WARNING: CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!
I always strive to find new things in anime and manga. Sometimes, they hit you like a bolt out of the blue. I’ll wouldn’t be the first person to say that growing up in Ireland, you realise as you discover the internet and people from other countries, their experiences and how they live their lives, just how much you were sheltered. I will not go into the societal structure of Ireland in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, suffice to say that we really were socially unprepared for the onslaught of the concept of the “different lifestyle”, that is to say anything the Catholic Church did not view as morally wholesome. You would surprised the things that you’d never consider if you didn’t know they existed. There was, of course, homosexuality in Ireland way before I was born. But consenting intercourse between two males was illegal and a criminal offense until 1993! Imagine being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (as people identify themselves now) in Ireland? God, I can’t begin to grasp how, well, dangerous it was. You could actually be arrested for trying to show your affection for someone you were attracted to! Thankfully some other countries are further down the road in how they observe, treat, interact with and get along with other people who don’t fit into the society “norms”. In Japan, from what I can ascertain, LGBT people have an easier time in society. Mark you I said easier, as everyone has problems in the society they live in. But I’d never paid any attention to the mechanics of actually being in that group until very recently, as I said at the beginning. So with that in mind, I began searching out for manga or anime that addressed this demographic (can you call it a demographic group?) group. I’ve found some I think fit the bill. But I came across an upcoming manga alert and in it, there was one that I was immediately drawn too. Mostly because I was waiting to watch the anime version of it. So, the focus for today’s review is on the idea of wrapping your head around the fact that you are different. Different from everyone else (every adolescent believes that they are going through tough times on their own) and different enough to not know what to do.
Wandering Son by Shimura Takako is a heartfelt story of two people who I desperately feel for and for their families and friends. Shuichi Nitori is a nice lad who has a loving family and somewhat bossy sister. Yoshino Takatsuki is a girl with a similar, if slightly larger, family situation. But there’s one thing else that the two children share commonality on: they both want to be the opposite sex. Shuichi wants to be a girl and Yoshino wants to be a boy. And they are painfully making their way through the steps of both of them discovering their idenities, sexual or otherwise.
The main thing that drew me to this book was the fact that unlike a lot of western media that plays off the fact that a transgender teenager would have to deal with their friends and peers ostracising or bullying them for being different, Wandering Son goes straight for the heart, tackling the more important idea of how the person in the story feels. Reading the first volume, I can feel their awkwardness at them coming to the decision that they are different from other people and that they need to do something about it.
For me Takako is a great storyteller as she’s imbues her characters with a sense of self. Shuichi keeps having these nightmares, that’s all you can call them right now as they give only scary insights, where he’s interacting with Yoshino and suddenly he’ll be attacked by a loved one and wake up. This is something that informs his character, in what way I can’t say, yet I know these dreams are not just for show. If there is a trigger for Shuichi, it’s a dress that through a mixture of Takatsuki and a girl called Saori Chiba, a girl who goes to class with him. Yoshino gives a dress to Shuichi, making an off-hand remark that Shuichi would look good in it, and then offers it to Shuichi’s sister who gladly accepts. But seeing the dress hanging in the sibling’s bedroom triggers something in Shichi and one day when no one’s around, he tries it on. He answers the door to a stranger and they mistake him for a girl. Then he answers the door to Saori. And she doesn’t even blink. For Yoshino, it’s the fact that she can’t stop biologically being a girl despite how much she wants to be a boy. And when the boys tease her about needing sanitary napkins, she batters them. Just like a boy. I’m not one for violence but there was something satisfying about seeing them slightly bloodied. The leads feel alive, full of doubts and hopes. I feel for them every time they seem close to busting out and suddenly retreat. I can’t figure out though, how much is specific to be a transgender person and how much is run of the mill adolescence. I must admit that some of the trials the children face, I can identify with having been there myself. No, I’m not gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender but I’ve been five inches tall in my classroom hoping that I find some way of not suffocating surrounded by people who couldn’t grasp what I was feeling. I know what it’s like being this close to your family and being unable to talk with them about your problems but that when you finally do, it’s like the nicest wave to crash over you and cocoon you, ever. I want to tell Shuichi and Yoshino that these trials they face, like all things in life, will pass. That the greatest strength lies in their ability to look beyond the mountain in front of them.
I can’t figure out some of the characters, though. Shichi’s sister, Maho is coming across in a kind of duality. On one hand, she’s treating her brother as any sibling would (bickering and so on) but on the other, she’s seen in dreams as a more hateful figure. Maybe I’m reading too much in this here. Also, Saori. Saori is a likable, if a little weird, girl. She’s completely accepting of Shuichi and all. She helps Shu by suggesting that the class put on a play for their group project where the boys dress as girls and the girls dress as boys. She hopes that this will allow Shu some breathing room.But when she buys him a dress, Shu seizes up and can’t accept it from her. She, in turn, burns the dress in front of Shu and Yoshino. She then is seen praying to God for forgiveness. Now, I’ve skipped over the parts in between this behaviour but you get my drift. I can’t tell if Saori will be a good or bad influence on the two lead characters. Only time will tell.
The two children, Shu and Yoshino, have an interesting relationship. On the surface, Yoshino seems the stronger of the two with her daring attitude and pushing and teasing Shu to go out in a dress. And she has the courage to travel away from her home to dress as a boy. She wants to be a boy more than anything. But under stress, Yoshino sometimes cracks and Shu finds in himself strong support that in the initial pages is not immediately evident. The book ends with Shu making the observation that the “other” him is something that he knows can’t be bought. All the money in the world can’t buy the feeling being the other him gives to him.
The artwork is done in a kind of pastel, almost children’s drawing book kind of way. Takako is to be commended for such a deceptive look to the work. The artwork looks rough as if the author was rushed but it’s all a smoke screen and at times feels like it’s half done. It plays out in such a childlike way that you don’t notice that she’s wrapped you up in a blanket from which there is no escape.
And I don’t want to escape from this story. I want to be alongside these characters as they discover who and how they are. I want to see them triumph in ways that many of us never get to. Most of all, I want to be there at the end even if it ends in failure. My heart breaks when I see people suffer for no good reason except they only want to be themselves. All the “there, there’s” in the world can’t make up for a person who feels they are not and will never reach their full potential.
Matt Thorn must receive a pat on the back for the translation work he’s done here. Some translations askew the need for Japanese honorifics but here Matt explains the need to use it in Wandering Son. If you’re in the mood for more of his work then I suggest you pick up a copy of A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by Moto Hagio also by Fantagraphics. Plus Fantagraphics get high marks for such an excellent job, in particular the design work by Alexa Koenings. Such a stellar job, I hope Fantagraphics continue with their manga endeavours.
Finally, I must stress that any missteps I made in regards to LBGT persons in my review, I do so apologise. I try in my reviews to be as inoffensive as possible and as I prefaced at the beginning, my worldview is slightly rustier than most as it hasn’t had time to develop fully. Give me some time, I’m getting there.
Let me leave you with this thought, dear readers: My online dictionary defines potential as:
1. possible, as opposed to actual
2. capable of being or becoming
3. a latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed.
With that in mind, let me further posit this amazing idea. This is not the story of two children with the potential of becoming fully grown transgender people. It’s the story of two children with the potential of becoming fully grown people, full stop. I submit to you that’s all we as human beings can only be convicted of if we truly honest with ourselves.
As always you know how and where to contact me. If you would like to follow Shimura Takako and you can read Japanese, here’s her twitter page and likewise for Mister Thorn. If you want to help my website out and get a copy of Wandering Son for yourself for the not unreasonable price of $12.69, click on the cover for Wandering Son at the top of the page.
P.S. Want to have a look inside the book? Check out this video Fantagraphics posted on their website: