Mental illness is still a seldom talked about topic in Japan. Conformity and submission to the will of the group is so ingrained in Japanese culture that there are literally thousands of young men called 'hikikomori' who have withdrawn completely from society. They generally live with their parents, hidden away in their rooms, not coming out for weeks, or even years, at a time.
But what happens when one is simply incapable of understanding society's rules at all? A growing segment of the world's population has autism, but it's still a very poorly understood disorder. Even the West, which has for years allowed more variance in social interaction, has a hard time accepting people with autism spectrum disorders. When it collides with a culture that has such strict, formal manners governing interaction, the general population is going to have an even harder time coping.
The graphic novel With the Light by Keiko Tobe is a groundbreaking story in some respects. The story itself is a work of fiction, though the situations within have been taken from the lives of many autistic families. Mental health and disabilities are not addressed as openly in Japan as elsewhere, and most of the general public consider odd behavior in children to be solely the fault of the parents, especially the mother.
This is the world in which With the Light Volume 1 takes place, and into which Hikaru Azuma is born. Unlike with many other children with autism, Hikaru's symptoms began in infancy. His mother, Sachiko Azuma, at first believed that Hikaru was simply a very unaffectionate child who wouldn't tolerate loud noises or cuddles from his parents. His lack of progress with language or simple developmental milestones was simply attributed to bad parenting, especially on the part of his mother. When she eventually took him to the child welfare center, his lack of response to loud noises was initially blamed on deafness, even though his mother knew he responded to sounds at home.
Later, Sachiko does find the help she needs, in the form of daycare workers and teachers that really try to work with her and Hikaru. We get to see some of the techniques that teachers and parents use to get concepts across to those with autism, including picture cards and set written schedules. It's also interesting how characters suggest that people interact with those with autism 'as in they were foreigners,' by writing things down simply and using gestures.
Unfortunately, good psychology information does not an interesting story make. Sadly, Sachiko is actually not a very sympathetic character, so while we're rooting for Hikaru, it's hard to get too involved with the relationship turmoil Sachiko goes through with her husband. It also seems a bit irresponsible and selfish to have a second child with Hikaru so young and still unsettled in a proper elementary school.
Because this was originally serialized, we get explanations over and over again of the basics of Hikaru's disorder and the quirks he and others have. While this is necessary in a situation where the author might be gaining new readers with each issue, it gets tiresome in graphic novel form.
All in all, though, With the Light Volume 1 is a fascinating look into special education, family dynamics, and mental disorders in Japanese society.
Highs: Watching Hikaru hit milestones that he might not have gotten to without the help of his support group
Lows: Endless repeating from Sachiko about Hikaru's difficulties to both staff and the public
Verdict: An interesting read, especially for someone with little psychology background
Further Reading: Bunny Drop Volume 1