~by Takako Shimura
I was absolutely delighted when Fantagraphics announced the license of Takako Shimura's manga series Wandering Son. The first volume, originally released in Japan in 2003, was published in English in 2011. The series is currently up to eleven volumes in Japan and is ongoing but only the first two volumes have been announced for the English edition so far. Gender play is far from uncommon in manga but is probably most often used as a gag or for comedic intent. A more serious, sincere, and realistic portrayal of gender issues, and specifically transgender issues, is much rarer. It's not a common theme to be found in comics in general which is why I was particularly excited for the release of Wandering Son in English. Plus, Fantagraphics' edition is beautifully presented as a full-sized hardcover with excellent print and paper quality. The volume is just as lovely to behold as it is to read.
When Shuichi Nitori transfers into his new fifth grade class, one of the first people he befriends is the handsome tomboy Yoshino Takatsuki. They don't know it at the time but they both have similar secrets--Nitori dreams of being a girl while Takatsuki wants to be a boy. Nitori is cute enough and is even mistaken for a girl on occasion but his opportunities to cross-dress are seen by most others to be entertaining rather than honest expressions of his desire. Takatsuki's tomboyishness is more socially acceptable but also hides to some extent what she really wants; she is still considered to be a girl. Fortunately, as the two of them grow closer as friends and eventually become aware of the other's secret, they also become an important source of encouragement and support for each other.
Shimura's artwork is simple but remains expressive. Very little detail is given to the backgrounds, forcing the readers' attention to the people of the story. Sometimes this means the characters' seem slightly out of context with their world, bringing the focus to their thoughts and feelings and leaving them alone with them. The artwork makes it easy to slip between dreams, daydreams, and reality. A nice balance between the text and the artwork exists in Wandering Son. Internal monologues drift from words to images; there are simply some things that are too difficult or too personal for the characters to be able to express in words yet. There is a lot that is left unsaid that the artwork still conveys. Many of Shimura's character designs are very similar. However it still is fairly easy to tell everyone apart as they all have distinctive personalities, movements, and postures.
Instead of following a strictly linear narrative, Wandering Son provides a somewhat fragmented view. To me, it seems more like a collection of memories, glimpses of important and influential moments in the characters' lives. Though told chronologically, the story has an impressionistic quality to it. Wandering Son is lovely and quiet with tremendous emotional depth. Middle school is already a tumultuous time growing up and Nitori and Takatsuki are both faced with additional challenges as they begin to explore their own identities. Included in the first volume of Wandering Son is a brief essay by the series' translator Matt Thorn called "Snips and Snails, Sugar and Spice" which examines the use of honorifics and pronouns, some of the gender quirks of both the Japanese and English languages as well as the social implications of those word choices. I was very pleased with the first volume of Wandering Son and greatly look forward to the release of the second volume.