Friday, May 8, 2020

Perfect World volume 1 strikes a great balance between characters and exploring the reality of living with a physical disability (Manga Review)

A young woman sits in a chair next to a young man in a wheelchair
Perfect World vol. 1 - 7.5/10 (*see scoring rubric below)

Perfect World vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics) by Rie Aruga is a josei manga about a paraplegic man and a young woman who knew each other in high school and reconnect as adults. First, I am so glad to have another josei series released in English. As much as I love my high-school romances, I really do like reading about adults and want a lot more josei to be translated. But, perhaps most importantly, Perfect World seems to do a tremendous job balancing depicting the hard realities of significant physical disability with the romantic genre.

Tsugumi is working to become an interior designer after art school. At a company get together, she is reunited with a former crush from high school, Itsuki, who is now a junior architect at a good firm. They have fun catching up and enjoy their time at the party, but when Itsuki leaves, she notes that he can't get up and that's when he asks the waiter to bring his wheelchair over.


Itsuki was in a car accident and is paralyzed from the waist down. This former high-school basketball star is now confined to his chair. Tsugumi doesn't know what to make of her own feelings. This volume shows their early time reconnecting, beginning to work on some work projects together, and Tsugumi learning about the years Itsuki and she were apart.

I do not have any disability, so I can only do my best to try and amplify the voices out there in the community and try to take a critical lens to depictions of people with disabilities in media. I really encourage any readers out there with more direct knowledge than me to add to the comments on your thoughts on this volume. I have spent the last 12 years working with people with intellectual disabilities but that is quite different, so I did some additional reading on supports for people with physical disabilities in Japan before writing this review. That said, I'm sure I'm not going to be able to fully examine the portrayal of an adult with a physical disability, so I encourage anyone out there with more insight than me to add their thoughts on the matter in the comments.

But from what I can tell, Perfect World volume 1 did a remarkable job showing some of the hard realities that Itsuki faces on a daily basis without descending into pity territory. It didn't feel like his disability was romanticized or just a character trait thrown in for looks either. Instead, we are given many chances to understand the new complexities he faces without that portrayal sacrificing his core humanity.

For instance, he is hospitalized with a severe pressure ulcer (bed sore), a frequent complication for people with limited mobility. He also gets a uti and shares with Tsugumi that he suffers from incontinence. As a result, he needs help int he bathroom, but he also avoids eating and drinking in public to reduce the chance he will need to use the bathroom or soil himself. I think my favorite line from the whole volume was when Itsuki was telling Tsugumi about his incontinence over dinner and she says (being silly): "If I was in love, I wouldn't care about poop! But I don't know about talking about it at dinner!" For a manga to talk about this stuff outright, and to even show images of the ulcer, is awfully brave, and a long time coming.

But I also didn't feel like these things were used in any exploitative way. It wasn't used to generate sympathy for him, nor was it used to deify him. It was just presented as part of his reality, but was well balanced against his other personality traits. He plays wheelchair basketball now, he has continued to pursue his architecture career, he struggles with advocating for accessibility in his designs even when the customer is concerned with the costs. Basically, he is not his disability, and his portrayal felt like that of a well rounded, complete person, who does have a disability, and yes that disability informs many (maybe all) of his interactions and world-view, but it isn't the sole factor in who he is.

Tsugumi's characterization is a little less thorough. We don't really know much about her personality other than she seems like the ideal young woman. Kind, smart, talented, sweet, funny, etc... I'd like a little more nuance, and maybe we'll get that in future volumes as we learn more about her, her family, her past, etc... but for now, she's a little too perfect, and thus a little too vanilla.

Where the volume does a nice job with her is in depicting her internal conflict over her feelings for Itsuki. She was crushing on him in high-school, she has some early recurrence of those feelings before finding out he's in a wheelchair, she recognizes that she's biased against disability and doesn't know whether she could have feelings for someone with a disability or even put in the physical and time effort to support him, but then is also eager to get to understand him better, even when it challenges her. The evolution of her perception and feelings in this volume felt pretty well done and well paced even though it was a single volume. Basically, I found it believable that she would fall for him even though she knows that it will be hard and imperfect for her.

As I mentioned, I read up on the current state of disability rights and supports in Japan. The manga takes place in 2015 and mentions the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. In 2013 there was an update to the the employment law in Japan, in 2014 there was the final ratification of international human rights declaration for people with disabilities, and in 2016 (just after this volume) there were additional laws enacted to prevent discrimination and provide supports. So given the uneven history of support and inclusion for people with disabilities in Japan but the more recent changes in the 2010s, I felt as though this volume was accurately depicting what I had been reading. There are requirements to employ people with disabilities in businesses above 46 people, and there are some requirements for accessibility, but the reality is much less perfect with many businesses (new and old) still not being accessible (and that is depicted here) as well as resistance to taking measures for support and inclusion. There are also some brief depictions of the stares and questions from stranger on the street, which did feel a bit shoe-horned in, but wasn't overly drawn out. In short, I felt that this volume addressed the modern reality of disability in Japan without proselytizing.

And that's where I felt really good about this manga. Both with Itsuki's disability in specific, but also disabilities in general, I thought this volume did a great job of humanizing it but not being preachy, and letting the characters and relationships dominate and using his disability to inform the characters and situations but without being the crux of it. Basically, there's still human beings at the heart of this story. In many ways, although quite different in plot and tone, it reminded me of my favorite anime movie, A Silent Voice. That movie features a Deaf main character and is focused on bullying, mental health, and disabilities, but it is still ultimately about people and their hearts. It doesn't lose the humanity in trying to make a social point. The social point comes naturally because we love and empathize with the characters so much. I think Perfect World volume 1 did a pretty good job with that too.

Here's the interesting thing though, volume 1 tells a pretty self-contained story (I'm not going to spoil how it ends). If it had ended with just this volume I would have been satisfied with the character arcs as they were. So where does it go from here? I have ideas of how it might handle their advancing relationship, but will it be able to maintain the tone of characters first while using his disability to inform their humanity but not dominate it as a plot cliche? Volume 1 was so promising that I really hope it sustains its balance.

The art is really nice too. Totally my style, in that it's more realistic and with some of the angularity that I prefer. It actually reminded me stylistically of Kimi Ni Todoke's art. There's also plenty of sparkly screen tones throughout, which if you read my blog at all, you know is something I really love. So overall, while not maybe on the level of Ao Haru Ride's extraordinary art, it is certainly a cut above and in a style that I particularly enjoy.

Perfect World volume 1 was the complete package for me: josei romance (adults, YAY!), sensitively explored real world dynamics related to equity, strong writing, good character development, and nice art. I was really pleasantly surprised and I'm looking forward to the next volume. Perfect World volume 1 gets a strong 7.5/10.

*SCORING RUBRIC
BASIC SCORE:
  • Story interesting (0-10): 7.5 - it's a love story, but the characters are strong even without his disability, but the exploration of his disability and society add to it.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 6.5 - Itsuki is fairly complete and complex, we learn a lot about him. Tsugumi is still underdeveloped, but you definitely like her.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 7 - I think it's sensitively, clearly, and intuitively written.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 8 - I think all of Itsuki's and Tsugumi's inner thoughts and outer actions make a lot of sense. There's also an interesting side character thrown in toward the end and that story, while a bit over dramatic, works too.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 7/10

BONUS POINTS:
  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 2 - Tsugumi thinks the things we would expect her to think, as painful as it is she also works through her biases while acknowledging them.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 0
  • Female agency (0-5): 0
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 1 - actually, for a single volume, there is.
  • Quality art (0-5): 1 - long, lean, crisp, realistic, lots of sparklies.
  • Other (0-5): 2 - some realistic depictions of the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities - both emotionally, physically, and in society.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

PENALTY POINTS:
  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -0

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10 (I think it would be higher if Tsugumi's personality was more fleshed out. It was so close to feeling like an 8/10)


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