Wandering Son 1

November 24, 2011

Shimura Takako – Fantagraphics – 2011 – 4+ volumes

Sometimes, when I read a really good volume of manga, I’ll have to sit on it a while before I write it up here, just to make sure I do it justice. That only makes writing about it harder, and it means I can’t talk about it when it comes out to try and promote it. Wandering Son is quite good, and I’m sorry I haven’t written it up before now. It deserves all the nice things anyone could say about it.

It’s an interesting story. The main characters are all 10-year-old children in fifth grade. The main character, Shuichi, thinks he should have been born a girl. He’s very effeminate, and enjoys feminine hobbies and clothing. He transfers into a new school at the beginning of the volume where he meets Yoshino, a tomboy who later reveals to him that she hates girly clothes and prefers to be mistaken as a boy. The story follows mostly Shuichi as he begins to explore his feelings about his appearance and how he fits in, but Yoshino is also a big part of the story.

First and foremost, this is an actual, honest-to-God gender identity story. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a romance with cross-dressing, it’s a story about these two young students just beginning to deal with a vague discomfort about who they are, and exploring ways to make themselves happier. It’s sensitive, it’s taking a slow pace, and it’s just about everything good you can think of for this type of story. The only other manga series I’ve read that dealt with gender identity on a serious level like this was IS, by Chiyo Rokuhana, which is more about gender identity and the societal implications of those born intersexed. IS is good, but Wandering Son is better all around about handling its topics and characters. IS sometimes reads a little like a PSA (with the characters publically announcing to everyone that they’re intersexed, when seriously, why is it the business of random strangers?), whereas Wandering Son is very focused so far on internal struggles.

What’s really great about Wandering Son is the amount of subtlety this subject matter is given. Shuichi and Yoshino don’t know about gender identity, and they don’t know what it means to be uncomfortable with who they are. They’re ten years old. They only know what they do and do not like, and how the people around them respond to it. They don’t reflect on their “sins” or ponder how terrible it is they think this way, nor is there any drama about gender identity. In this first volume, the reader merely follows along as the story gently probes the characters. There are no internal monologues or reflective soliloquies to help us along. We find out all we know about the characters through their conversations with others and their quiet actions in private.

In this volume, I thought Shuichi was the more interesting character, but only because he was clearly struggling with his “tastes.” Yoshino was much more comfortable with who she was, and tomboyish girls are much more acceptable in society in general (at least here they are, maybe that’s less true in Japan), so Shuichi has the more interesting story to tell at this point. What’s most interesting about Shuichi’s character at this point is that those around him seem to be encouraging his feminine behaviors, and even his dress, complimenting him the few times he tries on dresses. He’s young, so obviously gender identity isn’t going to be a problem for those around him at this point. So Shuichi is receiving some fairly positive reinforcement for his forays into acting more feminine. Yet he’s clearly still struggling. It’s not an overt struggle just yet, but Shuichi clearly knows something is wrong, and that he shouldn’t be feeling this way, that what he does is dangerous. I’m not sure if he’s aware of why at this point, but his silent struggle is the main draw for me right now.

Another interesting element is Shuichi and Yoshino’s classmate Saori. Saori is a devout Christian, which, if this were set in the US, would be a big problem for both Shuichi and Yoshino. But Saori is one of the biggest early supporters for Shuichi, encouraging him strongly to simply wear women’s clothes and buying him outfits she thinks would look good on him. Shuichi is uncomfortable with how forward she is, and it’s not clear what her role in the story will be after volume one. But I’m very, very interested in her.

Volume two will be out in another month or so, and I am ridiculously excited about reading more of this. It’s just so wonderful. It deals with a difficult topic with a lot of sensitivity, and makes the character struggles genuinely interesting based on who they are rather than the potentially controversial subject matter. It’s well-written, it has wonderfully spare art that communicates a lot simply with facial expressions and even silence, and I loved every page of it. It’s unusual and completely fantastic, and I am thrilled to be reading it in English.

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