Manga-ka: Shimura Takako
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: July 2011
Synopsis: “The fifth grade. The threshold to puberty, and the beginning of the end of childhood innocence. Shuichi Nitori and his new friend Yoshino Takatsuki have happy homes, loving families, and are well-liked by their classmates, but they share a secret that further complicates a time of life that is awkward for anyone: Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy.”
What makes Wandering Son work is its slow-burn pace and calm atmosphere. It takes a delicate subject – transgender children- and explores it slowly and carefully. Much like its characters, it moves at its own pace, easing the reader into the characters’ lives.
The ‘wandering son’ of the title could refer to either of the main characters. Shuichi is a young boy drawn to girl’s clothes and dresses. Yoshino is a tomboy who likes to wear her big brother’s old high school uniform. When they end up in the same grade five class, the two become friends even before they find out eachothers’ secret.
The manga does a great job getting inside the characters’ heads. The manga uses very little words and even moments of revelation are downplayed. It would be easy to turn the manga into a melodrama, but Wandering Son is too chill for that. Even though the characters struggle this isn’t an angst-fest: the manga-ka goes to great pains to show that both of the main characters come from happy families and are popular at school. The characters aren’t the way they are because of some external pressure, it’s just who they are on the inside.
The manga does a good job of depicting children as well. Even minor characters, like the kids in Shu’s class, act like regular elementary school kids. The fact the characters act like real-life kids makes them all the more endearing and vulnerable. There’s one part where Shu’s older sister tells him that grandma will buy him anything he wants. That night, as Shu dreams of himself as a girl, he comments that ‘Not even grandma can buy me this.’ It’s a great line that shows exactly how a child’s mind works.
Even though I like both Shuichi and Yoshino, my favourite character is Chiba Saori, a girl in Shu’s class. At first it seems like she has a crush on Shu, but after she discovers him cross-dressing things get really interesting. The author’s notes describe her as ‘slightly self-centred and emotionally unstable,’ but she is also a very caring girl in her own odd way. There’s a chapter in this volume where she tries to do something nice for Shu only to get rebuffed. Her reaction is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the book. Chiba might not be dealing with issues of gender like Shuichi and Yoshino are, but she is still struggling to find her own identity. Her character shows that growing up isn’t easy for anyone, no matter what you’re going through.
The art is very minimal but in a way that makes the manga seem classic rather than lacking. The sparse style gives the series a timeless quality. If someone told me that the series was originally released in the 1970s, I would believe them. There’s very little to date Wandering Son, either art or content wise (I don’t think the characters even use cell phones).
The simplicity extends to the character designs. It’s a common complaint that it’s hard to tell the guys from the girls when reading manga, and in this case that’s kind of the point. Still, part of me wishes that Shu looked a little bit more feminine. That’s mostly just me though. I’ve read so much manga and watched so much anime that I’ve been sadly desensitized to pretty boys.
Fantagraphics Books does a really nice job with the series. I love the hardcover volume and the larger page size. All in all it’s a great release for a great manga.
I am really eager to read volume two of Wandering Son, though a little hesitant as well. I know that the road in front of Shu and Yoshino isn’t going to be an easy one and I don’t want to see them get hurt. But the fact that I’m talking about the characters as though they’re real people just shows how deep this manga has gotten under my skin.
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Book bought from Strange Adventures