I’ve wanted to read Rie Aruga’s Perfect World was quite a while and have been eagerly awaiting its print release. This is partially because it is a josei title, a.k.a. a manga aimed at adult women, a demographic that has been under-served in the North American manga market. I was also drawn to this series because it was purported to feature a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like to live with a physical disability in Japan, a topic I haven’t seen covered very often in manga.
Tsugumi is pleasantly surprised when she runs into Itsuki, her high-school crush whom she hasn’t seen in years, at a work function. Itsuki has achieved his dream of becoming an architect and his firm frequently works closely with the interior design company that Tsugumi now works for, meaning she’ll be seeing a lot of him in the future. Itsuki is even more handsome then Tsugumi remembers and seeing him again sets her heart aflutter, until she discovers that he suffered a serious spinal cord injury while he was in college and can no longer walk. Tsugumi is ashamed when this revelation puts her off pursuing her old flame, but she reasons that dating a guy in a wheelchair would be too difficult. This is a sentiment that Itsuki evidently shares because he seems to have given up on dating entirely and is only interested in being friends with Tsugumi. As the two spend more time together for work, Tsugumi begins to realize all of the challenges that Itsuki has to face on a daily basis, as a disabled person trying to navigate in a world setup to accommodate able-bodied people, and how little she actually knows about what he’s been through. As the two of them continue to reconnect, Tsugumi’s old feelings continue to be rekindled and she starts to question whether the wheelchair is as insurmountable a barrier to them being together as she once thought.
Despite being informed beforehand that Perfect World contained a well-written representation of disability, I was still surprised by the depth with which the manga explored the subject. Tsugumi is continually confronted with her own ignorance throughout the manga, as she observes people staring at Itsuki when they’re out together, witnesses how he has difficulties getting around, since many businesses aren’t wheelchair accessible, and realizes that some of his co-workers view him as being less capable and are reluctant to give him responsibility at work. In addition to these more expected story beats, Perfect World also delves into some of the medical complications that Itsuki has to deal with. He experiences phantom pain in his limbs, is at increased risk of UTI’s and is hospitalized due to bed sores during one chapter. This manga isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with the details and even discusses how Itsuki occasionally experiences incontinence. Perfect World is a love story, but it doesn’t romanticize the situation or simplify Itsuki’s experiences for the sake of telling a cute and neat little story. Tsugumi, ultimately, isn’t scared off by the prospect of having to face these challenges alongside Itsuki and believes that they will be able to find a way to be happy together, but Perfect World doesn’t shy away from the fact that there will be hardships in their future, both as a result of Itsuki’s spinal cord injury and as a result of society’s attitudes towards people with disabilities.
Another thing I was glad to see addressed was the tendency for able-bodied people to want to view people with disabilities as inspirational figures who have triumphed over adversity. When Tsugumi and Itsuki meet a young man who has more recently suffered a spinal cord injury and who is struggling to accept the fact that he can no longer walk, Tugumi suggests that Itsuki should talk to him about his own experience, thinking that hearing about Itsuki’s success will inspire him to overcome the emotional turmoil he’s feeling. Itsuki agrees and does mentor the young man, but he winds up confessing that he still struggles with accepting his own disability, even all of these years later. This admission, and Itsuki’s ability to empathize with what he’s going through, winds up being much more helpful for the young man then being fed empty platitudes or told he should feel differently about his own experiences. People sometimes feel an urge to think about people’s hardships like they would a narrative arc in a story, where there’s a resolution to the conflict and the hero gains newfound strength or insight as a result of going through the trial, but real life isn’t so simple and clean and I appreciated that the manga showed how unhelpful looking at trauma in that way can be.
The one minor gripe that I had with the story was the fact that it introduced a story-line regarding Tsugumi having given up on her dream of becoming an artist, and then drops it completely. Her regrets and insecurities about not being able to make it as an artist was a significant plot point in the first chapter, but doesn’t come up again after that. This is possibly because Perfect World started out as a one shot and Tsugumi abandoning her dreams because they seemed too difficult to achieve was probably meant to simply serve as a parallel to her potentially giving up on her feelings for Itsuki for similar reasons. When the story was expanded into a series, that plot line likely didn’t fit into the narrative anymore, but I’d personally like to see it addressed again in future volumes. Tsugumi seems happy in her career but it feels like there wasn’t a resolution to the regrets she expressed in the first chapter.
Perfect World is a heart-warming but realistic romance that showcases how difficult and complicated life and relationships can be. Itsuki and Tsugumi are a sweet couple who have helped each other to grow over the course of this volume, but will their love be enough to allow them to make it work? I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10
For more information on this manga, visit Kodansha USA’s website.
What do you think of this series? Let me know in the comments!