The portrayal of people with disabilities in popular media is a complex and often controversial subject. While a historic lack of representation has led to an intense desire among disabled readers for the inclusion of characters whose experiences they can relate to, fictional portrayals of disabled characters tend to be plagued by problematic tropes. Infantilising portrayals of adults with disabilities, reducing them to the passive object of another (able-bodied, neurotypical) character’s care, is a particularly common issue. Little visibility is allotted to the portrayal of the romantic, work and sex lives of disabled adults. And this in turn reflects a wider, societal lack of recognition of the existence of disabled people within the public space.
Despite around 4.3% of the Japanese population having some form of physical or mental disability, the presence of disabled characters is starkly absent in one of Japan’s most highly consumed forms of media: manga. Manga – or ‘comics’ – make up roughly 40% of purchased reading materials in Japan. One of the most popular ways of consuming manga is through monthly manga-magazines, encompassing a variety of genres and aimed at a wide range of ages.
Featuring a set number of works by different artists at a time, the continued serialisation of a manga within a specific magazine is reliant on its popularity, with series that rank poorly in reader popularity polls risking cancelation. Additionally, manga by first-time artists are often only green-lit for full serialisation depending on how positively an initial ‘one-shot’ chapter of a planned work in received by readers. In other words, what kind of manga is and isn’t published depends almost entirely on the immediate interest of its wider audience, and it is perhaps for this reason that series featuring characters from traditionally marginalised groups – such as those with disabilities – often struggle to receive publication.
But it is perhaps because of the difficulty getting works featuring disabled protagonists published that when it does happen it is all the more impactful. Originally serialised in Kondasha’s josei (‘women’s) magazine Kiss from 2014 to 2021, Rie Aruga’s Perfect World is one of the few Japanese manga to place a disabled character in the centre of a romantic serial aimed at adult women.
The protagonist of Perfect World is 26-year old Tsugumi, who is unexpectedly reunited with her high school crush Itsuki, only to discover that he has since been paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Brought together through their work in an architecture firm, their rekindled friendship rapidly blooms into a romantic relationship. Over the manga’s 12 volume run we follow the dramatic ups and downs of Tsugumi and Itsuki’s relationship as they fall in love, break up and come back together before eventually marrying and having a child. It contains all the usual melodrama you expect to see in a typical josei romance, but framed in the rarer context of a relationship between an able-bodied woman and a physically disabled man.
While Perfect World is highly important for its sensitive exploration of the issues surrounding dating and relationships as a physically disabled person, its format as a graphic novel is also incredibly valuable in its ability to explore the lived experiences of disabled people in visceral way that disabled readers can relate to and able-bodied audiences can readily understand. Firstly, the visual format of manga allows the artist to switch seamlessly between the perspectives of Tsugumi and Itsuki – sometimes within a single frame – in a way that would feel jarring and unnatural in other mediums. This blending of perspectives allows both characters equal agency within the plot, even while the former technically remains the protagonist. As a result, Itsuki avoids becoming objectified within the plot as the passive object of its able-bodied protagonist’s narrative, a common pitfall in depictions of disabled characters.
The largely visual nature of manga also allows the author to depict visually the experiences of its characters in a deeply emotive manner that has a profound and memorable impact on the reader. A running theme discussed throughout Perfect World is the lack of physical accessibility granted to wheelchair users in Japan. In one particularly impactful scene we see Itsuki flash back to the first time he ventured into the city alone after becoming paralysed. Framed within a single panel, the illustration of Itsuki sat alone and unnoticed among a busy crowd manages to convey a sense of claustrophobia and alienation that would be difficult to achieve through written dialogue alone.
Perfect World is not the only disability-related manga to be serialised in recent years, but it is a notable example and one that illustrates the unique strengths of manga to depict and explore themes of disability in an empathetic and engaging manner. It is an example that also highlights the fact that, despite their rarity, such works are capable of becoming immensely popular. Having begun life as a single stand-alone chapter, Perfect World would be successful enough among its young, female audience to be serialised for a total of seven years, during which time it was also adapted as a live action movie. It has proved that there is a market for manga featuring disabled characters, and with the series concluding its serialisation earlier this year, it will be interesting to see what other, similar works may follow in its stead.
Perfect World is published in English by Kondasha USA. To purchase volumes and find out more about the series, please visit their website.