By Jonathan Clements.
Reframing Disability in Manga by Yoshiko Okuyama is a well-timed integration of the study of Japanese comics and portrayals of the disabled, powerfully conceived as an off-the-peg classroom text. It could readily function as a textbook on a dedicated course, but is formatted in a smart topical manner throughout that would lend itself easily to individual classes, interweaving studies of manga with discussions of Japanese law, culture and society.
Japanese folklore often uses disfigurement as a form of karmic retribution. Okuyama begins with a heart-breaking series of folktales plainly rooted in real-world disability – historic tales of boys who could only utter a single word, or non-verbal children adopted by traders as some sort of good-luck charm. Her introductory chapters rewardingly explain many concepts, definitions and ideas from the world of disability studies, including some of the filters that she has introduced to shut out unwelcome ideas – the idea of “inspiration porn”, for example, in which the disabled simply exist as feel-good parables for the able-bodied, or “supercrips”, in which a disability is used in a story merely as a springboard for the acquisition of a superpower.
She also relates disability in fiction to its appearance in real-world news, most infamously in the media storm that arose in 2016 after a knife-wielding man broke into a home for the severely disabled in Sagamihara and killed nineteen residents. She notes the year of the attack was also the year in which Japan finally enacted a law that proscribed discrimination on the grounds of disability.
Okuyama first examines manga about deafness, beginning with Osamu Yamamoto’s Home of Acorns, and then the “monumental” Your Hands Are Whispering by Junko Karube. For her third example, she shrewdly favours Someone Else Also Feels Lonely, by Koji Yoshimoto over the more obvious choice of Yoshitoki Oima’s A Silent Voice. This, she explains, is partly because Yoshimoto’s manga deals with hearing impairment, often overlooked in the media, but mainly because she regards Oima’s acclaimed and controversial series as primarily a story about bullying, rather than deafness.
Although Okuyama claims there is no such genre as “disability manga”, the efforts of her and critics like her to create a space in which to discuss them effectively create the concept. Okuyama helpfully talks the reader through her own journey of discovery, admitting, for example, that she had never heard of Yoko Kondo’s Lord Oguri manga until she read about it in another scholarly text. It marks the opening of her chapter on the use of the wheelchair in manga, embracing the iconic image of Takehiko Inoue’s Real, a tale of wheelchair athletes that was also given a prominent position in the recent British Museum manga exhibition.
She begins her chapter on visual impairment with Zatoichi, the blind swordsman originally created in prose form, for which she interviews a blind academic who confounds her expectations by saying he finds the stories empowering. This, however, is less of an option in the manga medium, where presumably there is little chance of blind readers appreciating the stories told therein. Among the manga she discusses here, the big fish is undoubtedly, Nobuku Hama’s Happy!, the tale of a girl and her guide dog, which has spawned two manga serials and two TV dramas. Okuyama also pointedly includes every manga character you’ve ever seen with an eye-patch as a reminder that much of “visual impairment” in Japanese comics is merely a costume affectation with little consideration of how it might affect the character that has it.
Considering Okuyama’s willingness to discuss other media in her introductions, I am a little surprised that she does not dwell for any length of time on live-action TV drama, particularly Pure (1996), which was largely credited with raising public awareness of autism spectrum disorder. However, Pure did become the catalyst for season after season of similar dramas with a rack of disabilities introduced as little more than character quirks, so presumably she is filing the sub-genre as “inspiration porn.” Nor, oddly, is there any mention of Mariko Miyagi, celebrated on this very blog as a tireless crusader for disability issues.
She opens her chapter on autism with a discussion of Naoki Higashida’s prose memoir The Reason Why I Jump. The manga titles she picks out include Pro-chichi, by Mieko Ousaka, about a stay-at-home dad with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the most famous autism manga, Keiko Tobe’s With the Light. The latter is notorious for the fights that break out around it, with many early critics praising it for avoiding the “idiot savant” storyline made famous by Rain Man, which could be said to encourage the general public to dismiss autism as being nothing more than self-absorbed and good at maths. I have seen commenters elsewhere criticising Tobe for exploiting the life experience of others – she was not herself the parent of an autistic child, but Okuyama wisely does not go too far down the insanely politicised rabbit-hole of suggesting that writers can only write about their direct experience. She discretely ends her chapter with Kako Yamaguchi’s Can I Quit Being a Mum?, which is indeed the work of the mother of an autistic daughter, as well as This Planet’s Warmth, based on the memoir of Naomi Moriguchi, herself diagnosed with autism.
Okuyama’s final chapter deals with gender identity disorder and gender dysphoria, which she smartly relates to shifting terms in the very definition of “disability” – if society were not so insistent on binary categories, she observes, many of these issues wouldn’t be issues at all. The stories here are largely and conspicuously autobiographical, including Fumino Sugiyama’s Double Happiness about life as a trans teenager, and Yuna Hirasawa’s To Go from He to She. As with all her other chapters, the manga themselves are analysed and broken down, but then related specifically to the issues arising in Japanese media and society. The chapter brings her full-circle, with discussions of the nature of “disability” as a flexible and slippery category, that can be dispelled or mitigated by changes in assumptions, technology and understanding. Homosexuality, she notes, was also classified as a “disability” by the World Health Organisation until 1990.
All of which has a deeply personal resonance for Okuyama herself, who was born to a parent with mental illness, and was told in her childhood that such people should not be allowed to raise children. “Ironically, however,” she writes, “had I not been born, this book would never have been written. In that regard, this book is a way of legitimizing my birth.”