Random Manga Theatre 70: A Lollipop or a Bullet

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Hit the “Random” button and see what comes up! In this feature, we take a look at whatever manga the Random Number God decides to throw at us and find out if it’s worth your time.

This time: A Lollipop or a Bulletwith art by Iqura Sugimoto and scenario by Kazuki Sakuraba

Suppose there was this man. It does not matter how or why, but he died. Bang. At his funeral, his wife and little son greeted a bunch of people he allegedly knew, but they had never met most of these men before. The wife’s eye fell on one of his colleagues in particular. Despite her husband having died only recently, he made her feel at ease, and she soon became attracted to him. That same night, the wife suddenly killed her own son. Why would she do such a thing?

If you don’t know the answer to this riddle, consider yourself lucky, for it is an answer that — at least according to A Lollipop or a Bullet — only the criminally insane can know. Violence and psychology are the central themes in this tale of losses and lies, that despite the tearjerking intensity and grief looming behind every single line, still feels oddly heartwarming. It is above all a painfully human coming-of age story about a beautiful friendship that nevertheless refuses to back down from some of the darkest topics I have seen in a manga up until now. A fair warning, if you are uncomfortable with themes of trauma and abuse, this might not be the story for you.

Expect lots of this.

A Lollipop or a Bullet stars Nagisa Yamada, a cynical teenager from a poor family who wishes to join the army as soon as she graduates from middle school. Her father died in a fishing accident ten years ago and her older brother is a shut-in who abuses his charisma and intelligence to mooch off his family, but somehow, he is the only one she considers herself close to. That is, until she meets Mokuzu Umino, an eccentric new transfer student and daughter of a one hit wonder pop star who claims to be a mermaid. Initially frustrated with Mokuzu’s childish lies, Nagisa soon discovers the dark truth behind her new friend’s twisted words and the lyrics of her has-been father’s sole hit song.

It is a simple story, yet one that is exceptionally told. A Lollipop or a Bullet is a chilling psychological tragedy and a tearjerker at heart, but unlike some other infamous sobfests in the genre, it digs its claws into your emotions with suspense rather than with bloated manipulation. This is helped by its relatively short length of thirteen chapters, spread over two volumes, resulting in a story that can be read in an hour but will haunt you for a whole year. It is a tale with a distinguishable beginning, middle and ending, which uses every single panel to build up to its gut-wrenching climax. If anything, A Lollipop or a Bullet is a prime example of excellent pacing.

The beginning of a beautiful not-romance. If only.

Despite this, A Lollipop or a Bullet can occasionally be a chore to read. Most of this, if not all, can be blamed on the dialogue and narration, which is rife with metaphors that, for the sake of the reader’s sanity, really should not be there most of the time. Nagisa talks about how she “needs bullets in her life” and how they are “her favourite”, and describes her brother’s agoraphobia as him being “even more beautiful than before”. On his part, the sagelike shut-in, or “modern-day royal” as his sister likes to call him, brings more than his own share of vagueness to the table, talking about how Mokuzu provides Nagisa with “sweet candy” and “fires invisible bullets” at her. While the meaning of the symbolism eventually becomes clear, the fact that almost all of it is part of conversations that alleged human beings should be having with each other, makes the dialogue — or at least the translation that should pass as it — uncannily unrealistic.

Nevertheless, many of the manga’s other plot devices and attempts at allegory are more than welcome. Nagisa is a strong protagonist, Mokuzu’s mermaid tale becomes downright morbid the more you learn about it, and the chapter titles, all references to songs and bands (My Bloody Valentine!) are a neat reminder of Mokuzu’s father and his prior occupation. The edgy, angular artwork is able to convey the ambiguous emotions that the story demands and — thanks goodness — refrains from explicitly showing any of the story’s more morbid twists. On both sides of the spectrum, it fits the scenario more than well.

Mermaids need water, you know?

Verdict: Like a bullet through your heart

A Lollipop or a Bullet will grab your throat, crush your heart and twist the knife it unceremoniously plunged into your heart like it belongs there. With the exception of some questionably mannered dialogue, it is a human story with depths as eerie as its artwork can get. Read it, and let the storm drown you until nothing but a miserable pile of foam remains. If you thought that last line was not insanely stilted and melodramatic, you might even like it more than I do.

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