Trauma and its Representation in Manga
Trauma is an ailment commonly seen in society today. Due to the increase in wars, terrorist attacks, violent crimes, and natural disasters, traumatic experiences and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are becoming more noticeable in society. The fourth version of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes a traumatic event as follows:
(1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others (2) the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
Although this is unfortunate, all people are susceptible to experiencing trauma and PTSD. The increase of these occurrences in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is notably making its way into different types of media; people are beginning to speak about trauma. The description above relates to many events that happen in manga, specifically the severity of the traumatic event and the characters’ involuntary responses to said event. These instances accurately show what happens to victims of traumatic events and illustrate the stifling, critical effects of trauma.
Naruto: The Massacre of the Uchiha
One of the most popular and well-known manga in circulation today is Naruto, the story of a quirky but cursed ninja trying to achieve his dream of social acceptance. Since its plot takes place in a world ruled by ninja where combat is lauded, it seems inevitable that the populace would be subjected to extremely violent, traumatic events. This is true in the case of Uchiha Sasuke who is forever changed by the trauma that he experiences at the young age of eight, the massacre of his entire clan by his brother, Itachi.
Sasuke, once a positive, out-going child, sinks into himself after witnessing the destruction of all he holds dear. He is overwhelmed by the betrayal of Itachi, the most prominent relationship in his life, and becomes focused on the concept of revenge, which is the driving point of his life for many years to come. This change in personality is an obvious sign of PTSD. Judith Herman talks substantively about this topic in her piece, Trauma and Recovery. She writes that the victim “loses [his] basic sense of self” and is internally, psychologically, and socially damaged due to the effects of the traumatic experience. She also writes that victims are constantly attacked with feelings of helplessness, faithlessness and relationship problems; survivors believe that they can never “be oneself in relation to others” as they attempt to reintegrate into society. Sasuke is so obsessed on the idea of becoming an avenger that all the other aspects of his personality wither away. He becomes an introvert who thinks about his trauma everyday and rejects society in an attempt to isolate himself from others so he can achieve his goal. Sasuke continues to live with his damaged self throughout the course of the manga, drifting slowly into darkness and erasing all his hope of becoming whole again.
There is another aspect of PTSD that is seen in the character of Sasuke: his dependent, dysfunctional friendship with Naruto. Herman believes that “trauma impels people to withdraw from close relationships and to seek them desperately.” This is precisely the relationship these two ninja have. As rivals, they are always pushing each other in a competitive environment and, at times, show their bond of friendship and brotherhood. Eventually Naruto gets over their childish rivalry and begins to see Sasuke as a true companion, but Sasuke cannot bring himself to do the same. He is still held back by his lack of trust in society due to the betrayal of Itachi. He is also unable to relate to Naruto, even though their situations are very similar, because he sees himself as an outsider who cannot become an active part of society. These feelings along with his growing anger and jealousy at Naruto’s successes act as a catalyst for his complete departure from society and Konahagakure. However, he still cannot bring himself to kill Naruto after his victory at The Valley of the End. There is still a desire within Sasuke to go with Naruto. He wishes for a close relationship, one he has not had since the death of his family, but the trauma holds him back from acting on this necessity. These inner conflicts are due to the psychological scars of his trauma; he physically cannot allow himself an intimate relationship. He shows how a victim can become a recluse who gives up the hope of ever reintegrating into society and, in response, runs from it.
Attack on Titan: The Evident Destruction of Humanity
Most manga fans know about Attack on Titan. Heavily popularized by its anime, it has become one of the most well-known due to its high intensity plot, blood and gore, and unpredictability. There are a myriad of traumatic situations for the characters and the readers of Attack on Titan, but the events that occur prior to the start of the manga ask some interesting questions about trauma and society.
Eren, the main character of this piece, is angry at the world many years before the manga begins. Even while his country was living in a world of relative peace due to the 100 year hiatus of the Titans, Eren has rage instilled with him at a young age; he promises the destruction of the Titans constantly in his childhood and relentlessly murders Mikasa’s attackers at the age of eight. But, for a child who grew up during a fairly peaceful time, why does he have such a fervent rage within him? He is the victim of a cultural trauma that was socialized within him and greatly affects him due to his role in society.
Jeffrey C. Alexander writes that cultural trauma “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.” This definition is easily applied to the world of Attack on Titan. The Titans have made themselves the most dominant force on Earth, massacring humans to the point of causing them to recluse and cage themselves away. Humanity is being toyed with, trivially murdered, and robbed of any and all dignity. Living in this environment for hundreds of years has caused the generations to adopt the “indelible marks upon group consciousness” and, as a result, carry on the fear and helplessness of their ancestors. Eren’s country, even though living safely for a long stretch of time, is still under constant stress and fear of attack. Every day the people wake up and must contemplate if they will live to see tomorrow; the evident destruction of humanity always hangs over their heads. This is the environment Eren grows up in; the cultural trauma encompassing the youth of the country and affecting its “future identity.”
But there is also another aspect that attributes to Eren’s childhood anger and fear; he is the son of a doctor, a man who is exposed to many of the country’s wounded, ill, and deceased. At a young age Eren was most likely witnessed horrible injuries and traumatizing things just from living in the home of a doctor in a war-torn world. Children are the most susceptible to trauma so these things easily augmented his innate societal trauma and, knowing these injuries are caused by the Titans, activated his hatred for the Titans during his early childhood. This is why the readers are introduced to a hostile, violent little boy who, although has never experienced combat, witnessed it and lives in its aftermath. Eren is the victim of trauma before the manga even begins and, as readers know, will only be faced with even more horrendous, unspeakable acts for the rest of his life.
Akuma to Love Song: The Suicide of Anna Kawai
It is usually unexpected to find very violent or horrific acts in shojo manga but Akuma to Love Song breaks the stereotypical mold. Although its main story is simply about an unusual girl trying to fit into a new high school, it covers many dark, matures themes. These themes can be found in the back story of Kawai Maria, the protagonist, and the violent, mysterious past she experiences with her mother, Anna, who commits suicide.
Maria is a product of Anna’s rape by an American naval officer. This social stigma brings Anna grief as she carries out life as a single mother. She is subject to ridicule, vandalism, and is ousted by most of society. Maria also becomes the target of bullying at a young age and constantly gets into trouble at school. Anna feels that her social hermitage is caused by Maria’s existence and begins caving in under the stress. Eventually, she makes a decision for her and her daughter: they would be better off dead. Anna slits her wrists and tries to strangle Maria during the process, but is unsuccessful in killing her and dies with Maria in her arms. However, Maria does not remember her mother’s suicide until many years later. This is her first symptom of PTSD: dissociation. Patricia Resick writes in Stress and Trauma that traumatic experiences may spur certain hormones that “interfere with the storage of explicit memory that…allows the organism not to consciously experience or remember the overwhelming traumatic event, causing symptoms of dissociation or amnesia”. In many cases, this causes the memories of the traumatic moment to be fragmented; the event at hand is so unbelievable that the brain cannot physically process it. This gives Maria temporary amnesia and she loses all memories of her mother’s death until she experiences a flashback years later.
During this flashback, triggered by a hug similar to the embrace her mother gave her during the strangling, the fragmented memories return to Maria. She starts to remember the event through nightmares and flashbacks, the process of her fragmented memories returning to her in pieces at a time, until the experience returns to her mind as a whole. The memory of the trauma is so great that Maria is harshly affected; she tries to kill herself and loses the ability to speak. These responses are typical for remembering a trauma event. The pure brutality of the memory can easily cause a person to experience severe depression and the loss of voice is a physical ailment caused by the brain in response to dealing with traumatic memories. Maria endures some of the more physical effects of trauma through her dissociation and loss of language and suffers through the memory of her trauma during the manga in order to get her voice back.
There is a relevance to presenting trauma in manga. It shows that even the most powerful, determined and super-human people can still be scarred by the atrocities of humanity; that life can be extremely excruciating for even the most fortunate and well-prepared. The traumas of these characters also occurred while they were children, showing the susceptibility of children to intense violence and hopelessness. After the traumatic event, these characters do not return to their normal lives after experiencing trauma. Sasuke, Eren, and even the beautiful Maria are victims of the traumatic and are forced to live with their scars since there is no cure or recovery from PTSD. Just like victims in reality, their brains are permanently scarred and these fictional characters will live with the memories of their trauma for the rest of their lives. If anything, these instances show the fragility of humanity and make the reader conscious of trauma victims and educate them on victims’ struggles in fiction and reality.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2004. Print.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic, 1992. Print.
Resick, Patricia A. Stress and Trauma. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology, 2001. Print.
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