Profound Images of Comfort Found in Manga (‘My Broken Mariko’)

My Broken Mariko is a manga that has forever changed me. Published by Yen Press in 2020, it is the heart wrecking journey a young woman takes to liberate her best friend–a task she couldn’t complete in life. however, now she strives to do so in death–with Mariko’s ashes, that is. Waka Hirako’s stunning self-contained volume of manga is a difficult read about friendship and redemption but one that I recommend for its narrative depth and hopeful ending.

I was rereading the manga and was emotionally overwhelmed by this particular image found on the inside of the dust cover of the physical copy. I found the very same image on the very last page of the manga where the credits of the creative team and other publishing information is. I wanted to write on how the simple repetition of sharing this image adds not only to the overall story of My Broken Mariko but to me as a reader when I think on my cannon of images that strike me as comforting and profound in manga.

Note: This editorial will explore the women who are centered in My Broken Mariko. Please know that while I do not spoil the entirety of the manga certain details are revealed and elaborated on. To avoid any spoilers, please consider reading this brilliant manga and returning to read this editorial if this caught your eye!

Trigger warnings: mention of suicide, suicidal ideation, child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence in work and in the written editorial below

Comforting Mariko 

In comics, but especially manga it is not uncommon to see hugs, to see embraces on the page. Characters in love, rivals duking it out, or friends encouraging one another. Hugs meet different characters at different stages of their stories. When I first picked up My Broken Mariko and opened the manga, the very first image that I saw was this one: of a little girl being held by a woman. Their eyes were closed and seemingly nothing interrupted them. I thought of it, before reading the work, as a sweet, comforting piece of imagery. And then I read the tale that is Waka Hirako’s English debut work and I wanted to be held.

My Broken Mariko centers on Tomoyo Shiino, a burned-out office worker who needs way more than a good night’s sleep or even a stiff drink to make it through the week. Life is a bit crappy, but it’s a living–it’s her life. She is blind-sided to the ninth degree to learn that her best friend, Mariko who has survived an incredible dysfunctional life–where she had survived several instances of abuse–has died. Shiino has known Mariko since they were school aged girls and has known the darkness that has permeated in her friend’s life. Shiino had been an anchor in her friend’s life. No matter what happened to her or how much they had drifted away as adults, she was a lifeline to Mariko.

Shiino couldn’t protect her from her secretive violence of her father in her childhood or the cancerous romantic relationship that produced broken bones and self-deprecating jokes. In her own way, Shiino was there for Mariko who was never properly loved nor appreciated. The image that readers are presented with is an imaginary one: of an adult, Shiino embracing her friend Mariko who is depicted as a young girl. This image is one that never truly happens in their lifetime. In short, it is a comforting, if not heartbreaking image, to open with to hint at the journey a young woman takes to not only comfort the memory of a dear friend gone too soon but herself, who is now alone in the world.

Liberating Mariko

My Broken Mariko ©Waka Hirako 2020 / KADOKAWA CORPORATION

The event that acts as a catalyst for this entire trip that Shiino takes in My Broken Mariko is when she literally liberates Mariko’s ashes from her father’s home. Shiino bravely enters the home of this man who heaped on years of abuse on her friend starting when she was a little girl. We’re talking years of abuse: including the physical abuse from Shiino’s’s memory of coming to the house as a kid and seeing her young friend cowering at the door with a vivacious black eye. We’re also talking about the sexual abuse Shiino accuses Mariko’s father of forcing upon his daughter as a minor before Shiino takes off with her friend’s ashes. This horrible man who created most of the great tragedies in Mariko’s life now has her ashes in his home. It is a sickening image to stomach with the knowledge as a reader that I have now.

Again, this image of Shiino embracing her friend Mariko as a young girl takes on another grander meaning if we read this physical act as a way to liberate her from her abuser and tormentor. In the first chapter of My Broken Mariko, Shiino goes home after hearing the news and recalls a childhood memory of first recognizing that Mariko was an abused child and how powerless she felt, unable to save her. Before leaving for her friend’s childhood home, she even thinks to herself that she’s going to “liberate her best friend’s ashes, even if she has to stab someone to do it.” Mariko’s ashes are being kept at his home, a place she probably never wanted to return to.

This embrace is a liberating one. This image of them embracing has no association to being handled roughly or with malice. It is an embrace without violence. It is a defining image of female love and adoration via friendship that I have locked away in my heart for the rest of my days on this earth. Shiino and Mariko in each other’s arms is simply one of the most moving and heartbreaking images that manga has gifted me that I continue to come back to.

Reclaiming Mariko

When I originally wrote about this blistering, brilliant yet saddening manga for the site, I mentioned that Shiino set out to redeem her dear friend but also herself as someone who could never truly save her destructive friend who moved from one trauma to the other in life. As hinted on the first page of the manga, Mariko takes her own life. Shiino is left with survivor’s guilt on top of the guilt she carried around from not being able to save the lost Mariko from the troubles she found herself in. This image of their embrace makes me weep when I think of Shiino seeking to reclaim her friend from the dark hole she was in when Mariko considered herself broken, worthless, and unlovable–an unwanted stain. The very hole that she perhaps could not get out of when she decided to take her own life.

What Shiino was unable to do in life for Mariko is pressed upon by what she does for her after her friend’s death. In the climax of the manga, Shiino physically uses Mariko’s ashes as a weapon to save a fleeing crying girl in distress as she’s running towards Shiino–a total stranger. It is a most poetic intervention where this grieving young woman sees her beloved friend in the many stages of her life seeking aid, crying, and reaching out–and acts to save a life, the life of a young woman in distress. This act of protecting this girl launches both Mariko’s ashes and Shiino forward off the very cliff that Shiino cried at. It is the very place where she cries out to Mariko asking her why she didn’t ask her to join her in death.

In the aftermath of the encounter, she’s approached by another person, a young man she meets in her journey with her friend’s ashes. They have a brief conversation where he too mentions that he was suicidal once and the epiphany he gained was to keep living. Taking care of yourself and taking care of the one you loved in your memories is perhaps the best way to honor that person and in spirit, reunite with them. It is important to note this may not be the best answer for everyone grieving from losing a loved one to suicide, yet it is, in the best spirit, what Shiino needed to hear to be able to return home. As a character who is both mourning a friend she feels she failed to save from committing suicide and is also dealing with suicidal ideations through the book, this is a powerful moment of clarity and gaining back agency in her life that she felt she was losing after hearing the news of Mariko’s death.

Seeing the two young women hugging again on the final page reminds me as a reader of the great love we have for our friends that helps carry us through grief and the darker stages of mourning. Friendships of women in particular on the page always hit differently for me when I read them written and created by other women. When interviewed by Nancy Powell and a question regarding the intensity of Mariko and Shiino’s friendship came up, Hirako included in her answer: “…that the experience of female friendship depicted in this manga is probably somewhat universal, to a degree.” The friendship in the manga wasn’t based on personal experience but what she concluded of any good friendship between women.

When I think of this, my interpretation emphasizes the fiery desire that women have that they use to protect each other in this life and the next. It is the same desire that I have inside me for the women and femmes that I am honored to call friend that keep us connected through distance and time. On the pages of manga, seeing Shiino and Mariko’s embrace reminds me of that desire. Acting as a symbolic gesture only reinforces that great love in such a profound way that it will never leave my mind, now. I once wrote that My Broken Mariko effectively defines heartbreak, survivor’s guilt, and closure on the page. It is my hope that this narrative about a woman’s journey to give a beloved friend a final sendoff deserving of her only comforts, liberates, and reclaims any readers in the same shoes who pick up this manga and start reading.

Reaching out is the first step to safety. If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, a mental health professional can help. If you are currently in a state of distress, this website will direct you to dedicated crisis services. If you are outside the United States, please consider this helpline that includes online chat and phone lines for finding help and resources.

My Broken Mariko is available where comics and most manga are sold.

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  • Carrie McClain is writer, editor and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Nowadays you can usually find her avoiding Truck-kun and forgetting her magical girl transformation device. She/Her

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