Number of Volumes: 14+
Genre(s): Drama, Slice-of-Life
Author(s): Keiko Tobe
Serialized in: For Mrs. (Akita Shoten)
Version Reviewed: Yen Press graphic novel
Release Dates: 2000 (JPN), Sept. 2007 (NA)
Rated: Unknown (appropriate for young teens and up)
With the spotlight constantly trained on shōnen action manga like Naruto and Bleach, it can be easy to forget that, in Japan, manga is a medium that spans a wide, diverse range of topics and themes. Fortunately for North American manga fans, publisher Yen Press has not abandoned the oft-sidelined jōsei (adult woman) market, as they have been publishing Keiko Tobe's wonderful slice-of-life With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child.
Tobe's manga, based loosely on true stories told by real parents of autistic children, follows a young mother named Sachiko Azuma and her autistic son Hikaru ("light" in Japanese). Soon after Hikaru is born, Sachiko and her husband Masato realize that he is not speaking or responding to speech. When they ask one doctor, he says that Hikaru is deaf, but a second opinion finds a much more serious problem: autism.
The story is essentially an attempt to educate about and bring attention to autism, a developmental disorder that often makes it difficult for those afflicted with it to understand and recreate expressions of emotion. The symptoms vary wildly from person to person, resulting in things like obsessively counting cars, demanding rigid daily schedules, or throwing fits about illogical concerns. However, despite the clearly educational tone of the series, the storytelling in the first volume is rarely diluted for the sake of relaying information. Any expositional scenes are shown through doctors or professionals explaining things to the Azumas, so the only times when it feels a little forced are when other people seem to not know what autism is. (I would assume that awareness of the disorder is pretty big in Japan, as it is in America, but then again this was originally published in 2000, so who knows?)
Seeing as I am an adult male, I am clearly not the target audience for a jōsei series, but With the Light is actually surprisingly entertaining for people who might not otherwise read manga written for women. The pace is admittedly a little slow, but the moments of emotion are tender glipses of familial togetherness, far from the flowery love scenes of shōjo (though there are quite a few flower effects). Tobe does wonders with these scenes in the context of autism. A simple moment of Hikaru first saying "Mommy" as Sachiko stands in an open, sunlit window is moving not because of the simple action that most all children go through, but because as an autistic child, reaching this point is a tremendous feat for Hikaru.
However, With the Light is Tobe's first manga, and it shows in her unpolished, wispy-looking artwork. With so many lines all over the place, finding my way around the page was harder than it should be for a seasoned manga fan like myself. Clearly this is the kind of manga that can appeal to first-time manga readers, but its confusing visual style makes jumping into it a little too difficult. As the story wears on, Tobe's cluttered pages and attractive character designs remain, but the art is a little cleaner, darker, and more refined.
As an exhibit of manga's wide variety, With the Light is a must-have on any diverse reader's bookshelf. As a manga to be judged solely on its own merits, it is certainly not a groundbreaking series in either art or storytelling. Nevertheless, what Tobe lacks in skill she makes up for tenfold in heart. With the Light's value comes not in reading a totally professional manga series, but in experiencing a heartwarming story that rings with truth, told by a first-time manga-ka with a deep love for all those afflicted with autism.