Manga Friday: With the Light
This time, we’re focusing entirely on one series, and specifically the two volumes of it published in English so far.
"Is Wheeler slacking off?" ask the punters.
No, he is not – each of these books is well over 500 pages, so I’m actually reviewing more manga, by weight, than usual this week.
With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, Vols. 1 & 2
By Keiko Tobe
Yen Press, 2007-2008, $14.99 each
Every so often, those of us who love comics get a great object lesson with which to confront our friends who are not so open-minded: something that’s not only excellent as a comic, but challenges people’s preconceptions of what comics can do.
And now there’s With the Light, as well. I’m not saying that it’s as good as those other books – it’s well-crafted, and good at what it sets out to do, but isn’t quite on that level – but it’s another great example of comics story-telling applied to new material.
With the Light is a work of fiction, but it’s based closely on true stories. (And it also shows what a really full comics-publishing ecology, such as the one in Japan, can be capable of.) It tells the story of Hikaru Azuma, an autistic boy in an average Japanese city, from his birth, in the voice of his mother Sachiko.
Sachiko soon begins to worry that her son isn’t normal – he hates being held, he cries a lot, and, at his eighteen-month-year check-up, a nurse declares that he’s deaf because he doesn’t respond to her. The real diagnosis follows quickly, but it doesn’t help all that much – Sachiko is under a lot of pressure from her workaholic husband Masato and his interfering mother to be a perfect mom. And the measure of a perfect mother is how her child behaves – so a badly behaving child proves that she’s a failure. “They say children grow up as they were raised,” the mother-in-law screams at Sachiko in a full-page panel, “It’s all your fault!”
Soon afterward, Sachiko’s marriage nearly falls apart, and her husband ends up in the hospital from overwork. That does finally get him to reconsider his life – and learn about his son. And he becomes much more helpful and engaged from that point on, though Sachiko is still clearly the primary person taking care of Hikaru, even after she goes back to work part-time.
Luckily, the story of Hikaru’s professional care has been more successful, to keep the story from being totally unhappy. But, even with a series of very cheerful, hard-working teachers, helpers, and caregivers, Hikaru is still autistic. He’ll never be cured, and the best anyone can expect is to help him find a quiet place to fit into the adult world, eventually. He hardly ever speaks, and simply doesn’t react to outside events like everyone else.
The first volume of With the Light covers Hikaru’s young childhood and the first few years of elementary school; the second volume takes him to nearly the end of his days in that school. I don’t know how much more is to follow, but I can imagine Hikaru will need a lot more help, so his story isn’t over.
With the Light is drawn in a fairly standard, if relatively sedate, manga style. All the characters have large eyes, but the expressive gestures, radical panel placement, and broad caricatures that can confuse American manga readers are almost completely absent. It’s another excellent “first manga” series for Westerners, since it’s focused on real facts and a few well-portrayed characters.
With the Light does get somewhat broad and overdramatic at moments, mostly when showing Sachiko’s reactions to Hikaru wandering off yet again. But it’s mostly a closely focused look at one family dealing with a major issue, depicted with careful detail and lots of dialogue. I foresee lot of parents with autistic children reading With the Light to get a sense of what they’re in for, and passing it on to their friends and family to increase awareness. But it’s also quite interesting for those of us who don’t have regular direct contact with the autistic, and I found the attitude of Hikaru’s main teacher (Aoki-sensei) very inspiring.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.