“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 world.
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.