Autism in Anime
Anime has something for everyone as a medium. With so many studios churning out works of various art styles, anime covers many topics such as war, economics, relationships, etc. Yet there is an area of anime that not many studios look into, and that is mental illness. There have only been a select handful titles which touch upon certain disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Multiple Personality Disorder, etc. So where are the shows with autistic characters?
As doctors and physicians worldwide learn more about this mysterious condition, there are more television programs depicting characters with some form of the disorder. This could correlate with the growing awareness for the symptoms exhibited by those who have it or know someone who has it. But anime studios have yet to make programs or adapt manga series which feature an autistic individual as a main character.
So are there any characters in anime who show the common signs of autism? The short answer is yes. But like the disorder itself, the representation varies from character to character depending on the context of the program.
What is Autism?
According to Autism Speaks, a non-profit advocacy group in the United States, “Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” About 1 in 68 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disorder, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disorder appears more often in boys than girls.
Those with a milder form of ASD, called Asperger’s Syndrome, are able to speech in complete sentences. But they struggle with social skills and have trouble grasping body language and verbal cues. Some may have a positive or negative reaction to certain external stimuli. For example, some may like the feel of clothing tags, while others may get upset by loud noises. As far as strengths and differences, some may show above average intelligence in certain areas like math, grammar, or music. But when they talk about subjects that interest them, they have trouble knowing when to stop or change subjects.
However, those on the other end of the spectrum are more severe. These individuals are nonverbal and cannot take care of themselves without assistance. Some hit or self-mutilate themselves as a coping mechanism to make up for their lack of speech. Another symptom is to rock back and forth. People with severe ASD tend to not advance beyond a high school diploma.
Japanese Views on Autism
While there is an increased awareness of autism spectrum disorder in much of the West, Japan has yet to catch up. One example of how Japan views autism can be seen in the josei manga series “With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child” by Keiko Tobe. The story follows a young mother, Sachiko Azuma, and her family as they raise their son, Hikaru. Not only does the series give a realistic representation of autism, but also how Japanese society views it. Sachiko’s husband, Masato, denies that there is anything wrong with their son at first. But he later comes to terms with the fact that their son is different.
Because group conformity is ingrained in Japanese society, anyone who exhibits unusual behavior is considered incapable of fitting in anywhere. When it is revealed that the Azumas’ son is autistic, their extended family blame Sachiko herself for giving birth to Hikaru. This shows not only the lack of understanding of autism on the extended family’s part, but also the ignorance and discrimination the Azumas face from Japanese society at large.
Akira in Akira
One example of an autistic character is the title character in the manga series “Akira” by Katsuhiro Otomo. In both the manga series and the 1988 anime film of the same name, Akira is a small child with godlike telekinetic powers. He is responsible for destroying Tokyo at the beginning of the story and Neo-Tokyo at the midpoint.
Although there are no explicit references to him having autism, Akira displays a few symptoms: being nonverbal and inexpressive. This is due to his immense telekinetic powers robbing him of all personality and speech. Otomo’s original intention was to portray Akira as a metaphor for the atomic bomb which decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. But one could make the argument that Akira mirrors an autistic person having above average intelligence at the cost of not being able to speak. There are certain autistic individuals who are nonverbal that use keyboards to communicate. While some can only type in simple words to convey meaning, others can type up complete sentences that display the above average intelligence that most people would overlook.
Rui Hanazawa in Boys Over Flowers
One of the most famous shoujo series ever made, “Boys Over Flowers” follows Tsukushi Makino’s attempts to live a quiet life at the prestigious Eitoku Academy. Her attempts are thwarted when she encounters the Flower Four, or F4, the sons of the most powerful families in Japan. In the beginning of the series, Tsukushi meets Rui Hanazawa, the quiet, introverted member of the F4. Tsukushi first encounters Rui playing the violin outside the school. Although he comes off as cold and aloof at first, Tsukushi develops a crush on him. Rui, however, harbors feelings for his childhood friend, Shizuka Todou, who helped him open up to others. Throughout the series, Rui is torn between Shizuka for her tenderheartedness and Tsukushi for her assertiveness.
Rui’s quiet, distant personality and his talent with the violin make him a prime candidate for an autistic anime character. Many television programs portray autistic characters with some kind of talent, either in music, art, or mathematics. They also show these characters trying to form some sort of friendly and/or romantic relationship with others with varying degrees of success. In Rui’s case, he has his sights set on Shizuka at first. But he later dates Tsukushi for a time in order to forget about Shizuka. Of all the characters in “Boys Over Flowers,” Rui is the most complex. From his aloof nature to his musical talent, Rui stands out as one of the best examples of an autistic anime character done right.
Mashiro Shiina in The Pet Girl of Sakurasou
A recent anime that portrays an autistic character, “The Pet Girl of Sakurasou” follows the lives of a group of high school students living in a dormitory at their university-affiliated high school for the arts. The series’ male protagonist, Sorata Kanda, moves into a dorm filled with other misfits after the school catches him hoarding stray cats. It is there that he meets Mashiro Shiina, the titular “pet girl” of the series. Mashiro is a world-renowned art prodigy with a strong photographic memory. The only problem is that while she has high artistic ability, she doesn’t know how to take care of herself. That’s where Sorata comes in to act as her handler, making sure she gets dressed, eats her meals, and keeps her grades up during the school year.
Throughout the series, Sorata, Mashiro, and their friends each struggle to better themselves in their academic and personal lives. Sorata, being an aspiring game designer, pitches his concepts to various developers but gets rejected every time. Mashiro, being an aspiring manga artist, has trouble fleshing out characters in her work because she herself struggles with making friends. So we see these two protagonists playing off of each other as they go through mental growth. After many rejections from developers, Sorata gets jealous of Mashiro’s success as an artist. This drives a wedge in their friendship for a while. Mashiro, in turn, develops feelings for Sorata as she grows accustomed to life in the dorm. At the end of the light novel series, Sorata confesses his feelings to Mashiro and they become a couple.
Mashiro represents certain autistic individuals who lack the knowledge to do basic things yet have extraordinary talents. This is a recurring symptom of the disorder. Both children and adults with autism can get so wrapped up in their own interests that they sometimes forget about the needs of others. What they lack in social skills, they make up for in above average intelligence and talent. Like Rui Hanazawa, the Mashiro Shiina that we see on the outside is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What lies underneath her blank stare is a shy, introverted girl who longs for human connection deep down.
Anime covers a wide variety of genres, art styles, and topics for fans around the world to enjoy. We tell stories of people who are different from us in order to show how those differences bring us together. As acceptance for this mysterious disorder continues to grow, so too might anime series that portray autistic characters the way they were meant to be seen: as human beings.
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