes from.
Having had a troubled family past, she resolved to stop dreaming of the sugary exi average girls live in and devote herself to become an adult as soon as possible, already planning her job and her career as a soldier in the above mentioned military base, relying only on her own forces and taking reality face on, like a real “bullet”. Everything seems to go according to her plans until, during the last year of middle school, a transfer student suddenly appears in her class. The name is Mokuzu Umino and at first glance she's just a plain weirdo, costantly drinking water everytime she's nervous and calling herself a mermaid in search of a true friend. Despite avoiding as much as possible to be involved with such a troublemaker, Mokuzu gets interested in Nagisa precisely because she's the only one who's not curious about her circumstances, and one-sidely resolves to make her become the friend she needs.
From here on the setting is developed like a stage play, where each act stricly links with the previous and following, with the focus revolving around the strange relationship that develops between the two protagonists and the world around them. Nagisa soon gets tired of that eccentric liar, but Mokuzu's enigmatic character and behavior only furtherly drag her in the deep of her own childish world and troubles, slowly shaping the psychology of a young girl whose flawed logic goes far beyond a traditional seek for attention.
Being an adaptation of a one book long novel, A Lollipop or a Bullet focus is more oriented on the character development than on an all-round story. The narration of the events and the relationships between Mokuzu and Nagisa is told from the latter's point of view, adding a curious yet well-placed aura of mystery behind the plot. The title of the second chapter “Heavenly Creatures” can be taken in this case either as a curious coincidence or as a well thought reference to a similiar and more famous title.
The fundamental use of several recurring images and dialogues is aimed to properly convey the feelings behind the messages of the tale, as well as outline the two conflicting view of the world: the realistic and disillusioned act made up by Nagisa is the childish attempt of a young girl to be prepared to endure all the hardships in the world. Against this conception there's the dreamer and happy-go-lucky Mokuzu, whose facade of joyful lies is simply a proof of escapism, ultimately designed to avoid said hardships and convince herself that everything has a meaning, even the worst things in life. To prove this, she's not content with just sharing her stories, she also want to drag everyone in her world, as her own way to scream for help and flee from the solitude and harshness of the existence she's bound to live.
While the story can be redundant and slow-paced due to the deliberate repetition of certain parts, what really strikes to the reader is the growing sense of anxiety painted by the unveiling of the events, and this is where the ability of Sakuraba as a writer is made clear to the reader.
Likewise, the art from Iqura Sugimoto, better know for her manga Variante, are without any doubt appropriate for this kind of story. The rough and skinny design of the characters depicts the “dirty” atmosphere right from the first pages and keeps increasing its effectiveness as the story gets darker and darker after each chapter.
Being a shounen with the psychological growth of a shoujo and the themes of a seinen, A Lollipop or a Bullet might really turns off a lot of readers, expecially those who can't bear stories that deals with realistic drama in a hopeless and absolutely believable style. That being said, it still serves its purpose as a full fledged bildungsroman, so the more seasoned readers will be easily get caught by its depressing stance on an usually more light-hearted genre of narration.
It might sound preposterous to compare this title with equally dark yet more cryptic and symbolical tales such as Gogo Monster, Goodnight Punpun and Wings of Vendemiaire, but the differences in storytelling and the similiarites between the themes of a tragic growth of characters are indeed what makes each of these manga unique and stunning in its own way.
Yeah, this is really a 8-10 material, no attack of fanboys/fangirls here. Unexpected, but true. And no shoujo-ai, seriously.
I think there’re two main topics among the more serious manga – the fear of loneliness vs. fear of opening up and the fight against the world. This falls more in the second category, but from my pov it stands out a lot, because of its total lack of self-indulgence and the down to the ground mood. You won’t tell from the description, but here the peter pan syndrome plays out as it usually does in life – very badly.
As you can see most of the other
reviews are very long – that’s because this manga is thematically rich, and the themes are used well. It deals with: painful bonding of people (family love, love, friendship), growing up, poverty, psychology, society, abuse, bullying, death. Not a happy list, eh? This is this kind of story, yet the best part of it is that it is not too long and it is told without too much pathos – I think the story goes overboard only once or twice, and even then not terribly.
Some aspects of the outcome’ll surprise you. Actually you’ll be surprised by some parts of the ride too – there’s a lot of rarely brought up topics. Like dealing with a hikikomori member of family, wish to join the army, physical impairments, self-pity as driving force. Frankly, after completing the story I have some questions left, but the ride was good, I went through catharsis, and the feeling of closure is present.
The art is fine too. Thankfully, it holds the tone well, and there’s no cutesy stuff or chibi-characters. I don’t dig the spiky hair, that are supposed to be “beautiful”, but that’s it. Other than that I have only respect and admiration for the artwork – the flaw of frames, the designs, the backgrounds are nicely done. The art even carries well such complex things as suspense, feeling of vulnerability and alienation.
All in all, it’s a work deserving of bigger attention that I see it getting now. It’s a manga of the Punpun and Aku no Hana breed and level, but with its own distinctive voice and story to tell. Do read it, if you’re interested in a dark, mature, more or less realistic story.
Despite the cutesy art and the fact the main characters are in middle school, this manga is a lot deeper than at first glance. It might even be too real at certain points. However, it’s the art that draws me in and it’s the story that kept me there.
Nagisa has a stay-at-home brother, whom she admires, while her mother is constantly working. Apparently, her father passed way ten years prior to the story while he was fishing. Since then, they’ve lived in poverty. The insurance for the father had long since dried up and Nagisa was starting to feel the effects of puberty.
However, when the
beautiful young girl moves into town, she seriously shakes things up with how quirky she is. Naturally, this annoys Nagisa because the girl wants to be her friend. Throughout the story, Nagisa talks about bullets and “candy bullets”. The thing about is that, her brother refers “candy bullets” as words meant to incite a reaction. Usually, these words can be said over and over but they don’t really mean anything. Mokuzu never had enough of these “candy bullets”. She called herself a mermaid and would always easily explained away the bruises on her as well as any other physical issues she had.
There’s a boy that liked Mokuzu but Mokuzu clearly never had any interest in him in the first place. But because of the evils that Mokuzu lived with, she didn’t know how to respond to affection other than the violence she was subjected to by her own father. And because of her violet behavior, he’s no longer the boy that Nagisa loved – he’s different to where he has deviant desires, possibly.
Nagisa’s pain is clear throughout the manga: poverty, her once honor roll brother is stay-at-home and eating up the funds while her mother is at work all the time; puberty, the feelings she had for her classmate; apathy, being stuck in a rural town while trying her best to live day to day until she can join the military force; and loneliness, she pushed away people because she can’t relate to them or do the same things they can do.
In order to cope with the added responsibilities, she sees her brother as a “noble”, someone who needs to be taken care of and she’s more than happy to do it. Her mother never complained in front of her but her mother ignores the gossip about her family, especially her son.
Mokuzu, on the other hand, had a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Her parents are divorced (whether it’s official or not) and she lived with her eccentric father; but no matter what he does to her, she loves him. And it’s complicated, to love an abusive parent.
It’s a little hard to review something objectively with a manga like this, especially with the content. Gradually, as the plot goes along, another layer of Mokuzu’s home life is carefully torn, even with it’s short volume count. There’s a lot of details that could easily be missed but towards the end, after the discovery of Mokuzu’s body, it falls apart. The teacher, who showed up only a few chapters before, suddenly talks about how he tried so hard to be a super man and care about the kids but it never really showed that.
Instead, the closest thing he’s done that is lecture Nagisa about going to the military school, instead of straight to high school, because of her brother. Certainly, there could have been instances where the teacher could have tried to talk to Mokuzu (and she’d brush him off).
Earlier in the manga, it’s shown that Nagisa is solely responsible for the school rabbits, but they were found slaughtered one day – one of which whose head was in Mokuzu’s bag. If the teacher really did care, as he said, he would helped the students suspect her a little less and have it a bit more believable. There were times where it felt that they could have something better to add on to instead of what they actually put.
There’s also the matter of the young boy, especially since he’s the one who discovered the rabbits’ bodies. He’s shown prone to violence – some people argue that Mokuzu manipulated him into doing those things but, is it innate? Is it environmental? This is probably one the more controversial scenes in the manga simply because he reacted the way he did. Some people say that she manipulated him to garner more attention from Nagisa but, personally, I don’t think that’s it at all. She never showed interest in him. She knew that Nagisa showed interest in him but didn’t mind – as long as Nagisa is her friend, who cared? Still, I personally don’t think this manga is a romance, or even have inclinations of romance, at all.
With a longer volume count, they could concentrate more on what had happened to Nagisa and her family. It’s said that her brother cut his hair and joined the military but maybe it’s best that it was open ended like that.
This manga, though, does get gory but it does censor enough. You see enough to get the gist of what’s going on but it’s not so censored that you can’t see anything (though why would you want to?). This manga isn’t for everyone and it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of triggery content in this manga though it’s handled well and with enough respect to show how dire the situation is.
So, dear readers, answer me this riddle’s: A woman’s husband recently passed away. She meets a man at the funeral who made an impression on her. In fact, they both had favorable impressions of each other. However, the next night, her young son was murdered. She confessed, she did it. But why? Can you tell me why?
Ok, so let's start from that that the "Cynd" in my nickname is a shortcut from Cyndaquil and I am actually a pokemon. Just like Team Rocket's Meowth I managed to learn human speech and now I'm sitting beside my pc and writing this review.
What? You don't believe me? You think I'm joking? You say pokemon don't exist?
Of course they do. You think the Game Freak games were based on pure fiction? Even armies worldwide hire pokemon trainers to fight as mercenaries against foreign trainers.
You say it's not possible? That PETA wouldn't approve of having pokemon fight? That conventional weapons are way more effective
than semi-magical creatures?
But hey, we, pokemon can be easily healed after the battles. Also, don't you think that a world where people only fight using these semi-magical creatures, where no one dies during the wars, a world where everything can be solved that easily is a much better place to live?
But it is still not real? Too good to be real? But 'real' world isn't worse on its own. It's worse, because people made it like that. People without imagination, who accepted its bad side without thinking of any better one. Why would you want to be one of these people?
So, if you managed to read this prolonged introduction you probably get the idea what this manga is about. Let's proceed to the actual review then, shall we?
First things first, as you can read in the description, we have a heavy-grounded person, who ends up in the same time and place with girl whose words and actions are completely illogical and seems to be living in her own world created by her quirky imagination. "Oh, come on, just how many times did we see that?" Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, Aura: Maryuuinkouga Saigo no Tatakai, Arakawa under the Bridge, Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko and, to a lesser extent, True Tears as well as many more. But hey, even though this is already becoming an another cliched scheme among many, if you think about it, the aforementioned titles are neither bad nor unoriginal. Indeed, achieving perfect originality is quite impossible feat nowadays and it is better not to expect it. It is way better to think about 'unoriginal' series as a new approach to an existent topic. And, of course, don't let yourself judge book by the cover.
Alright, but I should explain why exactly A Lollipop or a Bullet isn't like others. Let's start with the story. The pacing is slow, almost slice-of-life-ish, but with quite a lot of huge, sudden plot twists. Much more than one would expect from 2 volume long psychological manga. Oh, and I used the key word - "psychological" is one of best ways to describe this title. It goes very deep into the problems of character, their worldviews and philosophies. Speaking of philosophy, it contains a lot of unusual and allegoric reflections made by main character who is also the narrator of the story.
Unlike most (all?) of the titles I mentioned two paragraphs before A Lollipop or a Bullet doesn't focus mainly on romance, what actually turns out to be good as far as characterization and psychological part of storyline is concerned.
And finally, probably best thing about the plot in this manga: every single thing happens for a reason. It may not seem like this, but there is no scene or even a fragment of dialogue, which doesn't matter to the story. Everything not important at the moment turns out to be a Chekhov's gun later. This makes you want to read the manga again just to find out how everything is actually a part of a whole.
The same principle applies to characters as well, but let's talk about this a little bit later.
The characters are basically the best side of this manga. As I said before, the plot is mainly focused on their psychologies, beliefs, opinions. They are both original and well-developed. Even Umino, who seems like an another cliched daydreamer at first turns out to be quite deep, multilayered, original and to some extent really likeable in the end.
However, if I were to choose the best-made character it would be the protagonist, Nagisa. No matter how less original than Umino may she seem, she the one most of viewers can identify with. She has distance to her friend's (?) delusions, she is the one who sees the world as it is. Or rather I should say that she does not accept the imaginary, better world that will never come to existence however much Umino would like it to. It may sound as if I was saying she is an exaggerating realist, but it is actually Umino whose every word lack every little bit of credibility it could have. If you met a person like her in real world you wouldn't even give her imaginary world a chance. But back to the point - when I was writing about readers identifying themselves with Nagisa I hardy meant her attitude towards Umino. For the most of manga Nagisa plays the role of an actual observer - the situations may affect her personally a lot, but until very end of the manga she hardly takes any actual part in what is happening around her. Her point of view actually feels similar to the reader's. And her being the narrator only strengthens this feeling.
Moving to side characters, as stated before, everyone having as many as two lines of their own will appear or at least be mentioned later in the manga. Moreover, since the protagonist is quite passive (and is like that for a reason as well!) they seem to be moving the story forward the most. Usually they also tend to have more knowledge that Nagisa, from whose point we see the story. This way A Lollipop or a Bullet not only makes us see how useless Nagisa feels, but also how she feels when she is discovering the truth (?) behind Umino's words.
As far as art is concerned, this manga is not in the top tier, but still far from weak. Character designs are pretty normal. Backgrounds, while really well-drawn aren't that good among other slice of life manga, which overall tend to have better backgrounds than in other genres. The only thing that seems to be really well is the amount of details. Plain looking backgrounds, items or characters do look much better when the amount of details, such as checked pattern on skirt being hand-drawn and thus following the folding instead being just filled with raster, is quite extraordinary. This may not show artist's talent, but does imply their hard work, which should be appreciated.
Oh, and the animals look really realistic.
A Lollipop or a Bullet is that kind of manga you read in one go. Or maybe even twice in one go. Despite being slow-paced there is quite a lot going on all the time, what keeps you from getting bored. The story is quite short but gives that feeling of satisfaction - it covers everything it could and completes every part of the plot. Nothing feels missing or needless.
If anything would make this not enjoyable for you it would have been either Umino, if you consider her more annoying than you should, or the ending, which well... makes all the dreams painfully collide with the harsh reality?
Finally, it'd would be nice to add that amount of non-manga references and overall trivia in this manga is pretty high.
To sum everything up, A Lollipop or a Bullet is a well-thought story, Chekhov would be proud of. Characters are realistic and quite likeable. Overall, it is more addicting than it would seem at the first sight.
In the end, you are just left with the question: Should imaginary perfect world in one's mind, a vision of a better place to live really be thrown away, just because it is not 'real'? Just because the sugar bullets you can dream of can't pierce anything unlike the real ones?