Author: Rie Aruga (translated from Japanese by Rachel Murakawa)
Pages: 176 pages for each volume
Publish Date: March, August., and October 2020
Publisher: Kodansha International
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1632368119 (vol 1); 978-1632369949 (vol 2); 978- 1632369956 (vol 3)
Guest Book Review by Basia Jedruszczak
Perfect World by Aruga Rie is a josei (women’s/older teen) manga, complete in 12 volumes as of January 2021. At a work function, designer Kawana Tsugumi runs into her high school crush, Ayukawa Itsuki, and is surprised to see him using a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury (SCI) he sustained during college. As her high-school feelings return all at once, she and Ayukawa navigate entering a romantic relationship. This review is for the first three volumes of the series.
In the opening chapter (titled Acts throughout the series) of the first volume, Kawana finds her worldview challenged in several ways: that her new coworker, the boy she had a crush on in high school, now uses a wheelchair; that his experiences at restaurants and coffee shops are dramatically different from her own; and that his SCI makes him more prone to specific types of medical issues than she is. Act 1 presents a lot of information and feels slightly rushed, though the author explains at the end of the first volume that Act 1 was initially a one-shot and only with publication was she able to continue fleshing out Kawana’s and Ayukawa’s story.
As Kawana and Ayukawa enter a romantic relationship, the struggles they face in their personal and professional lives – dealing with exes, fielding family expectations, setting aside time to be together, work-life balance and deadline stresses – are given the same amount of time and weight as Ayukawa’s secondary health issues and Kawana reckons with the ingrained ableism she must consciously unlearn.
Neither the art nor the dialogue shies away from topics that may be personal, embarrassing, or (mildly) graphic. Act 1 shows an illustration of the bedsore Ayukawa develops on his lower back in stark black ink. In Act 2, Kawana rather naively asks Ayukawa if there isn’t someone he could “… overcome those difficulties with together,” to which Ayukawa responds, casually, “Well, I mean… I poop my pants sometimes, you know. […] It’s called an excretory disorder. The stool comes out naturally on its own.” In Act 13 (volume 3), the process of DRF (digital removal of feces) is described, specifically within a hospital setting. Other medical issues discussed in the first three volumes include phantom pain; ingrown nails and paronychia (infection of the skin around the nails); bolts used to stabilize the spine as it healed; a panic attack, specifically showing hyperventilation; the effects of stress on the body, including high fever and high levels of CRP (C-reactive protein, associated with inflammation); and the risk of developing syringomyelia (spinal cord cyst).
Volume 1 also addresses the variety of accommodations – or lack thereof – in Ayukawa’s life, such as accessible rental cars with steering wheel attachments, buildings with and without ramps, and subsequent chapters continue to detail common accessibility issues as they arise over the course of the story.
Volume 2 introduces Nagisaki, Ayukawa’s caregiver and his former physical therapy nurse, who harbors romantic feelings for Ayukawa. In Act 7, she kisses him while he is sleeping; this is framed as jealousy for Kawana and the introduction of a love triangle rather than gross misconduct by a caregiver.
Volume 3 moves on to discuss Kawana’s health, namely a stress-related illness and subsequent injury: fainting and falling down onto train tracks, thereby fracturing her leg. Kawana must evaluate her personal boundaries when it comes to her relationship with Ayukawa; specifically, whether it is healthy for her to push herself as hard as she does for her partner, and where the limits of her own health lie.
Overall, the first three volumes of Perfect World are emblematic of the josei romance genre: the romantic relationship is sweet and earnest, but not without internal and external complications, such as Kawana’s insecurities and her family’s lack of understanding; there is an element of romantic drama by way of Nagisaki’s jealousy; and the non-romantic plot deals with adult life themes such as career challenges, work-life balance, and family expectations.
At no point in the first three volumes does Kawana outwardly believe that she can “fix” Ayukawa’s spinal cord injury, nor does she consider it something she needs to “overcome” in order to be in a romantic relationship with him. While she is sometimes naïve and she faces obstacles due to her lack of knowledge – the conversation about digital removal of feces, for example, startles her; she immediately thereafter wants to help, but admits that she does not know how to perform the task – she puts in a genuine effort to take those obstacles in stride, even though others, such as her father, refuse to support her relationship with Ayukawa. Even Nagisaki tells her, “If you think you can overcome disability through the power of love, you’re gravely mistaken. Being unable to walk. Needing a caregiver. Dealing with complications on a daily basis. Worrying about illnesses. This is his everyday life!” While this is ultimately a statement driven by jealousy on Nagisaki’s part, it is also the first time that Kawana is told that her feelings for Ayukawa are not, and never will be, any kind of magical cure – not for their relationship struggles, and not for Ayukawa’s paraplegia. Aruga also takes care to highlight the importance of community – and support networks – for Ayukawa and Kawana individually and separately.
The translation notes in the afterwords of volumes 1 and 2 include a glossary of Japanese honorifics and other vocabulary, as well as definitions for “barrier-free,” “accessible,” and “phantom pain.” In volume 3, Aruga includes a note on the wheelchair Ayukawa uses, and that she worked with OX Engineering, a wheelchair manufacturer, to find a wheelchair model that would suit Ayukawa’s needs. The medical complications of a spinal cord injury are clearly well-researched, and care is taken to show the ways in which ableism affects those not (visibly) disabled who are in intimate relationships with someone who uses a wheelchair. Aruga’s art is expressive; backgrounds are often simple or blank, drawing focus to a character’s face or body language rather than the setting. The lettering is clear and consistent, and the speech bubbles are all of appropriate size.
I admit fully to not being a huge fan of shojo, josei, or romance manga, but Perfect World is an engaging read – Kawana’s and Ayukawa’s work-related struggles resonate very universally, and their relationships with family, friends, and community are also particularly resonant.
Basia Jędruszczak is a librarian at the San Rafael Public Library and has worked on collection development for graphic novels. Mostly, they wish they had more time to read manga.