Before I begin the review there are some things to mention about this series. This series is complete, in a sense, as volume 15 is the final volume. It is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2011, in English. If you have seen the Englsh volumes of this manga, each English volume equals two of the Japanese volumes, so in America (and other countries that receive the English translation) volume seven is volume 13 and 14, and 15 is volume eight. Volume eight consists of four chapters of With The Light, two extra chapters that are pretty crude storyboards, but full chapters, nonetheless. It also includes two one shots.
Sadly, the reason for the conclusion of the series is that the mangaka passed away at the beginning of 2010. Keiko Tobe is her name, and this series really endeared me to this woman. It is really more than a manga is expected to be, but I'll get into that with the review.
With the Light is about a mother who gives birth to a son in the very first chapter. As time passes, she realizes that something is wrong. She brings her son to medical professionals, and is wrongly told that her son, Hikaru, is deaf. She eventually learns the truth, that her son has autism, and is both scared and extremely alone in this new struggle. Her husband, Masato, feels that it is the wife's duty to raise the children. Her mother-in-law views her as a bad parent, wrongly assuming that her daughter-in-law's parenting is causing a selfish child, and she views Hikaru as an embarrassment. Sachiko also must deal with stares and whispers from strangers,when her son causes a scene. All of these themes are found early on in the first volume, and as time goes on, other challenges and hardships present themselves, as Sachiko becomes more aware of autism. Hikaru ages to about thirteen or fourteen years old through the course of the manga. Some subjects that get covered throughout for him are interaction with others, school life, and (the dreaded) puberty.
This manga covers very rare ground in entertainment, let alone manga. Oftentimes, when I read or watch something about autism, or related disorders, it is often sensationalized, not exactly portraying these sensitive subjects in a positive light, or even with a view of understanding. With the Light covers the struggles of the disorder, as well as how to cope with it. One of the beautiful things about this series is that you can clearly see the heart behind it. You don't even have to know that Keiko Tobe did her research, and worked closely with people who specialize in social and mental disordersm to see how evident it is. This is an entertaining, dramatic story that also raises awareness of something that isn't readily taught about to the masses, and actually provides practical suggestions for making life easier for anyone whose life is effected by autism.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this story isn't exclusively about autism. Dealing with other children with special needs, it covers Attention Deficit Disorder, dyslexia, and Asperger's Syndrome. All are covered respectfully, and almost from the standpoint of the individuals who have to deal with these things so that the reader can understand not only what it is like to live that way, but it also provides some symptoms or indications of the disorders. In this regard, I found some parts slightly overdramatic, but nothing too unbelievable.
While this isn't mainly a comedic manga (it's definitely a drama), there are some funny moments, though nothing all that laugh out loud funny. Actually, the most humorous thing I've found with this manga is when I randomly open it and read a random line. It includes such hilarious lines (when taken completely out of context) as "All I see are little black balls!" and "Mommy, please brush me!" While not intended to be used this way, I highly recommend it.
The art in this manga does the job, at best, but it is drawn by an older artist so the artwork feels understandably dated. Probably the strongest aspect of the artwork is with Hikaru. He is adorably drawn, even as he ages into a young teenager. The backgrounds are ordinary, and so are most of the character designs. There is a decent variety, though, as a lot of characters appear in this manga. I never mistook one character for another, as I have in other manga.
A major part of the beauty of this manga is the characters. The lead characters are all realistically portrayed, even as they grow in their awareness. They feel like the same characters, however much they grow. Sachiko is especially developed as she attempts to raise awareness on autism for whoever she might come in contact with who is confused by her son. She does so respectfully, and she tries not to be preachy. Hikaru is very likable, as well.
The secondary characters are phenomenal in this story. The reason? There is plenty of negative behavior from the characters that Sachiko deals with in her every day life. While this is understandable due to the lack of awareness of autism, With the Light takes it a step further. The reader is given peeks into the lives of the secondary characters. Keiko Tobe is well aware that everyone has their own life to go back to, and not everyone is waiting around to learn about autism. They have their own families, lives, and difficulties they need to face, and the reader is given the opportunity to examine things from other perspectives. Just when you feel that a particular character is evil and lacks compassion, their home life is revealed, and in some cases, it is worse than what Sachiko faces. The secondary and minor characters are important to the story, as the different personalities are needed to help Sachiko and Hikaru deal with all kinds of people. They are utilized in the best way they possibly could be.
Some may be concerned about how the story wraps up, though, given the circumstances of how the manga ended. One of the storyboards in the final volume wraps up Eri's storyline nicely (Eri is a secondary character). I did feel that the story, at least, rounds off well, in general. The final full chapter ends off in an area that the first volume begins, so it kind of comes full circle. If you make it to the final volume, you'll probably want to know what happens after it ends, and unfortunately you won't ever find out.
My minor complaint about the secondary and minor characters is that there are so many of them, that you may be interested by one that isn't in the story very often. It's a lot like life, however. You deal with people that are only important in that moment, or any given situation. The story does give a few updates on some characters, such as Hikaru's childhood friends and acquaintances, from time to time.
So... In short, this story is a masterpiece to me. It is entertaining, and it has a purpose. While I'm not an expert on autism, by any means, I always found the subject as something difficult to approach, and intimidating to research. After reading the majority of With the Light, I am more aware of it, and I can relate better. I took something away from the experience. I'm very grateful to Keiko Tobe for doing something so meaningful in the later years of her life, and for Yen Press for translating it. I sincerely hope that other people are able to experience this manga. Whether they end up enjoying it, or not, I think it's definitely worth the risk.