by Takako Shimura; adapted by Matt Thorn
published by Fantagraphics; $19.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
***Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers***
Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki are mirror images of each other. Both are in fifth grade and have just recently transferred to a new school. They are classmates who sit next to each other and quickly become good friends. Both share a secret. Shuichi is a feminine-looking boy who dreams of being a girl. Yoshino is a masculine-looking girl who dreams of being a boy.
Wandering Son is the story of growing up as a transgender person, told in first person from Shuichi’s perspective. When the book opens, Shuichi is discontented with his biological gender, but he doesn’t seem ready to embrace his transgender nature. By contrast, Yoshino has already begun experimenting with cross-dressing. The bulk of this first volume is spent introducing us to the main characters and preparing us for the main themes of gender identity and the choices we face as we define ourselves.
Shimura’s writing is subtle and quiet. The focus is on character growth and development. Shuichi’s dreams play an important part in the narrative. It’s in his dreams that Shuichi is honest about his feelings and works through his fears. We watch as he slowly comes to accept himself, and this first volume ends with him admitting to himself that his deepest desire is to be a girl.
Shimura is very careful not to exploit her characters or make them come across as strange. We see Shuichi living the typical life of someone his age. There is nothing extraordinary about his family or the school he is attending. His gender struggles are portrayed as one aspect of his life and not as all-consuming. That’s the point. He could be anyone you meet on the street. He is no less, and no more, human than the rest of us.
This book does something I love. It takes me inside a world I’ve never known. Sure, I had all kinds of doubts and anxieties growing up. However, I never questioned my sexuality or ever felt uncomfortable with my gender. Thinking back to all the growing pains I went through, I can’t fathom the added layers of complexity that Shuichi and Yoshino are experiencing. Shimura’s writing does a good job of exposing the readers to the realities of being transgender. Wandering Son ignited my imagination and got me trying to relate to and understand these characters as deeply as possible.
I watched the anime for Wandering Son as it streamed on Crunchyroll while I was waiting for the book to be published. This turned out to be a mistake for two reasons. First, the anime takes place as Shuichi and Yoshino are entering seventh grade, so they have been friends for two years. Also, the characters have come to accept themselves as transgender by this time. So the anime focuses more on the psychological and social implications of being transgender. This first book has to go through the process of introducing the main characters and the themes of the series, so it doesn’t have the emotional drama of the anime.
This is not to say the anime is perfect. The show assumes that you are already familiar with the manga and so simply dumps you into the story. You’re introduced to a large cast of characters in established friendships and rivalries without any explanation. I had to watch the first two episodes a couple of times back-to-back to figure out who’s who. The manga obviously does a better job at introducing each character and walking you through the relationships as they develop.
The second mistake in watching the anime first is that it is absolutely gorgeous. The pastel colors are warm, subtle, and perfect for conveying the delicate, intimate emotions of the series. The show has more detail in its artwork than the manga, most noticeable in the fully rendered backgrounds. Also, the character designs are more polished. The production company, AIC, crafted a show that is easily in my top ten list of anime series.
While I admit it’s unfair to compare the art of the anime to the manga, it can’t be helped. The anime was my first exposure to Wandering Son and formed a profound impression in me. Shimura’s art is good, but it comes across as roughhewn after seeing the anime. Her linework isn’t as confident. The facial features aren’t as crisp. I think Shimura’s art works well. It has a vulnerability that echoes the emotional state of the narrator, Shuichi. I just can’t say I prefer it to the art of the anime.
Matt Thorn has a wonderful essay on honorifics and the importance of retaining some, but not all, in Wandering Son. Unfortunately, these are the only translator’s notes in the book. I would have liked to see notes explain the Takarazuka Revue and the Rose of Versailles, including why the two are so closely associated with each other. Also, I would have liked a small note on zoni soup and why it’s considered a comfort food. The lack of notes makes this a bit off-putting to readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture.
Shimura has crafted an excellent opening volume. The characters are immensely likable, and by the time you finish this book, you’re ready for volume two (and lamenting it’s not available in English yet). This really is the best way to encounter the series and characters for the first time. While you’re waiting for the second volume, due in November, you can check out the anime. The quiet pace and subject matter make this series a perfect read for the alternative comics crowd. Fans of shoujo and josei manga will enjoy it too. I’d love for everyone to at least give the first volume of Wandering Son a try. It’s a rare gem of emotional honesty and complexity that rewards those willing to take the risk and move outside their typical reading habits.
You can read a 20-page preview of Wandering Son at the Fantagraphics website.