Perfect World, Disability Narratives, and Writing Outside Your Experience

By: Zahra Ymer May 13, 20200 Comments
a woman on her knees embracing a man in a wheelchair

Content Warning for discussion of ableism and abuse by caregivers.

Spoilers for the manga Perfect World.

Disability representation by a non-disabled author can be tricky. Perfect World, by Aruga Rie, does an admirable job exploring disability in Japan with a josei aesthetic, but there are pitfalls along the way. The story focuses on Kawana Tsugumi, a twenty-six-year-old interior designer, as she begins dating Ayukawa Itsuki, an architect that has lost the use of his legs. 

As a disabled person, my mild Cerebral Palsy is nowhere near as serious as Itsuki’s spinal cord injury. But I still felt a sense of shared understanding while reading Perfect World—of being trapped in a stiff body that isn’t nearly as pliant as I wish it was. 

Cerebral Palsy affects the muscles, as well as causing impairment with cognition. I was surrounded by physical therapists as a kid who told me I might not be able to walk or complete secondary education. Being stumped by basic math and English in primary school (and even now—thank you spellcheck and smartphone calculator!) didn’t do much to help that frustration as I grew. 

I am able to walk, and I’m now in University. But as I enter the working world, I’m more aware of these small moments of “lag” that others don’t share. 

A woman shouting angrily. text: You think you know how I feel? You think it's that simple? I mean, look at you! You've got your independence! You've got a career!!

Mainstream media tends to over-dramatize or romanticise disability to make the intended able-bodied audience feel pity or inspiration. While I can’t say Perfect World completely escapes these tropes, Aruga still strives to make a narrative that incorporates experiences from the disabled community. 

Framing and Importance of Perspective 

Perfect World tells its story primarily through the viewpoint of Tsugumi, an able-bodied woman. The manga’s demographic is josei (adult women), so Tsugumi serves as something of a self-insert character, her perspective matching that of the target audience. 

However, this framing means that we’re seeing Itsuki as “Other” through the eyes of his partner/helper rather than directly getting in touch with a disabled person’s own experiences. It feels like a missed opportunity to purely focus on Itsuki through his own lens; a perspective that is too often bypassed for the normalised worldview of an able person. As a result, the manga feels like it’s directed more at carers and abled people than a potential disabled reader.

Because Tsugumi is in her mid-twenties, the series does deal with more adult themes, such as career advancement, marriage, and starting a family. Tsugumi starts off as naïve about Itsuki’s disability, wanting to do the right thing but unsure of the right way to express her concern. She ends up overcompensating, and interjections like “aren’t you cold in that jacket?” and “should you go to the bathroom first?” come off as condescending, robbing Itsuki of his agency. 

Page of Itsuki explaining that he'll ask for help when he needs it

Later in the series, after much soul searching and personal realization, they both have an open discussion about what Itsuki physically can and cannot do. Itsuki makes it clear that if he needs help with a task, he’ll ask Tsugumi. But for everything else, he says, “You can let me do my thing.”

This setting of boundaries shows mutual understanding, and in some ways the two must put more emphasis on trust and communication than in other relationships between abled adults. Perfect World emphasizes that dating someone with a disability can take hard work, but in no way is a disabled partner a burden or “lesser” than an able-bodied person. 

Itsuki does become the narrator for several brief sections, which invites the reader into his worldview and deepens him as a character. Perfect World somewhat leans into tired tropes such as the “super cripple” or  ”tragedy train,” with some scenes focusing on Itsuki having a lot of drive or succeeding despite his disability, or him feeling that his life is over after the accident. Despite these stumbles, it ultimately offers a more rounded and complex view of his character than many stories.

Itsuki struggling with phantom pains in his legs

While I can walk, I find more strenuous physical activity exhausting due to the tightness of my leg muscles. Because I don’t look disabled, nobody can tell at first glance that I am. But when doing anything physical, I’ve been told that my gait looks abnormal. 

Itsuki has to deal with the opposite issue. His disability is always on display in whatever public space he inhabits. People with a visible disability often have to fend off people who try to “help,” such as a stranger pushing someone’s wheelchair without their say-so—when in fact, unless they ask for assistance, they’re capable of functioning on their own. In professional settings, they run the risk of being seen as a “diversity hire.” When someone is only hired to fill a quota, the end result is tokenization, a process that reduces a multifaceted person to a warped, fantasized perception of what others think a marginalized person should be.

In fiction, it requires a careful balancing act to show the lived experiences of a disabled person without limiting the character’s personality to just their disability. Aruga successfully navigates this line. Itsuki has depth to his personality, interests, and career, while also living with the reality of a wheelchair. It’s a defining aspect of his life, but not the only one, and Aruga stresses that.

Cover image of Itsuki and Tsugumi

The Ethical Responsibilities of Carers

For all the good things in Perfect World, the relationship between Itsuki and his former nurse, Nagasawa Aoi, is a notable flaw. During Itsuki’s rehab, Nagasawa kisses him while he’s unconscious. She realizes this is inappropriate, but the narrative uses this violation as a way to further romantic tension. 

This gross breach of boundaries is even more disturbing than in most relationships because the balance of power so deeply favors Nagasawa. Being a nurse gives her access to Itsuki’s medical records, dietary information, and a lot of other personal details. It’s a violation of both interpersonal and professional ethics. The ethics of care should be held to a much higher standard. 

Later on, when Itsuki has a medical crisis and needs someone to help with his bodily functions, Nagasawa offers to help. Tsugumi jumps in, wanting to be the one to assist Itsuki, but Nagasawa berates her because she has no medical expertise to offer. The scene shows us Tsugumi’s inexperience with providing specialized care, but it feels more like a fight between the two women in service of the love triangle, and one that ignores Itsuki’s discomfort in the process

This aspect of Perfect World should’ve been re-written. Whenever there is an imbalance of power, there are chances to abuse it. There are cases of professional careers and nurses abusing patients, so it could’ve been handled meaningfully—not as romantic tension, but as an issue that needs to be seriously addressed. Instead, the manga opts for easy melodrama.

Tsugumi noting a steep climb is impossible in terms of accessibility for the couple living there

The Importance of Accessibility

While Perfect World sometimes ignores realism in favor of romantic cliches, it also frequently gets a lot right. The series does a great job showing the reader how hostile architecture can be a significant problem for wheelchair users. Everything from buildings to parks to transportation has, up until recently, been designed solely with the able-bodied in mind. It’s a problem that some wouldn’t even think about without it being explicitly pointed out, but Aruga takes the time to explore its impact in detail.

About halfway through the series, Aruga introduces another couple, Takagi Keigo and Nishimura Kaede. Kaede is a former beautician who uses a wheelchair and Keigo is an able-bodied chef and hunter. Kaede is no longer well enough to continue her career and her house isn’t suited to accommodating wheelchair users. 

The couple commission Tsugumi and Itsuki to work on designing a new barrier-free house for Keigo and Kaede. Itsuki works out a way to combine a barrier-free house that can also function as a restaurant, merging Kaede and Keigo’s dreams into one. This finally gives Kaede the independence she so desperately wants. 

Itsuki laying out how Keigo's new home will be accessible

Not all disabled people have to be hyper-competent at tasks, or “beat the odds and succeed in ‘normal society’” as the super-cripple trope likes to tell us. And that’s okay. It’s okay to simply be, to exist with what you can do, to not force yourself to a set standard. It’s also okay to be frustrated and strive for more. 

Kaede’s story pushes back against ableist assumptions that her life must be filled with suffering by showing the ways in which the world can and should be made more accessible. With adequate support, a disabled person can be as independent as an able-bodied person. 

Comic of the author meeting with a disabled architect for research

The Author’s Personal Experience

Aruga mentions in an afterword that she spent a lot of her life caring for her sick mother and channeled that experience into her work through our heroine Tsugumi. Aruga also doesn’t shy away from the graphic or (potentially) embarrassing issues about a spinal cord injury. Nor does she show it purely for shock value. Things such as bed sores, excretory disorders, phantom pain, and loss of sensation leading to unnoticed injuries are part of living with an SCI. 

These aren’t drawn in an incredibly graphic way, but neither are they hidden from the reader. Future volumes go on to deal with Itsuki and Tsugumi’s sex life, career advancements, and questions of parenthood.

Aruga also interviewed and incorporated actual disabled people’s opinions and experiences, which is so important for this narrative. She met with a wheelchair user in Aichi prefecture, for example, as well as many other people with various disabilities to understand their perspectives. This dedication to such thorough research and genuine care for the opinions of actual disabled communities in Japan is why, despite some flaws, Perfect World is still very much worth reading. 

Representation written by actual members of a community is ideal, creating a better discourse that is grounded in a concrete experience. If Aruga had made Itsuki the main character, it could have improved Perfect World. At the same time, though, when a writer tries to enter the headspace of a marginalized group they’re not a part of, there is a danger of mishandling things. 

Tsugumi and Itsuki happily outside together

An author choosing to portray a different perspective is a complex topic, but as long as they ground their attempts in solid research and give respect for marginalised creators, then that process can help create deeper empathy. 

Perfect World stumbles at points, but manages to pick itself up. It is an engaging and lovely-looking josei series that gives exposure to voices and perspectives that very much need attention. Hopefully its success can open the door for more stories that feature thoughtful disability representation, both from able-bodied writers and especially disabled ones.

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