One of the shows I missed out on last summer that I really should’ve seen/talked about was Happy Sugar Life, because it definitely would’ve gotten a spot on my best of year list. Good horror is sadly uncommon in anime, but every once in a while, you get one of those shows, the ones that get the pacing, the story, and the characters down perfectly, and create a surprisingly chilling experience. Happy Sugar Life is absolutely one of those shows. Its core premise and story lend themselves very well to the field of animation, because the extremely personal and psychologically-themed story of Happy Sugar Life allows for a better focus on drama, something anime excels at when done by competent staff, and it uses that drama to create tension and fear. This is prominently done in two ways. First, there’s the classic horror trope of everyone being some variety of insane, which the series does an excellent job of capitalizing on, and second, the series is in full recognition of how fucked up some of the tropes core to its story are. The most conspicuous thing in this category is how every character’s relationship with Shio is depicted. The series is fully conscious that Shio, in spite of the emotional maturity she shows at times, is still an 8 year old, and this remains relevant in how everyone else’s relationships with her are depicted. Though Satou’s affection for her is never implied to be sexual, it is still the case that a high schooler kidnapped an 8 year old, and Satou isn’t shy about taking advantage of Shio’s naivete and openly manipulating her in order to keep her from being found. And crazily enough, that is the LEAST fucked up situation of the three major ones. The second one is Mitsuboshi, who is also by far the grossest, since he’s just flatly a pedophile and is easily the most implicitly sexual of the three. This is also the least developed of the three, since Mitsuboshi only meets Shio once before the finale. He’s got a little more to the pedophilia thing than you might expect, as it actually arises from trauma resultant from the events of the beginning of the story, but it’s still flat once it gets past that point. And the third is her brother Asahi, who on paper seems like the logical choice for her to side with, but the more you learn, the less that seems to be the case, especially with how unstable their mother is. This story thread also sees the most interesting conclusion, with Shio deciding for herself not to return with Asahi and to find out for herself what Satou’s final act meant. This is a really interesting way to end that story, but it feels almost like a misstep, because it’s a moment where Shio, an 8 year old, is given the agency and thinking capabilities of an adult. Something like this had happened earlier in the episode, but there it was her choosing not to return to the mother who abandoned her after being tormented with visions of that event throughout the entire story, so it’s understandable why she’d choose Satou over Asahi at that moment, but a decision like this feels like the story ascribing more agency to her than any 8 year old should have. Aside from that misstep, the series demonstrates a lot more self awareness than most about how fucked up it is that all these invisible expectations are being placed on an 8 year old, and that people take advantage of her innocence so regularly for their own ends. There’s a third aspect to what makes this series so disturbing, which is how it serves as a character study for Satou, Shio, and the relationship between them. Satou’s psychopathy is explored in depth, not only in its origin from her aunt’s abuse and how it manifests in the form of her internal monologue, but also how it affects her behavior. Before she met Shio, Satou was the type who slept around regularly and went through a long string of boyfriends, which is heavily implied to be her searching for a way to fill her internal void, hence why she immediately stops after meeting Shio. On Shio’s end, her devotion to Satou is entirely understandable, bearing in mind her age and the fact that Satou is the only person in her life who hasn’t abandoned or openly mistreated her. Not only that, but when Satou takes missteps in trying to manipulate Shio, Shio always reacts to it with the closest thing I’ve seen to understandable child logic, which ultimately only makes Satou’s manipulation more effective. For her part, what makes Satou so disturbing is how the series uses the tools of making sympathetic characters to make her understandable, which is terrifying because, as extreme as her actions are, the logic behind them is clear and, in its own twisted way, sound. She is terrifying because her path to the actions she commits is entirely understandable, which raises uncomfortable questions in the mind of the audience. Many of her actions are dark reflections of things a reasonable person would do, especially early on. It was the right thing to do to take Shio in, though she obviously should’ve called the police instead of kidnapping her. It was the right thing to do to kill the artist to protect Shio, though she obviously shouldn’t have hidden the corpse. It was the right thing to do to expose her manager, though she shouldn’t have bothered with blackmail and should’ve just gone to the police, and so on and so forth. For the first half of the series, most of what Satou does is “the right thing, but”. However, with each of those actions, there is progressively less and less “right” to them, and far more in the “but” category. Around halfway through the series, the former category is gone entirely and everything she does is just flatly wrong, but the seeds of her previous train of logic remain, so you almost start to believe that her actions might be sensible in her situation. And that, above all, is what makes Happy Sugar Life so unsettling.