Shuzo Oshimi’s Happiness Has Some Serious Bite

Vampire stories can often seem like they’re a dime a dozen, and it’s not tough to see why. Having grown up in the first decade of the 2000’s, I have a fairly clear picture of just how inundated pop culture was with blood suckers at the time. Twilight started a resurgence of interest in them, but it seemed like there were too many stories to count involving nocturnal monsters; Underworld, The Vampire Chronicles, 30 Days of Night, True Blood The Vampire Diaries, just to name a few. Then, once Twilight ended, they sort of fell out of the zeitgeist, but never completely went away. In the mid 2010’s, the mangaka Shuzo Oshimi started writing a manga series titled Happiness. Having recently finished the final volume earlier this year, I am confident in saying that it not only makes vampires relevant regardless of how many stories with them you’ve seen, but also stands strong as an example of what I would like to start referring to as Tender Horror.

Close up, highly detailed pencil sketch of Nora

Tender Horror falls in line with something like Let the Right One In (which Happiness takes more than a little inspiration from). On the surface, it’s your standard scary tale, with plenty of bloodshed and creepiness. But Tender Horror also contains a lot of emotional weight and pathos; Let the Right One In is just as much a story of growing up through horrible events as it is a tale of a centuries-old vampire seeking a new familiar. Happiness falls right in line with this mindset; it takes pages to convey plot points that other manga might have told in just a few panels, but it uses that extra space to create an atmospheric, often breath-taking and emotional work that doesn’t quite feel like anything else I’ve ever read.

Before we continue, I will be discussing spoilers of events that happen around the midway point, as well as some of the details of how the series ends. This manga is more than worth anyone’s time, so if you’re interested in this story and haven’t read it, I’d advise that you proceed with caution. Additionally, this being a vampire story, I’ll be discussing some of the nastier details of Happiness, so if you’re sensitive to discussions of bloody acts, again, please proceed with caution.

The story starts with Makoto Okazaki simply being a regular kid. He’s experiencing all of the awkward and uncomfortable bits of growing up, only has a few friends, and is largely just trying to get by in life. Then, on a late night walk home, he is attacked by a girl who seemingly flies at him from the sky. This girl is Nora, and she is much, much older than she appears. She gives him a choice—she can make Okazaki like she is, or he can bleed out from the attack. Of course, he chooses the latter, and soon his body starts changing in creepy and unexpected ways. Or maybe they’re expected for people familiar with vampire media. He finds sunlight repulsive, normal food makes him sick, he has heightened senses at night, and he can hear the blood running through people’s bodies.

With Okazaki turning into a vampire, Oshimi takes the opportunity to portray the nights he’s out on the prowl as something alien to us normal humans. The night sky in Happiness swirls with seemingly endless possibility, and thanks to Oshimi’s jaw-droppingly amazing art style, the scenes that take place at night are the ones that resonate the most during the manga’s first half. This is very obviously a coming-of-age story, and the nighttime scenes perfectly drive home the sense that nothing will be the same for Okazaki. They’re beautiful and scary, but also a grim reminder that he is no longer who he used to be. He’s something else entirely. There’s no turning down the path that he has chosen at this point; he must simply live with the consequences of becoming a vampire, or succumb to his own fragile nature.

Close up of Nora, this time portrayed through a painting that uses colorful swirls as shapes

For the first few volumes, it plays out very similarly to Let the Right One In in that it feels like a slice of life story with a monster thrown into the mix. Okazaki befriends Yuuki and his girlfriend, a pair of older teens who are trying to figure their lives out. He befriends Yukiko Gosho, a young girl his age who he instantly connects with since she is very much introverted like him. Then there’s a man named Sakurane who seems to be following all of the disappearances going on around town. These characters are thrown into a stew of horror, both real and fantastical, but the aforementioned art style lends it a real dramatic weight.

Everything climaxes seemingly halfway through the story, with Okazaki and Nora both being taken by shady government types. Yuuki disappears, his girlfriend is dead, and Gosho is left on her own to live her life and wonder just what happened and what she can do about it. It’s here that the manga employs a time jump I had no idea was coming, and it catches back up with Gosho as a full-grown adult, traumatized and still introverted from her experience when she was younger. She begins befriending a coworker and hears whispers of a cult that is fascinated by blood in the mountains.

Reframing the story after this time jump was a brilliant move on Oshimi’s part. Rather than playing out like other teen horror-dramas, it lets the reader reflect on the enormity of everything that happened when Gosho was younger. It reflects how people move on from tragedy or heartbreak in a way that feels true to life. She had no other choice but to pick up the pieces of everything and try and live the rest of her own life out to its fullest. But, as is so often the case, the past resurfaces much later and sends her on a self-destructive spiral towards the aforementioned cult in the mountains, led by Sakurane, the insane man who scarred her when she was younger.

It doesn’t become quite as clear why the time jump is significant until the very, very end. Without giving too much away, the only survivors of this story are Okazaki and Nora. Sure, there’s an inevitable bloody confrontation, but the real reason that this jump works so well is that it drives home the choice that Okazaki made as a teenager; time is the reason that he survives. The final several chapters of the manga are a montage of the rest of Gosho’s life; how she deals with everything that happened to her in the mountains, her moving on but never forgetting all of the people lost to this bloody state of affairs. And at the very end, when she is the only survivor of this incident, it becomes clear that the real message of Happiness is more universal than just growing up. It’s that, no matter how much it seems like we matter, no matter how much something terrible has impacted a person, there will come a day where it will be laid to rest. Through death, the passage of time, or otherworldly, unnatural forces, everything ends, regardless of enormity.

Highly detailed illustration of various characters from Happiness including Gosho, Okazaki, and Nora

This is what I mean when I say Happiness is Tender Horror. Beneath the (often shocking) bloodshed and heart ache is a reminder of just how impermanent humans are, and how that’s both a beautiful and very sad thing. Nora and Okazaki are the wild cards, though; the series ends with him reflecting on all the people he left behind by becoming a vampire, and through him, they will live on, even just as memories. Until the day he dies, that is. Rather than wallowing in the hopelessness of it all, though, Happiness makes it feel comforting. After everything the reader and the characters witness throughout the series, it’s oddly hopeful that there is an end to it. An end to all of them, all the suffering, the hope, the dreams, the fears. Happiness portrays as mortality as it is—often times beautiful, often times tragic, often times scary. The manga is all of these things.

Vampires can often feel overdone, and it takes a special kind of story to make them feel relevant. Happiness takes a uniquely meditative approach to seemingly familiar horror tropes, and the result is something more heartfelt, tragic, and beautiful than most other vampire stories. It’s refreshingly mature, and its sometimes deliberate pacing often lets the reader think about what they’re reading. It’s easily one of the best vampire stories I’ve ever read, and has firmly cemented Shuzo Oshimi as one of my favorite authors.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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