Helen ESP – What disability?

There are great works of literature on disability. Rather than focusing only on the helplessness of disabled individuals, they turn into affirmations of life. These works serve as important reminders that it is doing what you can that counts, not lamenting what you can’t do.

Helen ESP, on the other hand, takes ignoring one’s disabilities so literally that it is difficult to say the main character is really handicapped. The title character, Helen, is a blind-deaf-mute ripoff of Helen Keller who uses ESP to sense her surroundings and telepathically hold long conversations with her guide dog about subjects as diverse as spirituality, the human condition, and physics. One might give author Kigitsu Katsuhisa credit for the bizarre novelty of reducing a disability to a fashion statement, except that in American comics Daredevil has already done the “disabled superhero” concept for decades, with a titular character that uses “sonar” to “see.”

Way to show isolation, there.
A manifest failure to empathize with the isolation of blind-deaf-mutes.

Instead of being shocking but original, Helen ESP is merely tasteless.  The struggles of the title character are almost wholly unrelated to those of the average disabled person. Choosing to emphasize a character’s identity as a handicapped person while giving them a power that almost completely negates the handicap is cheating. Worse, it is tantamount to arguing that a handicapped person cannot really be a compelling main character, and their handicap requires supernatural mitigation or compensation in order to make them human.

Comparing Helen ESP to visual novel project Katawa Shoujo leads one inescapably to the conclusion that even 4chan ascribes more depth and meaning to the struggles of the handicapped than author Kigitsu Katsuhisa does. This is truly a shame, because the moral complexity of his earlier work (Franken Fran) suggests a grasp of the subtleties of life. However, in Helen ESP he has opted for the easy way out. The main character’s disabilities turn out to be moe traits akin to generic clumsiness rather than something she must struggle meaningfully against. Indeed there is nothing gained in the series by making her blind-deaf-mute; she might as well simply be a dojikko instead and spare the reader some agony.

What is Love? Baby don't hurt me.
Morality in Franken Fran, another manga by the same author.

Readers desiring a lighthearted romp through ESP with some social commentary should try Apple; for a more serious treatment of teens with psychic powers, consider the manhwa Zero (listed at ANN as “Zero: Beginning of the Coffin,” though some fans have suggested “Opening the Gate” as a more sensible translation.)  Readers who desire a story about a child who can see spirits are encouraged to instead read the opening story arc of BleachHelen ESP is not recommended for anyone desirous of a story that relates to real-world disabled persons.

13 thoughts on “Helen ESP – What disability?”

  1. This is indeed a shame – there isn’t much manga around that addresses these issues so it’s a pity that this particular example fails.

    I strongly recommend Translucent, however. That examines how a disability (albeit a relatively minor one that doesn’t affect the sufferer’s physical wellbeing in any way) affects the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, and is really sweet into the bargain. I believe Dark Horse are going to resume the release schedule for that, too, which was a relief to me.

  2. That does seem sad.. well I think that usually people write stories to make sure there is a perfection state. The main character has to be this certain way or that way.. Especially in picture… So to show disability, there must be a happy ending scenario. Otherwise would people purchase the book?

  3. @animemiz – Perhaps, but if you’ve read Franken Fran, the endings are horrific, grisly conclusions that will give you nightmares.  Clearly, then, Kigitsu does not have a problem writing unhappy endings.

    I can accept that this is intended to be story-driven rather than character-driven, but then, why did he insist on a character whose defining characteristics really don’t fit the story?  I still think there were poor decisions made.

  4. Off the top of my head the only ones that I know that touches on disablities well is Real by Inoue Takehiko (Slam Dunk, Vagabond) It’s worth reading if only for the art or its seasoned and poignant storytelling.

    I can’t say I’m an avid fan of Franken Fan;  even if I’m generally an avid fan of the horror/black comedy/etc genre of comics.

  5. @Omisyth – All right, you have me there.  I shouldn’t say all endings are totally bad, though many of the “sweet” endings are quite twisted and thus not really what I would call “good” endings.  Case in point – the plastic surgery/transplant story.  Everyone gets what they want, and is happy momentarily, at the cost of being freaks forever. Once they get out of school they’ll have to find jobs in the hyperconformist Japanese workplace, where their altered physiologies probably won’t go over too well.

    My point remains – Kigitsu has no problem with writing unhappy endings.  Furthermore, if he wants a happy story, I feel that he could write one in a way that does not require completely negating the premise of the main character.

    @Smashingtofu – Thanks! I will add it to my list.

  6. Wow, you inferred THAT much from two chapters.

    Honestly you sound like another case of “Fat Princess is offensive to overweight people”.

    Found this article through google when searching Helen ESP. Nothing to see here, move along.

  7. @Harimau – The premise of a story is established early on, so it’s perfectly valid. (For reference, the following chapters continue in the same pattern – the third, for instance, features a machine bypassing Helen’s disabilities to let her watch movies. Again, this is trivializing the struggles of blind-deaf-mutes rather than telling their tale.)

    Nothing’s stopping you from enjoying it for the artwork. All I’m saying is, it’s devoid of literary merit.

  8. I disagree. How is Franken Fran any more relatable to the struggles of the average doctor/scientist?

    The premise of this manga appears to be the special-powers that Helen possesses. Her disability is not the main focus. You would think that the title (Helen ESP) would be a big hint. Helen, in this manga, is not your average deaf-mute-blind.

    Yes, this manga trivializes reality. What manga doesn’t? Telling the tales of the struggles of the average blind-deaf-mutes is not what the author intended – clearly.
    Your review, on the other hand, is devoid of any literary merit.

  9. Well Moritheil..!
    It is not because you doesn’t understand the vision of the author that you must criticize him so much.
    The author made a story that he liked and wanted to share with the other people.
    it is fantasy… if you don’t like it, just shut up and don’t read it.
    there is a lot of people who like this story.

    PS: if you just want to read some story of poor handicapped people who struggle with their problem, why don’t you just go read some sad drama novel featuring some handicapped..

  10. Though not a fan of Helen ESP, I will comment on one thing…

    “Choosing to emphasize a character’s identity as a handicapped person while giving them a power that almost completely negates the handicap is cheating.”

    last I checked the marvel superhero Daredevil was blind, but had a power that almost completely negates that very handicap, but people herald that as amazing. I personally don’t like Daredevil or Helen ESP, but wanted to say that disabled or not, they made decent characters.

    Though…

    Have to say it…

    FRANKEN FRAN FOREVER!

  11. If you give up on Helen ESP only after a few chapters, you really miss out. I find it a lovely and charming manga, with lots of heartwarming moments. Helen’s powers don’t really negate her disability either, but they cause her to live in an alternate reality of sorts. Is it realistic? Hardly. But does that really matter? In the end, it’s about the story and the characters. And they all hold up.

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