Story & Art by Waka Hirako
Translation: Amanda Haley
Lettering: Abigail Blackman
My Broken Mariko’s titular character is a depressingly believable and vivid depiction of an abuse victim. We are given glimpses into Mariko’s life throughout the story as her best friend Shiino remembers them, and the tragedy of her life only becomes more upsetting the more we learn. Mariko had endured a life of bleak cruelty, trapped in a dysfunctional home with a monstrously abusive father. He treated her like a slave, making her run errands for him and beating her when she tried to do anything for herself. Everything that went wrong in her family was blamed on her, from not cooking dinners to her mom leaving the family to her own dad raping her. Repeatedly being treated like garbage even when she was trying her best to be “good” destroyed her self-esteem and sense of self-worth. She would mutilate herself by slitting her own wrists until she became numb to the pain. She’d meet up with shady guys who’d mistreat her and shrug or laugh off any abuse she endured as her fault. Even though Shiino tried her best to help her, tragically, Mariko had given up on finding her own happiness. She became thoroughly indoctrinated in self-blame as a coping mechanism, finding it easier to think of herself as broken and unfixable and undeserving of love than to accept that none of it was her fault and just a cruel twist of fate.
These anecdotes are told to us in a piece-meal order, going back and forth in different moments in time. Shiino’s hopes to do for Mariko in death what she couldn’t in life; set her free. She liberates her ashes from Mariko’s broken home and abusive dad and plans to take them to a place Mariko had always wanted to go in life. Shiino blames herself for not being able to do more for her and is upset at Mariko for not realizing she loved her and leaving her alone. Her memories start to blend with Shiino’s reality as she personifies Mariko’s ashes, interacting with and hearing her as if she were alive. The effect is to blend her memories into comprising a full picture of the kind of person Mariko was and how Shiino remembers her. Through her journey, she finds her mind racing to all these different traumatic moments in which she laments her own feckless inability to help her friend. For Shiino, these past memories of Mariko are inescapable and omnipresent. She sees her everywhere, guiding her to her destination and prodding her with unanswerable questions. She imagines herself reassuring Mariko of different things she wished she could’ve told her when she was alive, while regretting and resenting being left behind. It’s a hauntingly heartbreaking way to illustrate someone in mourning and how that affects the way they perceive and respond to the world around them.
Shiino and Mariko’s relationship is fascinating in that it’s a messy one, acting as both liberating and codependent influences for each other. Truthfully, Shiino gave Mariko more strength than she realized when they were younger. She wrote letters to her describing how even though she was scared and abused, knowing that Shiino was out there and cared about her was enough to help her persevere through many hardships. Shiino, too, saw Mariko as one of the only people in her life she could truly love. Ever since Mariko first wrote a letter to get to know her in class, she’s been infatuated with her as someone both dazzling in her beauty and kindness and mystifying in her psychology and behavior. Both were irreplaceable sources of validation and support for one another, but because of that perhaps they inconsiderately took each other for granted.
As Shiino’s memories unfold, she remembers the parts of Mariko where she wasn’t a perfect friend or blameless victim, sides of her that were selfish and manipulative. We see that Mariko would often challenge or test Shiino’s loyalty to her, telling her she’d die if she ever got a boyfriend or slitting her wrists right in front of her to provoke a reaction. Shiino was protective of her, looking out for her whenever she was in trouble, especially protecting her from predatory men as adults. There’s an implication, however, that Mariko enjoyed seeing Shiino get angry on her behalf. We see her laugh and chuckle at Shiino fighting off a man preying on her, oddly amused by the situation. When Mariko’s arm is broken by that same man after she willingly meets up with him, Shiino is bewildered, wondering why Mariko would put herself in such obvious danger, and she responds by telling her she essentially considers her life broken beyond repair, with the only thing grounding her to reality is when Shiino gets mad on her behalf. In a life of never-ending hardships, the time she spends with Shiino are the only moments of joy she has, the only times where she feels real.
These moments paint the picture of Mariko often flippantly engaging in acts of self-harm trusting that Shiino would come to her aid, treasuring the only moments she could recognize and feel someone’s compassion and love for her. There’s also an implication that Shiino recognized Mariko’s dangerous dependency on her for emotional validation, which may have influenced them to drift apart and spending less time together in adulthood. We’re left as in the dark as Shiino is as to why Mariko committed suicide, but there’s a sense that the less time Mariko was able to spend with Shiino, the less validation she heard about herself. Perhaps it was inevitable that the more Mariko stewed alone in her own self-hate, the further she’d push herself to the edge until she finally jumped.
Mariko’s warped psychology adds on another solemnly realistic layer to coping mechanisms abuse victims engage in, enacting self-harm in order to attract attention and help from others. Make no mistake, Mariko is a victim and thoroughly sympathetic, but her upbringing damaged her sense of self-worth, leading her to continue being mired in a cycle of self-destructive behaviors. Shiino’s frustration and despair at trying so hard to protect her friend only for her to refuse to take care of herself feel very real to me and my experiences trying to help family members with trauma and mental illnesses only for them to continue engaging in self-destructive, toxic habits. That’s the ultimate tragedy of My Broken Mariko; Shiino loved her with all her heart and tried to convince her through both actions and words, but ultimately none of it was enough to get through to her. Even though she’s left with regrets about not doing more, the realization she comes to is that there just wasn’t anything more she could do. Much like how Mariko despaired over being powerless to escape the life she was born into, Shiino despairs over being unable to do anything but watch as her best friend slowly destroyed herself bit by bit until she finally disappeared.
Shiino may have been powerless to save Mariko, but she still can choose how she’ll live her life. Ultimately, the manga’s moral is that the best way to show someone that you care about them, and honor their memory, is to take care of yourself. At her bleakest moments, Shiino is comforted by a vagabond named Makio, who recognizes her grief and tries to guide her through it. Twice he tells her, after she’s gotten into accidents, that she still looks fine to him. The message being that in spite of the hardships she’s endured, she’s still alive, and still able to keep living. Living your best life and striving to be happy, fighting back against nihilistic urges to find meaning in your experiences, is the best way to keep memories of the people you’ve lost alive. It’s hard to deal with grief, feeling that time has stopped and you can’t imagine going on leaving them behind. Even so, hardships come and go. Life goes on, and you should strive to move forward, and find happiness. Despite everything, through all the tragedy and regrets, Shiino’s relationship with Mariko meant the world to her. By making the choice to keep living, she’ll remember and carry the time she spent with her for the rest of her life, both the good memories and the bad. It’s a hopeful approach to reconciling grief, recognizing that while some relationships may be impermanent or imperfect, they can still be a source of strength and comfort to you as you move forward from them.
These hopeful themes about the lasting impact of a meaningful relationship and it never being too late to live a better life are further emphasized in another short-story also included in the book, Yiska. It follows an ex-mafia man named Tyler traveling with a young Native American boy from a destitute background named Yika as they each attempt to escape their current lives. Both have been trapped in their current livelihoods by how their upbringings shaped them. While they realize they don’t want to keep living the way they do, they aren’t confident they can start over. Especially Tyler, who sees his past sins as inescapable and his death inevitable. However, the message he gives Yiska about it never being too late to change your life so long as you don’t lose sight of yourself rings true for him as well. He’s able to save a life after taking them for so long, bittersweetly killing his own son, whose twisted personality was a living reminder of his failings as a father and human beings. Fitzgerald’s death is in itself poignant; he was a man who didn’t value the lives of others, having long given up on going to heaven, and that apathy for life is what leads to his demise. In contrast, Tyler and Yiska give each other second chances at life through mutual empathy and concern for each other’s well-being. It speaks to the mutually beneficial power of positive relationships; both characters grow from each other’s influence and through each other are able to find the hope they were lacking when they were alone. Tyler’s fate is left ambiguous; he suffered a serious wound from his gunfight that he might not walk off. Regardless, his good deeds left a life-changing impact on Yiska, and he’ll remember them as he moves forward with his own. It’s a wonderful message about the impact you can have to positively influence someone’s life and to never give up on yourself either. It’s never too late to change your life for the better.
Waka Hirako’s style runs the gamut between loose and wacky to the startlingly serious. There’s a charismatic dynamism to her wilder gestures and zanier expressions, which makes Shiino such a fun character to watch as she engages in and reacts to the more slapstick action in the story. The more loosely sketched drawings also compliment her more sardonic jokes, like Shiino’s hammy faces when she’s posing as a saleswoman to Mariko’s step-mom, drawing out her words for emphasis to sell her sob story. The real marvel of Hiirako’s art is how skillfully she can smoothly transition from these goofier art moments into the emotionally intense. This is best exemplified after she leaps towards Mariko’s ashes in a panel that at once characterizes the action’s poignant and it’s absurdity. The follow-up action, however, is grotesquely stark as Shiino is viciously beaten by Mariko’s father in a series of fragmented action panels sold by the ferocity of the speed lines and shading. The follow-up pages feature the characters in emotionally fraught, devastated expressions that capture the intensity of the emotions on display. Without skipping a beat, the scene somehow transitions into another goofy moment of slapstick underscoring a dramatic story beat, able to have a fun gag while not undermining the severity of the situation at all. To say nothing of the moments where Hirako illustrates Mariko’s bruised faces and body, which are always horrifically detailed even when juxtaposed with Shiino’s more simplified features. My Broken Mariko’s ability to weave between cartoonish and grotesque art moments compliments the story’s perspective on finding the humor in a painful situation, seeing life as not merely bleak but a series of moments running the gamut of the emotional spectrum, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a trick that could feel tonally jarring in less skilled hands, but Hirako’s an excellent draftsman and has a knack for strong gestures, so with the exception of some strangely drawn feet, her art hits all the right emotions with the precision of an arrow right through the heart.
My Broken Mariko is startlingly hopeful for a story so bleak. It’s about grappling with guilt and grief in a world so uncaring that coworkers will tell you that your best friend’s death is no excuse to miss work, and signs on the beach warn that “suicide isn’t a crime, but littering is.” Waka Hirako doesn’t shy away from how cruel people can be to each other, and how remorselessly some can steal, abuse, and kill. Yet, they also examine the transformative power a single person has to change someone’s life for the better, to make every day just a little bit more worth living. Not everyone is born into a loving family, nor a good life, but both stories in A Broken Mariko explore how meaningful it is to have even just one friend looking out for you and how having those supportive relationships can influence us, giving us strength as we navigate a life fraught with hardships.