PopLurker Reviews: My Broken Mariko by Waka Hirako

Trigger Warning: My Broken Mariko contains suicide and other self-harm, violence against women, incestuous rape, and other terrible, grave, heavy, and sullen subject matters. If these topics upset you, please reconsider reading this review… or the manga in general.

This review also contains SPOILERS.

PopLurker would like to thank Yen Press for providing a sample copy of My Broken Mariko by Waka Hirako for review. You can preorder your own copy today using one of the links on the story’s landing page, or wherever your favorite books/manga are sold. It will be released October 20, 2020.

Credit: Yen Press

It’s not often I read a manga where whomever wrote the official description clearly didn’t read the text, but there is a first time for everything:

Shiino is an ill-tempered office assistant, but when her friend Mariko dies unexpectedly, she becomes determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. Portraying the soulful connection between girls, this is a striking story of sisterhood and romance.

A very incorrect person at Yen Press-

To be frank, this manga is about none of these things. I’m not sure what happened at the Yen Press offices, but if art is open to interpretation, the author of that description has one hell of a fucked up view of sisterhood, romance, and mystery.

When the press release for this book landed in my inbox, I was intrigued by the art style and the very heavy premise. Let’s take a moment to read the official description per the press release for the story, which is actually correct and does the story justice:

Tomoyo Shiino has stood by her friend Mariko through years of abuse, abandonment, and depression. However horrific her circumstances, their friendship has been the one reassuring constant in Mariko’s life—and Tomoyo’s too. That is, until Tomoyo is utterly blindsided by news of Mariko’s death. In life, Tomoyo felt powerless to help her best friend out of the darkness that ultimately drove her over the edge. Now, Tomoyo is determined to liberate Mariko’s ashes for one final journey together…to set free her dear, broken Mariko. 

Someone who actually read the story and isn’t a complete moron-

One of the highlights of this text that piqued my curiosity was the fact that it’s a Josei manga, and to my knowledge and recollection, I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly read a Josei manga– that is, one that’s aimed toward adult women. It occurred to me that much of the manga I read over the years, starting when I was 13 and just getting into Japanese graphic novels, most of the material I was reading was, not surprisingly, aimed toward people in the 10-15 age range. Much of what I read was Shoujo, or Fantasy Shoujo, or Surrealist Shoujo, a little bit of Shonen here and there, or just weird obscure titles. It was exceedingly difficult to find stories about adults (not that I was especially interested in grown ups at the time).

But now– alas… I am 35 years old. And while I adore a good Coming of Age or Chosen One story, I want to read stories about adult women and their struggles and pleasures. Japanese culture, by reputation is so damn proper that sometimes it’s honestly infuriating. I know Japan has lesbians, corporate executives and businesswomen, single mothers, athletes, and so on– where the hell are their stories? And in the case of My Broken Mariko, we have another subject matter that is often, according to statistics, brushed under the rug– familial abuse, violence, and rape.

Before delving into this review, which I really wanted to be thoughtful and considerate since it was such heavy content, I wanted to look at a few statistics about Domestic Abuse in Japan. I learned that cases are on the rise, especially since 2020’s COVID-19 virus lock downs and quarantines. The average Japanese apartment is considerably smaller than most American apartment homes, so families are stuffed together (often 24 hours per day) much tighter. From an article on The Diplomat dated April 21, 2020, 1 in 4 women in Japan are subject to domestic violence. Spousal abuse was not a reportable crime until recently. And women’s groups in Japan are working hard to ensure that there are safety measures in place for women, such as shelters, medical care, and resources.

From another article on The Diplomat dated April 15, 2019 it was reported that while domestic abuse in Japan had reached an all time high, many people in Japan did not believe that Japanese marriages (or families, as we are discussing in My Broken Mariko) experienced the same amount of violence as their Western counterparts– that Japanese men, simply put, are not violent. However, that same article states that many Japanese domestic violence calls are not answered simply because the police “do not want to get involved”. Unfortunately, in some cases, it’s the same thing that happens here in the West.

It was important for me to look up these statistics prior to reviewing My Broken Mariko because I’d never really read anything from Japan like it. In fact, when I asked for a review sample, my contact at Yen Press said “Heads up, this book is really heavy.” I’ve been going back and forth with this person for years now, doing reviews for upcoming manga series, and never once have they said that to me. I knew I was in for a ride.

Credit: Yen Press

Before going into the story, let’s quickly discuss the art in My Broken Mariko— simply put, it’s gnarly. There are lots of thin etchings, huge exclaiming mouths, lots of tears and sobbing and sweat and saliva. The world the characters inhabited was gritty– really, it was dirty. Broken glass, dirty cluttered homes, uncomfortable train seats, and more. Looking at the pictures is the feeling you get when you’re twisted in a hard chair for too long without leg room and there’s dirt and trash at your feet. Nothing is clean, nothing is nice, and the only moments we get of any sort of freshness are when we see Shii-Chan and Mariko in their high school uniforms… but even then, we know that Mariko is still going through turmoil and abuse. There is no freedom for her until finally, there is. Waka Hirako does a phenomenal job of slipping Mariko into scenes. What I mean by that is we will have Shii-Chan in a moment, and for a flash of a second, she will become Mariko (which gives us a glimpse into what Mariko went through and how she “broke”, or Shii-Chan will see Mariko over head as she is falling, or in her arms as she is falling asleep.

There is something very Western feeling about this book in a way I cannot fully articulate. Maybe it’s just the grittiness and raw feelings of the characters, but it had a big of a Thelma and Louise vibe, except one was high strung and crazy, and the other was… well… dead.

Much of the story’s theme is the idea of being born to the wrong parents– what if all of the people in our lives have the wrong roles? Because of Shii-Chan’s “tough girl” nature and Mariko telling her “If you ever get a boyfriend, I’ll just die!”, we are sort of led to believe (or hopeful to believe) that perhaps these two will end up together romantically. By the end, you wish that Mariko could have been Shii-Chan’s child, because she would have been loved, taken care of, and allowed to remain unbroken. The theme of abuse is constant, from Mariko’s emotional abuse by her father, to the physical abuse, leading up to an eventual (off screen) rape. We are never sure if this was a single-time occurrence, or if Mariko is constantly a sexual victim at the hand of her monstrous father. As adults, Mariko and Shii-Chan meet up and Mariko will often have some sort of injury or broken bone from whatever scum bag she was dating. I found that element to be a little hyper-trope, but I know that real-life patterns of abuse exist, so I can’t make any sort of declarative statements about how believable it is right here. But Shii-Chan yells at Mariko for putting up with this violence, but Mariko blames herself for upsetting the men in her life and more or less declares that it is because she is broken. Still, she is a sweet soul who just wants love.

As far as the narrative structure, this story is sad– nothing more to it. It’s some of the saddest shit I’ve ever read. Shii-Chan finds out via the news in a cafe that a woman was found dead from leaping off a 4th floor balcony– that woman was Mariko. Shii-Chan liberates Mariko’s ashes from her father’s house and is determined to set her free at a specific beach she once wanted to see. Shii-Chan travels to said beach, gets her bag stolen by a guy on a motorcycle, meets a kind homeless man (who I think we’re supposed to see as a romantic figure, but nothing happens there) and along the whole journey, we see flashes of the women’s friendship via these letters that Mariko would constantly write to Shii-Chan. The letters had these little hints of misery in them, but Shii-Chan feels so guilty that she didn’t know how to save Mariko. She is upset that Mariko didn’t write her a final goodbye letter, and is reluctant to let her ashes go. Finally, in an act of saving a women from being attacked by the bag snatcher, Mariko’s ashes are releases to the wind and seriously, wow– what a beautiful moment. I choked up during the final few pages of this book, no lie.

The story ends with Shii-Chan returning to her apartment from her mighty journey, feeling (rightfully) as though she has changed. There in her home, delivered by Mariko’s stepmother, is a final letter from Mariko, that had been in Mariko’s apartment. We see Shii-Chan pick it up, open it, and cry. Oof– seriously…it was a lot. But I’m glad I read it.

I give My Broken Mariko by Waka Hirako 4/5 stars. It’s a beautiful story, but be warned that literally nothing nice happens in this book to anyone.

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