REAL and Portrayals of Disability

By: Mitch Finzel December 13, 20170 Comments
A group shot with three young men staggered behind one another. In the back, a shaggy-haired young man in a wheelchair holding a basketball in one hand; in the middle, a young man with a buzzcut sitting cross-legged, holding a basketball in his lap; in the foreground, a close-up of a short-haired young man also holding a basketball in one hand.

In the manga REAL, Takehiko Inoue uses three similarly aged young men—Tomomi Nomiya, Togawa Kiyoharu, and Hisonobu Takahashi—to portray different aspects of physical disability. In using the perspectives of an able-bodied survivor, someone who has been disabled for a number of years, and someone who is faced with becoming disabled, Inoue captures many of the complexities and stigmas of physical disability. By looking at these characters and their interplay, we can delve further into some of the ways Real succeeds and fails at portraying disability.

While there are currently fourteen volumes of Real available (it’s ongoing), I will be focusing on the first three volumes. I have read to about the halfway point, but believe that when looking at representation it’s essential for stories to portray their characters well early on, rather than attempt to retcon mistakes after the fact. I will therefore try to stick to my impressions without including my knowledge of what comes next.

A manga panel of a trio of wheelchair basketball players sprinting down the court. The young man in front has the basketball in his hands.

At the start of the manga, we’re introduced to Tomomi Nomiya, an able-bodied high school student. His arc can be subdivided into two major thematic areas: his survivor’s guilt and his lack of disability etiquette/understanding. Nomiya is an able-bodied agent Inoue uses to tease out some themes about disability and ableism. By making Nomiya a bit simple-minded, in a childlike and endearing fashion, Inoue allows the reader to forgive Nomiya’s blunders. He is a very flawed person, but it at least seems like it’s coming from a place bereft of malice.

After surviving a motorcycle accident that leaves his passenger, Natsumi, physically disabled, Nomiya manifests the aforementioned survivor’s guilt. This leads him to quit the basketball team and perform poorly in school, causing his expulsion. His strong feelings of guilt also turn into a sense of obligation to Natsumi. He visits her repeatedly, though she never speaks to him. He feels as though he must devote his life to her as some form of recompense even though she shows no signs of reciprocation. He denies her autonomy in choosing to ride with him and ignores her disinterest in his continued presence in her life.

Inoue leaves a disconnect for the reader here, providing almost no information about Natsumi. By focusing on Nomiya’s self-centered guilt loop of “she didn’t deserve this, why me, what’ll I do with my life,” he makes the reader unsure of who to sympathize with. It’s unfortunate (to say the least) that Natsumi is mostly used as a characterless means for displaying Nomiya’s issues and growth. Real would benefit greatly from also focusing on a non-masculine disabled character.

Panel of a young woman being helped into a wheelchair by an orderly; close up of a man's face, thinking "she doesn't need me."

This same guilt also derails other parts of Nomiya’s life. He is out of school, can’t play basketball with his team, and can’t hold down a job. For all intents and purposes, he is adrift. Some of this is padded by his interactions with Togawa Kiyoharu, a wheelchair basketball player, but most of it is funneled into an unhealthy obsession over Natsumi. He has no idea how she feels nor does he really try to find out. His obsession is completely self-serving.

When he goes to watch what would have been his final basketball tournament in high school, he’s forced to see his self-inflicted wounds. This is the first time we see Nomiya face to face with the damage his guilty conscious has inflicted upon him. He openly weeps as he watches his team lose. The season is over, and he wasn’t a part of it. Nomiya’s sadness is one that the reader can empathize with. Many things come to an end after high school, and Nomiya wasn’t a part of the closure that he would’ve felt if he had played that final game. He will likely never play basketball in that same capacity again, and the hole this realization leaves resonates with memories of transitioning from adolescence.

This is further corroborated when he goes to visit Natsumi in Nagano. When Nomiya sees how hard she’s trying and how happy she has become, his false purpose begins to crumble. He begins to realize that he was more dependent on Natsuki than she was on him. He had used her as an excuse to stand still.

a muscular young man reaching up toward a basketball in play. Close up panel of an eye. dialogue: he's got the reach!

Nomiya demonstrates a lack of finesse when it comes to his interactions with the disabled in a variety of ways. In his first encounter with Kiyoharu, he loses a one-on-one match as an able-bodied player versus a wheelchair player. When he sees Kiyoharu’s disinterest in him as a weak opponent, he removes Natsumi from her wheelchair. He then tells Kiyoharu to swap chairs with him so that he can have the advantage of Kiyoharu’s athletic wheelchair.

Depending on the person, wheelchairs can be anything from a simple mobility aid to an extension of their body and identity. By acting without asking, he could have greatly offended these two. Similarly, in a scene where Nomiya and Kiyoharu are hustling able-bodied players, Nomiya defends Kiyoharu’s impairment using something akin to mansplaining.

While Inoue may be using Nomiya to brute force issues of political correctness into the story, he does a decent job of keeping these themes tied to one character. It can at times feel a bit hamfisted, but it fits Nomiya’s characterization. And, because there’s enough nuance with other characters and different perspectives offered in the series, it comes across as just one of many approaches Real takes towards portraying disability.

Panel of Kiyohara's face. dialogue: Even if I'll never match up to you able-bodied folks. That's just the kind of guy I am." Close up of Nomiya realizing something, then a close up of Kiyoharu with his face in shadow. Nomiya monologue: I get it! He's acting a role!

Real wisely also tells its story through the eyes of actual disabled characters, albeit with mixed results. Nomiya’s friend Kiyoharu, a wheelchair basketball player, functions as one of the three main characters. His first meeting with Nomiya is one of the few places that Inoue falls into a disability trope, something that I like to call the “able-bodied champion.”

In media that portrays disability, it’s common for the disabled character to be lifted up by an able-bodied character rather than by themselves or fellow members of the disability community. For Kiyoharu, this “champion” character is Nomiya. Nomiya’s somewhat endearing and straightforward worldview serves as a means to re-stimulate Kiyoharu’s passion for basketball.

About halfway through the first volume, Kiyoharu and Nomiya decide to use Kiyoharu’s disability as a means of hustling other players. To me, this is another blunder by Inoue, feeding into an image of the disabled being manipulative or taking advantage of the system. This is particularly true of the match between Nomiya, Kiyoharu, and Nomiya’s old team. Kiyoharu purposefully plays up his disability to trick the opponents into a false sense of security. Kiyoharu and Nomiya could likely win even without this deception, and so all it does is disservice Kiyoharu’s character and feed into an unfortunate trope.

three close up panels of different men's faces: the first, with dialogue. "who cares about winning or losing. I mean, what do you expect? We're disabled." The middle panel looks shocked. The third is a shaded close up as if the words have hit hard

Luckily, that’s where the tropes end for Kiyoharu. In one of his hustle games, Kiyoharu plays against Mitsuru Nagano, another player in a wheelchair. While Kiyoharu may have received his first push forward from Nomiya, his real motivation comes from wanting to one day beat Nagano. It is very cool and unique for a story in any medium to use one character with a disability as a role model for another character with a disability. Inoue does an excellent job of creating an awesome character for Kiyoharu to look up to.

Kiyoharu is also driven to excellence. Inoue uses the dichotomy between playing for fun and playing for greatness to create friction between Kiyoharu and some of his teammates. He wants to be as good at wheelchair basketball as he can possibly be, but some of his teammates think that there’s no point because it’s not the same as able-bodied sports. Kiyoharu’s unwillingness to accept this line of reasoning is another fairly progressive message for disability portrayal in any medium. His passion and dedication help to create a more fully-realized character worth following.

close up of Takahashi with his head on a pillow, surrounded by speed lines. Dialogue: if I can't walk, then I've got nothing left! But an E-rank loser like you wouldn't understand. It's over for me!! Hah hah!

Our final main character, Hisonobu Takahashi, is somewhat challenging to dissect fully within the scope of this piece. He’s one of Nomiya’s old basketball teammates and displays an interest in the sport, but lacks the blind passion and drive that Nomiya displays. He’s “popular” at school, though it’s the kind of popularity that’s shallow, fueled by abusing his status in order to bully others. This muddies a lot of the waters I’m about to discuss; of all the main characters, he leaves the most room for interpretation.

As someone who was, until recently, able-bodied, the main theme Takahashi embodies is “disability as tragedy.” Towards the end of the first volume, Takahashi is hit by a truck and paralyzed from the waist down. When he first begins to regain consciousness, he experiences something akin to phantom pain. Inoue uses disability visualization to help the reader understand Takahashi’s initial feelings. Certain panels show Takahashi’s legs bound by barbed wire, while another shows nothingness radiating like fire from his lower extremities.

Disability visualization is a technique that writers and artists invoke to make the complexities of disability more relatable and easier to understand for others. It can be a successful means of bridging the unknown, but can also lead to oversimplification and misunderstanding. Inoue manages to create a succinct moment of visualization that doesn’t overstay its welcome or guide the reader’s opinion. This allows the reader to imagine Takahashi’s physical experience without being led to some oversimplified conclusion or stereotype-fueled understanding.

image spot of Takahashi naked, feeling fire radiate up from the pain in his legs. dialogue: gasp!

That’s the positive when it comes to Takahashi’s portrayal. Unfortunately, this is where we get into some of the things that don’t sit well with me. The first and foremost thing is that Takahashi is characterized as a bit of an asshole before his accident, and my mind immediately jumps to stereotypes of disability being some form of divine punishment.

Takahashi was living a shallow and unfulfilling life, and being hit by a truck is a kind of karmic punishment. This creates the expectation that his path to recovery and what lies beyond will make him a better, more enlightened individual. Such an expectation dehumanizes Takahashi and puts him in a situation where he must eventually seek redemption. There are already hints of this towards the end of Volume Three, when Takahashi starts to get motivated thanks to Nomiya and one of Takahashi’s old coaches (more “able-bodied champions”).

The problem is further aggravated by his denial of his situation. Once Takahashi has regained enough strength to remain consistently conscious, he’s given the news about his paralysis by his doctors and mother. For quite some time, he is unable to accept this truth. He refuses to believe that he won’t be able to regain his mobility. This rejection of his new reality is mirrored by the rejection of his peers, who haven’t even come to visit him. His life is about to change in many ways, whether he sees it or not.

Image of naked Takahashi reaching down toward his legs, which are in the foreground, bound together by barbed wire

It isn’t until his father visits him (after being absent for eight some years) and says “I guess this means no more one-on-one” that Takahashi fully begins to realize that his legs aren’t going to get better. This true yet ableist statement from his father leads Takahashi to inflict self-harm, stabbing shards of glass into his unfeeling legs. While this is a very visceral moment, it leans a little heavily into melodramatics.

Although it could be considered a continuation of Takahashi’s personality, I find his recovery itself to lean towards disability stereotypes. His anger at the world and his desire to push everybody away, as well as the generally negative response of his peers, play into a portrayal of a bitterly disabled outcast. Anger and frustration at one’s disability is absolutely reasonable and should be portrayed. The problem is that too often these feelings are used to drown out all other facets of a character’s being. Inoue shows us an incomplete picture by denying Takahashi any moments to express something other than these emotions.

A group shot with three young men staggered behind one another. In the back, a shaggy-haired young man in a wheelchair holding a basketball in one hand; in the middle, a young man with a buzzcut sitting cross-legged, holding a basketball in his lap; in the foreground, a close-up of a short-haired young man also holding a basketball in one hand.

By following the three different perspectives of the main characters, Inoue manages to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time. He uses his prior experience with basketball manga (Slam Dunk) to introduce an able-bodied audience to disability and some of its related themes.

On the one hand, the series does feature some poor representation: the over-masculinity of most sports manga, the perpetuation of certain stereotypes, and the over-dramatization of disability in general. These are things that might work for the intended audience, but likely won’t sit as well with a disabled readership. On the other hand, though, there are some surprisingly good portrayals as well. Disabled role models, disability communities, and an ongoing theme about aspiring to be the best one can be are all things that you don’t frequently find in visual portrayals of disability.

Real is by no means a revolution in disability representation, but at its best it manages to transcend the intended audience, delivering material that better reflects the people it represents. And if this material can also help create a richer view of disability for the able-bodied reader, then I view Real like a good three-point shooter: it may not make every shot, but it’s an asset to the team even so.

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