Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
When Tsugumi was in high school, she had a crush on her friend Itsuki, but she wasn't able to do anything about it. Now twenty-six, she's surprised to meet him again in distant Tokyo, where they're both working. Itsuki has become an architect like he always dreamed of being, but there's a bigger surprise in store for Tsugumi: following a spinal cord injury in college, Itsuki is no longer able to walk. As Tsugumi's feelings for Itsuki come back, she will have to decide if she's able to enter into a relationship with someone disabled – if he'll even let her in the first place.
We see plenty of romances with emotionally disabled protagonists, but precious few with physical disabilities. In the romance novel world, author Mary Balogh began writing books with such heroes, but manga has been slow to catch up (as have other romance novel authors), which is why Rie Aruga's Perfect World is such an important entry into the genre. The story follows the relationship of twenty-six-year-old Tsugumi as she reconnects with Itsuki, her high school crush, who is now in a wheelchair with paralyzed legs.
It is important to note that Aruga never once plays with the idea that Tsugumi feels sorry for Itsuki beyond the basic sadness that his life changed so drastically. There's no notions of “saving” him rearing their heads in this introductory volume, and Tsugumi makes it clear that her feelings are not due to the fact that Itsuki is now disabled, nor are they specifically in defiance of that fact. Itsuki is attractive to her as a person, wheelchair notwithstanding. That it will be an issue should they pursue their relationship simply for medical reasons is the main way that it affects her thoughts about him, but largely this is in a practical sense: both of them are concerned how his spinal cord injury (SCI) will affect his long-term health rather than how people will look at them.
That's not to say that the thought never crosses Tsugumi's mind, and it's also one that Itsuki is fully aware of. Following his accident, he and his high school girlfriend broke up, largely at his behest. He didn't want to burden her, yes, but there's also the feeling that she was somewhat relieved, although not to the degree Tsugumi initially assumes. More important to the story is the way that Itsuki doesn't want to be anyone's charity case – he's determined to do as much for himself as possible. That's very understandable and we see that he lives alone and has no intention of moving back to his parents' house just to make them feel better. What Itsuki sees as “coddling,” however, is often just someone wanting to help because they love him; similarly what his mother (and possibly his ex) see as “helping” he sees as them treating him like the invalid he isn't. There's not much doubt that in a few cases his solitude is making things harder than they need to be, such as when he's hospitalized with an infection that could have been prevented if he'd had someone around to help a bit, but his determination is something Aruga makes clear has always been part of his personality.
For people who live in countries with accessibility laws, parts of this volume can be pretty horrifying – almost none of the places Itsuki and Tsugumi go have ramps and when Itsuki is hired to work on a renovation, the clients actually balk at the idea of making a place handicapped accessible, even saying so to their handicapped architect's face. Other aspects are equally troubling although unflinchingly presented, such as when the minute Itsuki leaves the room at a class reunion everyone starts speculating about his condition – seeing Tsugumi call them out for their behavior is one of the book's most satisfying moments, not just because of what she does, but also because it shows that she's less concerned with what he can't do than who he is.
The emotional trajectory of the book is divided between the two protagonists, which once again helps to prevent the characterization of Itsuki as the “noble wounded hero” while also making it clear that no traumatic injury comes without emotional impact. He has a harder time accepting the idea of forming any sort of romantic bond with Tsugumi than she does, largely because despite his determination, he sees himself as lacking. He's very open with Tsugumi about his bowel and UTI issues (and I imagine that sexual function will come up in a later book) and makes it clear that he doesn't necessarily have any expectations of a long life. That, as it turns out, may be much more a factor of his (untreated?) depression than his physical condition, and hopefully Aruga will explore it more going forward, because based on a conversation Tsugumi has with his mother in the last chapter, taking care of himself physically should make a normal lifespan possible.
Perfect World's first volume is looking like the start of a thoughtful love story. The emotional core of both plot and characters indicates a thoughtfulness that bodes well for the series as a whole, and although Aruga's art isn't anything special in the josei world, it is unflinching when it needs to be. Her research is readily apparent in the text and artwork, making this feel like a real story as opposed to tragedy porn, which it easily could have been. Whether you're a romance reader or not, this is worth checking.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Thoughtful and considers both characters' emotions, research is evident, doesn't read like exploitation
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