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No handicap to heroism: how anime portrays disability

In anime, disability is often either something to be overcome, or something which makes a character stronger. It extends the character’s bodily limits along with the reaches of their compassion or fury, giving them far deeper reserves for their personal battles.

For Edward Elric, the driving force is far deeper than the loss of his arm and leg in an alchemical ritual gone wrong. His little brother Alphonse lost his entire physical form, still alive by the grace of the hulking suit of armour his soul is tethered to. Though Edward has lost much, his brother has lost part of his old identity. In a sense, he sacrificed his youth. Ed feels that loss is his fault, since he was the one who convinced Al to help him bring their mother back from the dead. Not only that, but he has sent a sickness out into the world through his beloved alchemy. He has committed an unforgivable sin, one which was enough to scar his world with its repugnance. So he quests and fights, for the vulnerable and against evil, all the while searching for his brother’s cure.

There is a lot to unpick from Ed’s attitude towards his disability and Al’s tragic formlessness. Though in the Fullmetal world prosthetic limbs are an everyday part of life, even seen on Winry Rockbell’s family dog, his prostheses are a mark of shame but less on a personal level, and more as a reminder of all he ultimately cost his brother. His whole life becomes centred around finding a miracle for Al, encountering physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins along the way. Killing the anthropomorphised body will not kill the sin itself. In a way it seems he knows this, that he will always bear his wrongdoings whether he restores his brother’s body or not.

Ed’s automail prosthetic arm

This image of the determined Edward Elric is a window on a changing but stubborn attitude in Japan; that disabled people are ‘inferior’ to the able. In a society that’s garnered fame and infamy for its work ethic, those who are unable to work are still somewhat considered to be an obstruction to the country’s productivity. Up until the mid-20th century, it was common to institutionalise people with disabilities in order to manage them rather than care for them. In time, parents’ movements and journalistic exposes rose up to oppose the mistreatment of care home residents, and now the intolerance that led to Japan warehousing its disabled citizens is receding. But though the opening of exclusive schools for children with special needs has begun to tackle the damage of forcing conformity from an early age, the country is still behind many others in its inclusion of the disabled in school and working life.

The deep shame felt both towards and by disabled people is often vividly, if indirectly, portrayed in hypermasculine anime characters. To overcompensate for what they lack, they find a means and reason to become superheroes. In a past battle, My Hero Academia’s All Might suffered a debilitating injury which left him unable to carry out his hero duties for some time. Though he recovered, he still cannot over-exert himself without becoming weakened and coughing up blood. His battles continue for the time he lost, and he hides his weakness from the world. Time and again, these manly characters defy their hurts to become gods to others, whether that’s Gildarts Clive the SS-strength Fairy Tail mage, missing an arm, a leg and a few internal organs, or the legendary Red-Haired Shanks who lost his arm to a shark in One Piece

The feminine edge to this blade, however, is one of total self-sacrifice or the constant struggle to be viewed as equal to able-bodied people. Hunter x Hunter’s Komugi believes she is ‘trash’ because of her blindness, with only her masterful skills at the gungi board giving her any sense of worth. But her lack of sight enables her to see with the soul. She heals the torn spirit of the Chimera Ant arc’s main antagonist, the ant king Meruem. Her willingness to sit by his side as he dies from poisoning restores him to his humanity, and absolves his loathing of that vulnerable part of himself. In Guilty Crown, in which a Japan weakened by an Apocalypse Virus has lost its independence to the conglomerate organisation the GHQ, Ayase Shinomiya begins the series without the use of her legs and constantly fights to be seen for her wheelchair, rather than despite it. She despises people who pity her as she is proud of who she is, and sees her wheelchair as her defining mark.

Shoko in her silent world

A Silent Voice, the 2016 movie starring a deaf character, Shoko, offers the clear moral that the harder path of accepting people for their weaknesses is the right one. In fact, the film more pertinently charts Shoko’s journey towards forgiving her childhood bully Shoya for his cruelty. Shoya suffers from depression, filled with self-loathing and regret for all he put her through in elementary school. But the film makes it his responsibility to atone for his wrongs, making the audience sympathetic but never giving him a free pass for his own suffering. This humanity is missing in certain other popular portrayals of disability, such as Nunnally Lamperouge in Code Geass. In his mission to defeat his homeland Britannia as revenge for using him and Nunnally as political pawns in war against Japan, Lelouch Lamperouge starts out fighting for his gentle and frail younger sister, who is both blind and wheelchair-bound. In season one she exists for the most part as motivation for Lelouch. But in season two, held hostage with all memories of her erased in the people she knows and loves, she does a villainous 180 after almost being caught in the blast of a bomb fired under Lelouch’s orders in battle. According to Geass, a disabled person can only aspire to be either a passive sympathy object or a monster of victimhood.

Ever more diverse and detailed portrayals depict a country beginning to alter its outlook, at least on physical disability. Gangsta’s former mercenary with supernatural strength, Nicolas Brown fights with the same fury as the many other anime heroes of his kind, wounded by fate and battling against it to be seen. But the deafness he was born with, rather than blurring in with the pariah status his ‘twilight’ nature affords him, is carefully and even beautifully drawn, written and performed by both his Japanese and English voice actors, Kenjiro Tsuda and Brandon Potter.

It’s been further proven in Prince of Tennis that true-to-life representation is a growing priority in recent decades. Rikkai Dai team captain Seiichi Yukimura shines a light for people with lesser known illnesses which have an often-invisible impact on their daily lives. Seiichi suffers from an autoimmune disease which, while unnamed in the show, is strikingly similar to Guillain-Barré Syndrome. It causes paralysis in the limbs, and he spends a long time hospitalised due to a surgery which only has a fifty-percent survival rate. He returns from his long break away from tennis stronger than ever. The fact that the surgery cures his illness strikes out his disability, but his humble and soft-spoken nature carries over his struggle with thoughtful nuance.

Sweet, strong-willed Seiichi

Through these steps towards inclusion of disabled people in anime, one crucial thing is missing. Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD are visible in spades for viewers to relate to, but intellectual disabilities are nowhere to be found. It’s been long-theorised by fans that many shonen leads like Luffy and Naruto show symptoms of ADD or ADHD, and it could well be that Death Note’s L is on the autistic spectrum. But though these can all occur in people with intellectual disabilities, no examples present themselves which cross the boundary into affecting a character’s ability to tackle everyday challenges. Quite the opposite, in fact, as once again L’s eccentricities make him the sharpest detective known to mankind.

This is the surface evidence of a far deeper prejudice towards the intellectually disabled. From the 1940s up until 1996, Japan’s government sterilised disabled people to avoid the spread of inferiority. It stands to reason that this would be targeted towards the developmentally and intellectually disabled, with disabilities more likely to be caused by genetic abnormality than external influence. In 2016, this lingering intolerance led Satoshi Uematsu to commit a mass stabbing at Tsukui Yamayuriena, a care home for the disabled. He murdered nineteen people and injured twenty-six more in Japan’s largest mass killing since World War II . He turned himself in to police afterwards, giving the justification “It is better that the disabled disappear”.

If such dangerous attitudes are to be erased worldwide, more must be done to represent disabled people in popular media. Efforts towards this in Japan are still sub-par, with most anime focused on the journeys and plights of the able-bodied. Even with some empowering examples of physical disability, most of those characters are still framed as having strength despite, rather than having an equally human weakness to other characters. As A Silent Voice notes for us, it is not enough for the able to simply change their minds and regret. Ultimately, we are the ones responsible for seeing another person eye-to-eye.

About Elisabeth (1333 Articles)
Otaku blogger, mum and hyper-pixie of the cosmic realms. Might have made that last part up. Or did I?

5 Comments on No handicap to heroism: how anime portrays disability

  1. RisefromAshes // November 20, 2019 at 12:33 // Reply

    I really love the topic of this article. It’s something I’ve taken a bit of personal interest in considering the trend of physical disabilities being more visible in Japan, especially with the upcoming hosting of the 2020 Para-Olympics. You’ve brought up a lot of points I haven’t seen talked about within the English speaking community. So thank you for such a well-thought out read! There’s one or two lines that really caught my attention!

    “…children are still exposed to the stigma through the segregation of special needs students taught in ‘special schools’…” As an ALT in Japan, I have a few thoughts on this which I’ll do my best to keep on topic. The majority of these schools didn’t exist until 2007, the idea of ‘special’ (hate the term but only word I have) education is a brand new concept to Japan. Considering the stigmas of mental illness, a lot of students are really under diagnosed and therefore suffer because they’re expected to cram into ‘normal’ school routine. A lot of students drop out because of this, or their parents decide they don’t need to attend school because it causes them to suffer. The fact these school now exist, has actually done a lot for non-traditional students, as well as those who have physical or mental handicaps that need specialized facilities. I’m going to be honest; 98% of Japanese schools can’t afford to integrate even if they wanted to that’s a different issue. A specialized school like this isn’t presented the same way it might be connotated in English, they’re contextualized as a new category of school rather then being inherantly different. At least, that’s how it’s presented in my rather rural placement. Can’t speak for all regions/areas though.

    “but intellectual disabilities are nowhere to be found. …”, I 100% agree. The representation of physical handicaps, even of mental health are much better represented in anime and manga then even just five years ago. Many mangaka opening up about their mental health in their sidebars I suspect has helped a lot as well. The inching change on mental health views, I suspect that views on intellectually disabled main characters might change, hopefully as well. It’ll take a lot more pushing though in my opinion.

    Again, thank you for writing such a wonderful piece! It was a really fantastic read. I hope my comment doesn’t come off too high-handed, but I’ve found myself rather passionate about the subject as of late. ^^; It’s really refreshing to see ideas that aren’t mine and not from someone in a similar perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, it was great to read your deeper insight into the education side of this issue. The fact it used to be so much worse for kids with disabilities didn’t come up in my research, but it does make sense considering that Japan’s stigma is only just starting to lift. It is a loaded term in English-speaking countries so the automatic assumption is negative, but I’ll be sure to alter that part of the piece so it reflects the positive impact of specialised schools.

      I really hope shifting attitudes will eventually make way for much more diverse representation of disability. It’s a big part of my aunt’s background in her work as a speech therapist to care for intellectually disabled children, so it means a lot to me as well. It was troubling at times but ultimately rewarding to research and write this, so I’m very happy you enjoyed reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • RisefromAshes // November 28, 2019 at 00:22 // Reply

        You’re welcome! I’m not surprised this didn’t come up as much in researching since it’s swept under the rug a lot still. Plus, a lot of that only came from English speaking resources/ personal stories from other teachers.

        Same here. The impact of having characters still tell wonderful stories, with diverse representation of disability will do so much more for future generations as well. Thank you again for putting in so much time for researching and writing such a wonderful article!

        Liked by 1 person

        • In that case I’m even more glad you brought that to my attention. It’s important to note that schools exclusively for kids with special needs is a step forward for Japan, so I’ve edited that part of the article now to reflect that. Thank you again for your input, it always makes me happy when something I’ve written strikes a deep enough chord for people to want to share their knoweledge and experience too.

          Like

  2. Seeing this kind of article and conversation is very overwhelming. My sister studied Psychology and handling or taking care of children who are needed much attention need passion and time. More anime like “A Silent Voice” need to be made to open the public on how others should consider their capabilities on a daily basis. Especially in schools, where most part of childhood is there. Thanks for the article, it has very good content.

    Liked by 2 people

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