A show of hands. Don’t be nervous. This is standard operating procedure where I come from. Now, how many of you out there have read a book of manga cover to cover? And no, I am not referring to faux manga or Americanized mock-manga. I’m talking Japanese comics, directly translated from the original language without any tinkering with forms, format, or content. How many of you have read such things? If my suspicions are correct (and woe betide you if you happen to put too much store in my ability to reach an accurate conclusion) then some of you may have read such things. Some of you may even indulge in them regularly. But if I don’t miss my guess, most of you are either unfamiliar with manga or uninterested. Can’t say as I blame you. Much of the stuff I see is either intended for teens or adults. Manga for children is very rare. In vain I have searched for years for the manga version of “Babymouse” and I am forever coming up short. Then I was handed a copy of “With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child – Vol. 1” at a recent librarian preview. A heavy 527-page tome, the book broke every expectation I had. First of all, it’s realistic fiction. Second, it’s honestly informative and interesting. And third, at no point do you encounter inappropriate bouts of nudity or other moments that a person might think to expect from manga. To read “With the Light” is to do away with the prejudices surrounding Japanese comics in general. I still have a lot to learn about the form, but if enough books like this one keep coming out, that shouldn’t be a problem.
When the son of Sachiko Azuma was born she named him Hikaru, which means, “to be bright”. Bright, however, doesn’t seem to fit Hikaru. He’s slow to develop, doesn’t like to be held, and is generally unresponsive to his mother. At first there’s some suspicion that Hikaru may be deaf, but when a doctor suggests the possibility that the boy is autistic, Sachiko doesn’t want to hear it. She’s already getting enough grief at home with a husband who works all the time and doesn’t interact with her or her child. And, of course, there’s her mother-in-law who is constantly putting her down and blaming Hikaru’s problems on “bad parenting”. It’s only when Sachiko seeks the help that she so desperately needs that she realizes how best to help her son. And when her husband Masato becomes newly committed to his family, they learn together how to help Hikaru become the happy adult they know he’ll someday be.
Many American publishers choose to publish manga exactly as it appears in Japan. Which is to say, you read the books back to front and right to left. A helpful chart at the back (front?) of the book shows you how to do this and a warning note at the end (beginning?) warns you to flip the book over and begin at the other end if you want to read the tale. It’s hard to say why publishers choose to retain the original format of the comics. Some might suggest that it’s an odd fetishism of the culture itself, but I think the reasons are more monetary than obsessive. It’s cheaper for a publisher to just translate the words in a comic rather than flip every page and panel over thereby reprinting the whole kerschmozzle. Also, at this point in time manga has grown profitable enough that even new imprints like Yen Press can count on training in a new audience rather than worrying that people will find the formatting too confusing to understand. It takes some doing, but with a little practice it’s easy enough to flip your expectations around and read the book the way it was originally intended.
Of course, manga isn’t just about simple translation. As Scott McCloud says in his book “Understanding Comics”, “The longer any form of art or communication exists, the more symbols it accumulates.” We recognize a lot of symbols in our own graphic novels. An X over a person’s eyes usually means unconsciousness or death. A droplet of water coming off the head is sweat, indicating nervousness. In Japan, however, comics matured with their own separate set of symbols years ago. That means that when you read something like “Into the Light”, you are continually hitting images and symbols that are unfamiliar to your Western understanding. I, for one, was a bit baffled by the fact that sometimes characters would smile when they were particularly perturbed by something. At one point a kindly old woman who has had a stroke mentions that the other old people she knows don’t want her around anymore since she’s such a bother. Tears accompany this, but also a smile, which I had to assume must have been pained. Also, the story sometimes will show a person as a tiny version of themselves in their own separate panel. Not knowing what it meant, it took some getting used to. Plus, I’ve seen a little manga in my day, but I have rarely seen eyes quite as gigantic as the ones here. Hikaru is in serious danger of resembling a big-eyed child painted on velvet at times. A pity, but there’s nothing to be done about it.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)