Sachiko (Ryoko Shinohara) has a problem child. Her son Hikaru (Ryusei Saito) never seems to pay attention. Whereas his kindergarten classmates can’t stop talking, he sits in silence. He develops strange obsessions with drawers and closets, and delights in creating a mess. If she tries to stop him, he throws a tantrum, and when she scolds him, he stares idly into the distance, not even acknowledging her presence. Sachiko simply doesn’t know where to turn…
NTV’s Wednesday-night drama In the Light: Living with Autism might have seemed to be an unlikely choice for the 2004 schedules. It lacked both the tacky high-concept of TV Tokyo’s Vampire Gigolo, or indeed the slavish fad-following of the spring season’s two (count ’em!) unrelated fire-fighter dramas. But it was also the latest in a long line that stretched back almost 20 years to a distant Hollywood ancestor.
Barry Levinson’s 1988 road movie Rain Man featured Tom Cruise as a car-trader who discovers that he has a long-lost relative, and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cruise’s autistic brother. Rain Man’s plaudits helped usher in a new age of worthy disability-centred dramas in Japan, starting with a wheelchair-bound cast member in Under One Roof. Before long, the “rain man” element had been taken perhaps a little too literally, with the release of From the Heart, the tale of an autistic weather girl. From there it was a short while until 2000’s Pure, the show by which all other subsequent disability dramas are judged. The tale of down-at-heel photographer who falls for an autistic artist, Pure was such a success, that it even lent its name to the genre. When producers say their next show is going to be “Pure”, they mean that it will hinge on a handicap – blindness, deafness, personality disorder, you name it, it’s been the subject of a drama series.
Considering the number of disability dramas on Japanese TV, In the Light requires considerable suspension of disbelief – has Sachiko really never heard of autism before? Unfamiliar with the term, Sachiko first assumes it is some form of disease from which her son can eventually be cured. When she is told this is not possible, she enters a state of desperate denial, trying to convince herself and others that Hikaru’s behavior is completely normal. Her family are little help. True to Japanese TV tradition, her mother-in-law is a heartless harridan who blames Sachiko for Hikaru’s condition. She turns to her husband for comfort, but eventually he admits that he, too, regards Hikaru’s handicap as her fault. It’s only when she meets a kindly therapist that she finds some solace… and hope.
Sachiko’s ignorance, however, is a benign trait. It was designed from the very beginning to create a character who would ask questions on behalf of an audience, because In the Light began life as an educational manga.
Creator Keiko Tobe graduated in economics, and first found herself a job in public relations. She moved to Tokyo when she got married, and discovered that the capital city offered her opportunities to turn her manga hobby into a job. In 1985, after working as an art assistant in girls’ comics, she enrolled on Princess magazine’s annual Manga School program. . A year later, Princess Gold published the result, the marathon-runner story Aki’s Goal. Tobe stayed in girls’ comics through the late 1980s, following a contemporary fad by writing a story set in the world of women’s wrestling. The same era that saw the Dirty Pair parodying lady wrestlers also saw Tobe’s Dream Warrior Shadow appear in several instalments in Princess Special.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Tobe began writing titles such as Glass Staircase and Mystery Theater, and her most prominent early work Bakumatsu Sorcery. Set at the end of the samurai era, it told the story of a surgeon trained in ‘Dutch’ (i.e. Western) medicine, who becomes involved in lifting curses from unlucky people. But she followed it with a very different form of affliction – she turned from girls’ comics to women’s comics, and picked a new way of haunting her lead character.
In the Light began running in For Mrs magazine, a title aimed at young mothers. The manga aimed to educate its readers with steely fervor, regularly running additional features on real-life mothers whose children suffer from autism, tracking their progress from birth, through school, and into the workplace. In Japan, of course, getting a day-job is a happy ending. The TV version, however, sticks resolutely to Hikaru’s early years, as Sachiko fights to put her son into a normal school, deals with the prejudices of the people around her, and observes his separation from the everyday world. It doesn’t take long before her son goes missing, and she is forced to deal with the worry of how a boy who can barely talk can somehow navigate his way back home. In regularly returning to the concerns of every parent, Tobe’s story skillfully reminds viewers that Hikaru is not all that different from other children after all. It’s an unusual addition to the world of Living Manga, but its motives are pure of heart.
(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, August 2004, and was subsequently reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Keiko Tobe died last Thursday, aged 52).
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Although autism and the hikkomori shut -ins are different phenomenon, there’s a couple of comparable traits, so you’d think the wider Japanese public might be more sympathetic to youths with autism, especially if they have expereinced their child turning into a hikkomori.