Wandering Son, Volume 4

Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606996058
Released: April 2013
Original release: 2006

Wandering Son, Volume 4 by Takako Shimura was originally released in Japan in 2005. After several delays, the English-language edition of the volume from Fantagraphics was published in 2013. It was a long wait between the third and fourth volumes and, unfortunately, a scattering of editing errors still made their way into the manga. However, I am extremely happy to finally have it in my hands. Fantagraphics began releasing Wandering Son in 2011 in a beautiful oversized hardcover edition. I have been reading Wandering Son since the beginning. It’s an incredibly important series to me personally; I would not be exaggerating to call it life-changing. I am thrilled and terrified by each volume that Fantagraphics releases because the manga hits so close to home for me. Wandering Son is a wonderful series exploring many aspects of personal identity, including gender and sexuality, with great sincerity and sensitivity.

After Shuichi and Maho were accepted as a pair for a modeling project, the two siblings have grown closer; both were subject to direct and indirect bullying and pressure from the other models and they had to look out for each other. But now that Maho is starting to get along with the other girls, she and Shuichi have started to drift apart. Feeling abandoned and uncomfortable with Maho’s new friends, Shuichi even goes as far as to stop modeling. At school things are a little better—at least for a time. After a brief falling out Shuichi and Takatsuki have made up and have started their exchange diary again with a renewed fervor. Shuichi has also become very close with Makoto, another classmate. But while some friendships flourish, others start to wither. Add to all that burgeoning feelings of love and romantic interest and suddenly sixth grade becomes even more complicated.

Makoto probably states it best when he declares “feelings are such difficult things.” That is a major theme in Wandering Son, Volume 4. Shuichi, Takatsuki, and their friends and classmates are beginning to grapple not only with who they are as individuals but who they are in relation to other people. Shimura captures the constantly shifting dynamics of their relationships in a very convincing and realistic way. Friendships are tested and strained as the characters begin to try to figure out just who means what to whom. It’s heartbreaking to see those friendships, which are so incredibly important to them, falling apart as jealousy and sheer awkwardness put them in jeopardy. At the same time, there are some characters who are able to forge even stronger bonds with one another due to all the turmoil.

Takatsuki and Shuichi are still clearly the protagonists of Wandering Son but Shimura doesn’t forget any of the young people in the fourth volume. Even the classroom bullies are shown to have their own problems and issues to work through. All of the characters have their strengths and weaknesses. This includes Shuichi, with whom everyone seems to fall in love, who exhibits a willingness to wallow in self-pity. As nostalgic as Wandering Son can be, the middle school years haven’t been idealized in the series. With all of the romantic entanglements introduced in Wandering Son, Volume 4 the manga is building up to the next volume in which the characters enter seventh grade and puberty. Middle school is challenging and difficult enough, but junior high promises to be even more so. Wandering Son is more about characters than a linear plot, but the fourth volume is an important setup for what comes next in the series.

Random Musings: A Note of Thanks for Wandering Son

When the subject of November 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast was decided—manga for which we are thankful—at first I was at a loss as to what to write about. It was such an open-ended theme there were so many different directions in which I could take it. Seeing as Experiments in Manga is almost entirely devoted to manga and other Japanese literature, it probably already stands to reason that I am thankful for manga. (That in fact would be a very accurate assumption.)

However, it didn’t take me long to realize that there is one manga that I am truly and utterly thankful for with every bit of my being. I was pleasantly surprised and extremely excited when I learned that the series had been licensed in English by Fantagraphics. Every time a new volume is released I can’t help but express my gratitude to the publisher, and I do. Publicly. And repeatedly.

That manga is Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son.

I don’t generally share much about my personal life here at Experiments in Manga, but I have occasionally mentioned it here before: I’m queer. This marvelous, all-encompassing and somewhat ambiguous adjective applies not only to my gender, sexuality, and general personality, but to many other aspects of my existence as well.

Before leaving my hometown after graduating high school, I only knew one person who was openly gay. He was an underclassman and a friend of mine. How he was treated and how other friends I knew were treated when they came out after graduation certainly wasn’t conducive to me making a declaration of my own gender identity and sexuality. And I’ll admit, while I won’t deny that I’m queer, I’m still much more open about my queerness online than I am offline. I was well into my college career before I had the opportunity to even meet anyone who openly identified as trans*.

It wasn’t until reading Wandering Son that I have been able to so fully and completely identify with a fictional character in the same way that I do with Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki—the two young protagonists who are exploring their gender expression and identities. Shimura deftly approaches the material and her characters with incredible sensitivity and sincerity. With every new volume of Wandering Son that is released I am both thrilled and terrified because the manga hits so close to home for me. These kids are dealing with problems similar to the ones that I’m still working on to find the answers to for myself, and probably will be for quite some time.

I needed a story like Wandering Son growing up. I’ve only recently realized how crucial and important it is for young people to have characters that they can personally identify with in the media that they watch, read, and play. And you know what? It’s important for adults to be able to do the same thing, too, which is one of the reasons that I am so appreciative that Wandering Son exists. In part because I do so closely identify with Shuichi and Yoshino, I care about them immensely.

Wandering Son is about so much more than the “issues” surrounding sexuality and gender identity. It’s about these two wonderful kids growing up and discovering and establishing their own personal identities, even when those identities aren’t what society expects or demands from them. It’s about their families and friends who all have their own growing up to do. Ultimately Wandering Son isn’t so much about issues as it is about people. That, I think, is what makes it such an effective and emotionally compelling story.

I can only begin to express just how much Wandering Son means to me, but I can at least say this:

Thank you.

Thank you Fantagraphics for bringing Wandering Son to English-reading audiences.

And thank you Shimura-sensei for creating such a wonderful work.

I am eternally grateful.

This post is a part of A Thankful Manga Feast.

Wandering Son, Volume 3

Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606995334
Released: July 2012
Original release: 2005

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.

Wandering Son, Volume 2

Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606994566
Released: December 2011
Original release: 2004

I have been looking forward to Wandering Son, Volume 2 by Takako Shimura with great anticipation. The first volume in the series was one of my favorite releases of 2011. Fantagraphics’ editions of Wandering Son are beautiful, oversized hardcovers printed on high quality paper; it is obvious that great care has been taken with the series. Wandering Son, Volume 1 has been very well received, which thrills me. It is not very often that a comic (from any country) deals with gender identity in such a sensitive and accessible way, which is why I am so incredibly happy that Wandering Son is being translated into English. The series is over ten volumes in Japan and is still ongoing. The second volume of Wandering Son was originally published in Japan in 2004. I sincerely hope that the series continues to receive the positive attention it deserves from English-reading audiences so that Fantagraphics can continue to release more volumes.

Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki are two middle-schoolers who share a secret—Shuichi, a boy, wants to be a girl while Takatsuki, a girl, wants to be a boy. The two friend often sneak off together, Shuichi wearing a girl’s sailor suit and Takatsuki wearing her fathers’ old school uniform. Very few other people know of their secret and the two of them are very lucky to have each other. Even their families are unaware or don’t take the clues that are discovered too seriously. But even though the friends of Shuichi and Takatsuki’s who know of their secret are accepting and supportive, they both must deal with teasing at school. Shuichi in particular is having a difficult time; Takatsuki’s tomboyish attitude is still acceptable at their age while Shuichi’s more docile nature (although he is growing to be more confident), is beginning to become suspect. Children can be exceptionally cruel to each other.

As Wandering Son progresses, Shuichi and Takatsuki’s support system slowly expands. Their classmate Chiba, who comes across as a little strange in the first volume, proves to be a fantastic ally. (One particular scene towards the end of volume two just about had me cheering out loud.) Yuki, the woman that Takatsuki meets while dressed as a boy in the first volume, also returns, becoming a friend to both her and Shuichi. But not everything is sugar and spice in Wandering Son, snips and snails make their appearance, too. Both Shuichi and Takatsuki come from very loving families, but some of their actions are still hurtful without their even knowing it. Takatsuki’s mother still buys her daughter dresses that she has no intention of wearing. Shuichi’s parents unintentionally dismiss his dreams in passing. As Takatsuki and Shuichi grow older, their lives increasingly become more complicated.

I really do love Wandering Son. The story has a quietness to it that hides the intensity of its emotion. While gender identity is an important part of Wandering Son, it is not the only aspect of the story or of the characters. Shuichi, Takatsuki, their friends, families, classmates, and teachers all come across as real people. The connections between characters transcend gender, too. Friendships are developed and strengthened by common interests and standing up for each other. Yuki and her boyfriend present an uncomfortable problem—Shuichi and Takatsuki’s parents and teachers are understandably concerned about the two suddenly having grownup friends who they are reluctant to admit to how they met. But Yuki is, and will be, a very important person in their lives. Also included in the second volume of Wandering Son is an brief but excellent essay by the series’ translator Matt Thorn, “Transgender in Japan,” which helps give further insight into the series. I can’t recommend Wandering Son enough and am really looking forward to the next volume.

Wandering Son, Volume 1

Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606994160
Released: June 2011
Original release: 2003

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.