June 2nd, 2020

Firechick's Manga Reviews: A Letter To The Sky

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I give this obscure manga about an unconventional teacher...a 73/100.

There are some manga out there that really don't get the appreciation that they deserve, doomed to forever remain in obscurity save for a few small circles of fans. Many of my favorite titles are obscure shows or manga that never reached any great heights, and you wonder why they never managed to get popular. But sometimes you look at something and decide to check it out, just to see if it's any good or it just happens to show up in your feed. I myself would never have even heard of A Letter To The Sky if it weren't for My Anime List having it pop up on my feed one day. Plus, from what I've heard, it's been translated by a completely new manga company here in the US, only being sold digitally. After reading its premise, I decided to check it out, and what's my verdict? Well...I want to like this manga more than I do, and it has great messages, but it's also rife with a crap ton of problems.

The story centers on a young and eager new teacher, Yoko Ozora. After only receiving temporary jobs as a substitute teacher, she finally manages to get a permanent position. But she's surprised to find that she's teaching at a hospital, and her class consists of children of varying grade levels who have to stay in the hospital for long periods of time, to the point of being unable to go to their regular schools, due to a variety of illnesses. Cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, asthma, eczema, leukemia, the whole enchilada. Although she's baffled by the unexpected development, Yoko takes the new assignment in stride, helping students find joy in learning as they battle and deal with their illnesses. But while her new job brings plenty of joy, especially when the students are healthy enough to get discharged, it also brings hardship, as several of her students get worse or die due to the severity of their ilnesses. Luckily, she has her fiance Susumu, her family, and new colleagues to support her, and every day always brings something new.

So...yeah, this is one of those tried and true inspirational teacher stories that tend to get a lot of flak, and for good reason. As you can tell by the rating, this manga could be a whole lot better, but it's overall a very mixed bag. While it does have some incredibly good parts, it does have some parts that aren't bad but could benefit from more subtlety. It's biggest problem is that it is overrun with cheese and melodrama up the wazoo. Characters scream their feelings in long screamy monologues, go into cry fests, and chapters are rife with episodic stories that pick out random side characters and give them really cheesy backstories and development. Some of them are good, but others just leave a really cheesy aftertaste. And Letter To The Sky does it over, and over, and over, with little to no sense of restraint or subtlety whatsoever. Everything people tend to say about Mari Okada and her repertoire easily applies to Letter To The Sky, often taking the cheese to ridiculous levels. For example, Yoko goes through a lot in this manga: She learns one of her first students dies, an attempt to donate bone marrow almost puts one of her students in danger, she gets German measles while pregnant, her baby daughter is born premature and then has to get life saving surgery which may or may not kill her, and later her fiance turned husband gets terminally ill. It doesn't happen often, but the manga seems to want to put this woman through one disaster after another in an attempt to be dramatic, and piling it all in every other chapter just makes it a slog to get through. I mean, come on. Could you perhaps have her get cancer as well to make this picture complete? The way all of these dramatic events are pushed into the manga makes it feel cheap and superficial, when having just one or two of them used very sparingly would be the better alternative if it wanted to yank the tears out of the readers.

Being a josei/shoujo manga from the late nineties, melodrama was pretty much the norm around that time, even before then, but overblown cheesiness and lack of narrative subtlety isn't the manga's only problem. For the most part, the artwork is fairly nice and detailed, with characters having realistic designs and the typical large, sparkly shoujo eyes. However, in the beginning, the artwork is really unpolished. In particular, the children's faces, especially when they look straight into the camera, are drawn in really weird angles, which continue over the course of the next two volumes. At first, the adults' faces looked rather wonky and crooked as well, but those actually got much better and smoother as the manga went on. But the children's faces are always drawn in a particular shape, even when they're facing forward, and it's just really jarring and not pleasant to look at. Plus, the way many panels are drawn, with close ups, thick lines, and dark backgrounds during the dramatic moments make the whole thing feel very theatrical and soap opera-ish in nature, adding to the manga's overblown penchant for cheesiness and melodrama.

However, I don't want to be a killjoy, and this is also a manga that whenever it shines, it shines like no other. Setting aside the cheesy side characters and overdramatic, soap opera-ish plots, this is a manga that aims to treat sick children as human beings with wants, needs, feelings, strengths, weaknesses, and complexities. They're not flawless little saints who face death beautifully while teaching others life lessons, nor are they milquetoast slabs of wood meant to solely yank tears out of the audience. Many of the kids that Yoko interacts with are very dynamic and full of personality, even if they don't get a whole lot of screen time, and Yoko herself, her husband, and her colleague are all nicely developed and fleshed out, so you still want to root for them when things get tough for them. So while the characterization for one off characters leaves a lot to be desired, the main and secondary characters have the right amount of background and depth to really make them steal the show when they appear.

Although, at first, one of Yoko's colleagues, a middle school teacher in the hospital named Nakano, came off as a mixed bag at first. He starts off as an adversary to Yoko who questions the validity of her teaching, criticizing her on her naivete and idealism. While he is technically in the right, the way he goes about calling her out on it is really strange in that instead of attributing it to just her having a rosy picture of teaching sick kids, he instead makes misogynistic jabs at her gender, chalking her teaching up to little more than "womanly sentimentalism." Uh, dude, that is not true. Yoko's flaws have absolutely nothing to do with her gender. He is technically right in that Yoko's teaching does come off as too idealistic and rosy at first, and she does grow from it, but if you're going to call her out on her flaws, ONLY focus on critiquing her teaching, not her gender, as that has nothing to do with it! Thankfully, he never does this again afterward, but it's extremely jarring and feels really out of place, and there are ways you can have a guy point out a woman's flaws without attributing it solely to her gender, as that's shallow and makes for bad writing, especially when you're trying to portray the guy as being in the right! Also, I'm not a teacher, so I'm not entirely well versed on how teaching protocols work, but Yoko...as good intentioned as she is, she always winds up getting way too involved in the lives of her students, to the point of overstepping boundaries that would probably get her fired if someone tried some of the things she did in real life. Some instances are understandable, but others kind of made me stretch my suspension of disbelief with how many boundaries she oversteps for her students' sake. But again, I don't know how these things work, so do feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. Plus, if she wasn't meddlesome, then we'd have no story, now would we?

One thing about the manga that did impress me is that, while its way of tackling its main morals are about as subtle as an elephant in a china shop, it stresses that while children who are sick and need a lot of treatment do need to do what they need to do to get better, they also shouldn't be coddled, treated like porcelain dolls who break at the slightest breeze, nor as hopeless sad sacks with no future, even when they're at death's door. Some stories, while again having little to no restraint in this, have a surprising amount of nuance when it comes to treating sick kids as people and the problems that come with solely defining them by their illnesses. For example, one chapter has Yoko dealing with a child whose mother is so worried about her child's sickess that she's always by his side, day and night, and balks at the idea of sending him to school and having him learn any kind of life experience, especially dealing with other kids. As a result of her coddling and overprotectiveness, her son, who in-story is eight years old, is a whiny brat who cries and throws tantrums if he's away from his mother even for a short amount of time and frequently causes trouble because he's never been made to interact with anyone his own age. It's only when he's allowed to actually interact with other kids and learn proper behavior that he grows as a person and stops wanting to be coddled. Another chapter involves Yoko dealing with a girl who was diagnosed with diabetes, and said girl has completely given up on life or pursuing any kind of future because her mother strongly believes she has none, instilling in her the belief that she has no future because of her diabetes. Yoko tries to help the girl regain her confidence and help her get closer to her dream of becoming a teacher, but the girl's mother yells at Yoko for "putting ideas in her head," i.e. trying to make her daughter think of anything that's not involving her illness. It's only when Yoko has the girl interact with another disabled boy that the girl and her mother see that defining someone by their illness is not the way to help them live. Sick children aren't saints who exist solely to teach able-bodied people life lessons, but the manga also stresses the opposite: That sick kids aren't lost, hopeless beings whose only purpose is to be poked, prodded, and to die for nothing, nor are they solely their illnesses. Treating a child as if they will never have any kind of future that's not filled with endless hospital visits because of their illness can be just as bad as lying to them about the severity of their illnesses or putting expectations on them they can't fulfill. There are very few works that tackle this kind of subject matter in this way, and I applaud Letter To The Sky for daring to tackle it the way it did, even with its lack of restraint.

They say less is more, and Letter To The Sky could really benefit from more restraint and approaching its subject matter with a more subtle touch. I don't hate this manga, as it does have a lot to like, it misses a lot of detail and realism that others like it have and manage to make use of. I'd chalk it up to the mangaka probably being too immature and inexperienced to make this work, though I can definitely congratulate her for the things she does manage to do right. I also give this manga credit for actually managing to use dying children as a means to move the story forward rather than for shock value and cheap drama (Example: One of Yoko's first students dies from his aplastic anemia due to being on the waitlist for a bone marrow transplant. While Yoko does mourn for him, she decides to do something about it by becoming a bone marrow donor, so that way someone who is compatible with her bone marrow won't suffer the same fate...and thankfully, a girl receives her bone marrow and lives). While not a perfect manga by any means, it still has a lot to offer and does deserve more love and recognition. Just be prepared for a LOT of cheese and melodrama. Maybe bring some wine to go with it. But should you decide to buy it off some place like Amazon Prime, I should warn you: For some strange reason, volumes 5 and 6 are arranged in a left to right format instead of its original right to left when viewing two pages at a time. This doesn't happen when reading it one page at a time, so if you keep that in mind, you should be fine.