~by Takako Shimura
After reading the first and second volumes of Takako Shimura's manga series Wandering Son, I was looking forward to the release of Wandering Son, Volume 3 a great deal. Originally published in Japan in 2005, the English edition of Wandering Son, Volume 3 was released by Fantagraphics in 2012. I am incredibly grateful that Fantagraphics chose to bring Wandering Son to English-reading audiences. Shimura deals with her characters and with identity, particularly gender identity, with a tremendous amount of sensitivity. Wandering Son is one of the few comics that I have had the opportunity to read that has accomplished this as a fictional work rather than as a memoir. Fantagraphics production work and physical presentation of the series is also superb. Each volume has been printed as a lovely over-sized, high-quality hardcover. I have been very pleased with the reception with which Fantagraphics' release of Wandering Son has been received. The series has made several "best of" lists and was even a finalist for an Eisner Award in 2012.
From time to time, Shuichi and his friend Takatsuki sneak out together--she dresses as a boy and he dresses as a girl. They have kept their trips a secret from most people, but when their exchange diary is stolen and read aloud in class, suddenly their secret is out. The resulting fallout hurts both Takatsuki and Shuichi and even puts a strain on their friendship. Shuichi's life at home isn't any less complicated than his life at school when his older sister Maho drags him along with her to a modeling audition. For her, it's a chance to meet her idol Maiko. For Shuichi, it's a chance to dress up. But once again, not many people seem to take him seriously, thinking it's some sort of gimmick or game. Maho even goes as far as to set Shuichi up on a date with her classmate Seya. She happens to like Seya which only complicates matters further. Seya first saw Shuichi while he was wearing a dress and doesn't realize that the cute girl he's developed a crush on is actually Maho's little brother.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Wandering Son, Volume 3 was the focus given to Shuichi's sister and their relationship with each other. The two are most definitely siblings. They tease and make fun of each other and get into fights and arguments, but ultimately they love each other. When it really counts, they are there to give their support. It's not always clear to what extent Maho's actions are for her own good versus the good of her younger sibling, but sometimes the two are actually one and the same. Still, Maho doesn't always completely think through her decisions; she's young enough that she doesn't consider or understand what all of the repercussions might be. The result of this can be very upsetting for her, for Shuichi, and for the other people who are directly involved. However, I don't think she is being deliberately malicious. Although she accepts him, Maho is confused by her brother's desire to be seen as a girl (granted, to some extent Shuichi's confused by it, too). She's learning how to deal with how this affects her.
Shimura's Wandering Son works so well because the characters feel real and well-rounded. The beautifully simple artwork draws the readers attention to the characters and their growth. Gender identity is an important part of their lives and an important part of the story, but it is not the only emphasis. Growing up is a difficult process to begin with. Even if Takatsuki and Shuichi make it through their middle school years, they will still be faced with challenges as they explore their identities. Yuki, a transwoman who has befriended the two, continues to be confronted with the outcomes of her own decisions well into adulthood. She is largely a positive influence in their lives, but some of her interactions, particularly with Takatsuki, are disconcerting. Although Yuki has dealt with problems similar to those that Shuichi and Takatsuki are facing, her experiences are different and she can't understand everything they are going through. The fact that the characters aren't characters per se but actual individuals is one of Wandering Son's greatest strengths. Ultimately, the story isn't about the "issues" surrounding personal identity so much as it is about the people themselves.