Wandering Son, Volume 8

Wandering Son, Volume 8Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606998311
Released: May 2015
Original release: 2008

Wandering Son by Takako Shimura is a manga series that is incredibly important to me on a very personal level. The series’ exploration of personal identity, especially in regards to gender and sexual identity, is beautifully done with great sensitivity. It’s a rare comic in which gender expression and other issues relating to gender are treated realistically and not as a joke. Wandering Son is an authentically meaningful series. Fantagraphics Books has been releasing the manga in English in a lovely hardcover edition; I only wish that the individual volumes were able to be released more frequently. Wandering Son, Volume 8 was first published in Japan in 2008 while the English translation was published in 2015. Wandering Son concluded in 2013 with its fifteenth volume, meaning that the eighth volume marks the beginning of the second half of the series. I am so incredibly grateful that Wandering Son is being translated and look forward to reading the remaining volumes.

Spring has come, which means a new school year is about to begin. Shuichi, Takatsuki, and their classmates are entering the eighth grade, but with a new year comes new class assignments. The students, whose often precarious friendships and relationships were at least temporarily stable, once more find themselves confronted with new and changing group dynamics. Some friends are separated while others are reunited. And of course, not-quite-friends and past bullies are included in the mix as well, creating some challenging and awkward situations for everyone involved. Springtime has come for some of the young people in a more figurative sort of way as well. Anna and Shuichi continue to date each other and enjoy being together despite Shuichi’s lingering affections for Takatsuki. Everyone has mostly come to terms with this development in their relationship, but more than one person has commented that Takatsuki and Shuichi would make an ideal couple.

Wandering Son, Volume 8, page 101I’ve come to really like Anna as a character. When she was first introduced in the series, she came across as aloof and perhaps even a bit mean-spirited, but as Wandering Son has progressed, more about Anna has been revealed. It’s not exactly that she’s bad-natured, she just doesn’t have a high tolerance for people who don’t approach their lives and work seriously. Anna can be surprisingly mature for her age—something that may probably be true for many of the younger characters in Wandering Son—but I still find her personality and character to be a believable. She is extraordinarily accepting and kind in her own fashion, seeming to lack the jealous tendencies that cause so many problems for her peers. But what I love most about Anna in Wandering Son, Volume 8 is her acceptance and support of Shuichi through their relationship as a couple. She is perfectly content to go on dates as two girls if that’s what Shuichi wants and she never denigrates Shuichi’s interests or feelings.

For the most part, Wandering Son tends to be a fairly quiet series, which is not to say there isn’t drama. And I certainly don’t intend to downplay the very real and intense emotions experienced by the characters as they struggle through their adolescence and personal turmoils. Those are central to Wandering Son. However, the eighth volume is the first volume that really ends with a dramatic turn of events that could be described as a cliffhanger. Throughout Wandering Son, Shuichi and Takatsuki have become more comfortable and increasingly bolder with how they express themselves in the clothes they wear, largely because they’ve received encouragement from their classmates and friends. But up until this volume, that outward expression has mostly been limited to their private lives; now they’ve begun to push the boundaries in how they dress at school, which has an explicit dress codes and uniforms based on gender. I am very glad to see the two of them developing a firmer understanding and acceptance of who they are, but I also worry for them because, as Wandering Son honestly portrays, the world can sometime be a very cruel place.

Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It

Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make ItEditor: Anne Ishii, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606997857
Released: December 2014

The first major publication of gay manga to be printed in English was The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame: The Master of Gay Erotic Manga. Soon after its release a new project—a gay manga anthology called Massive—was announced by the same team that worked on Tagame’s debut English collection. Originally intended to be released by PictureBox, the anthology was temporarily orphaned when the publisher ceased releasing comics before the volume was completed. I was thrilled when Fantagraphics took on the project. Edited by Anne Ishii, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins, Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It became one of my most anticipated releases of 2014. Gay manga is an extremely underrepresented genre of manga in English. Massive, like The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame before it, is a groundbreaking work. Through manga, interviews, photography, and essays, the anthology introduces nine of the genre’s most influential, respected, and promising creators to an English-reading audience.

The volume’s table of contents is formed by a gallery of photographs paired with full-page color pin-ups illustrated by each of the contributors to Massive: Gengoroh Tagame, Inu Yoshi, Kumada Poohsuke, Takeshi Matsu, Jiraiya, Gai Mizuki, Fumi Miyabi, Seizoh Ebisubashi, and Kazuhide Ichikawa. This is followed by introductory essays written by each of the three editors. Kidd’s “It Feels Too Good” conveys the excitement over the fact that a volume like Massive even exists, while Ishii reveals some of the steps it took to publish the material in “Seeking English Translator.” Kolbeins essay “Glocalizing Gei Manga” is particularly enlightening, providing a greater context for Massive and a brief overview of the history of gay manga and how the volume fits into it. Also included is a timeline of male-male sexuality in Japanese culture, a list of recommended readings, and numerous photographs and illustrations. However, the real meat of the collection is the individual profiles of each of the creators introducing their work and personal histories and exploring their careers and the impacts they have made on the genre of gay erotic manga. The other major highlight of Massive is the inclusion of examples of their manga.

For most of the contributors, Massive marks their debut in English. Excluding Tagame, who has thus far had four collections published, Matsu is the only creator to have had a major release in English. And except for Jiraiya’s “Caveman Guu,” which was previously printed separately, all of the manga collected in Massive is being translated into English for the first time. Some are excerpts of longer works, like Tagame’s Do You Remember South Island P.O.W. Camp? and Poohsuke’s Dreams of the New Century Theatre, while others are shorter, standalone stories. There is humor and playfulness to be found in Yoshi’s “Kandagawa-Kun” and Matsu’s “Kannai’s Dilemma,” more dubious encounters in Mizuki’s “Fantasy and Jump Rope,” Ebisubashi’s “Mr. Tokugawa,” and Ichikawa’s “Yakuza Godfathers”, and even mythological inspiration in Miyabe’s “Tengudake.” The manga collected in Massive is most definitely erotic in nature. Some of the selections are simply suggestive, but many feature explicit, uncensored, and uninhibited sex between hypermasculine, muscular, and otherwise large-bodied men. It is called Massive for a reason, after all.

The profiles of the creators included in Massive are just as engaging as the manga that has been collected. The volume provides an incredibly valuable look into the creation of gay erotic manga and art. Interestingly enough, several of the contributors mention that they would like to create gay manga without as much erotic content, but to successfully do so would be difficult due to the demands of their audience and what is expected from the genre of gay manga as a whole. The artists address many of the same subjects in their interviews but they each bring their own perspective to the discussion. It’s fascinating to learn about how the manga industry has changed and continues to change, the impact and challenges presented by foreign scanlations of manga, the benefits of working within the manga industry or independently outside of it, the use and misappropriation of the term bara both in Japan and in the West, and the relationship between gay manga and boys’ love manga, among many other topics. Massive truly is a spectacular volume and highly recommended for anyone interested in gay manga, its history, and its creators; it’s a fantastic introduction to the genre.

Wandering Son, Volume 7

Wandering Son, Volume 7Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606997505
Released: August 2014
Original release: 2007

The wait between the release of each new volume of the English-language edition of Takako Shimura’s manga series Wandering Son can seem torturous, but without fail I’m exceptionally glad when the next installment is finally available. Wandering Son is a manga that is personally very meaningful to me, so I’m always a little worried that Fantagraphics won’t be able to complete the series, which would be a shame. Fantagraphics’ edition of Wandering Son is beautiful, complete with color pages and hardcover binding. Wandering Son, Volume 7 was originally published in Japan in 2007 while Fantagraphics’ English translation by Matt Thorn was released in 2014. The series concluded in Japan with the fifteenth volume, which means that the English-language release has just about reached the midway point of Wandering Son. I sincerely hope the rest of the series will be able to be published, too.

The seventh graders’ production of a gender-swapped Romeo & Juliet for their school’s cultural festival is over, but there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the drama unfolding in the classroom. Although a few of the students were dissatisfied with their own parts and performances, the play was generally well received, resulting in the theater club attempting to scout some of the best talent. This does cause some tension as the members of the various school clubs shift around to follow their personal interests, leaving friends behind in the process. Some friendships are being severely tested while other, more antagonistic, relationships appear to be on the mend. As Shuichi, Takatsuki, and the others grow and mature, their connections to one another change and evolve, too. Puberty continues to progress as well, bringing with it unwanted changes, anxieties over developing bodies, and concerns over physical appearances. What to wear, what not to wear, acne, and skin problems are all legitimate worries, providing opportunities for both teasing and bonding.

Wandering Son is told in a somewhat non-linear, almost fragmented sort of way. Shimura takes individual moments and memories, often from different points in the characters’ lives, and then layers them together, drawing connections between the separate pieces that would not necessarily have been obvious otherwise. This makes it easier for readers to see that the characters, though they all have their own unique perspectives and individual experiences, are dealing with some very similar issues. Their approaches to those issues and how they deal them are often quite different, though. This layering and revealing of parallels, as well as the other narrative and storytelling techniques that Shimura uses, are very effective in building on some of the themes that Wandering Son explores—namely personal identity—by exhibiting the depth and nuance of the series’ sensitive portrayal of the characters as individuals. The realism and authenticity of the characterization in Wandering Son is one of the manga’s greatest strengths.

Another related aspect of the manga that is handled particularly well is the natural changes in the characters’ relationships with one another. Wandering Son has a large cast of both primary and important secondary characters and it’s a close-knit group. When something happens between two of the members, the social dynamics of the entire circle is influenced. Major developments occur when Shuichi and Anna begin dating, helping to trigger some unexpected changes in Chiba and Takatsuki’s relationship which were particularly interesting to see. Chiba is incredibly self-centered and at times exceptionally unlikeable, but she’s also perceptive and seems to be very sure of herself and who she is. Takatsuki, on the other hand, is still working all of that out but is fiercely determined in other ways. It’s because of Takatsuki’s persistence, despite Chiba’s prickliness, that their friendship has a chance of improving—something that everyone would be happy about. It won’t be an easy process, though, and will take some time. Wandering Son excels in capturing the real-life messiness of relationships.

Nijigahara Holograph

Nijigahara HolographCreator: Inio Asano
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606995839
Released: March 2014
Original release: 2006

Nijigahara Holograph, the third manga by Inio Asano to have been licensed in English, was one of my most highly anticipated manga releases for 2014. Originally published in Japan in 2006, Fantagraphics’ English-language edition is collected in an attractive, large-trim hardcover much like its other manga releases. I had previously read and greatly enjoyed Asano’s other manga currently available in English—What a Wonderful World! and Solanin, both published by Viz Media—so I was naturally interested in Nijigahara Holograph. But after seeing an early preview of the manga, I knew that I would need to read it no matter what. The sequence, taken from near the end of Nijigahara Holograph, was so chilling and unsettling and at the same time so striking and beautiful that it left a huge impression on me. I couldn’t get that short segment of Nijigahara Holograph out of my mind, my anticipation only growing stronger the closer the manga’s release date came.

Eleven years ago Arie Kimura, a young girl bullied by her classmates, fell down a well. As a result of her injuries she has been in a coma ever since. She told a story about a monster that lived in a tunnel along the Nijigahara embankment that would bring the world to an end, which terrified the other children. Arie’s accident is only one small part of an ongoing pattern of fear and violence. It isn’t a pleasant memory for anyone involved. Her friends, classmates, teachers, and family members have continued living their lives, but even more than a decade later they still can’t escape their pasts and the consequences of their actions. Some of them live in denial while others have tried to move on and to forget, but for some that is a complete impossibility. They have no choice but to remember, tormented with the knowledge of the suffering and pain caused by the unnecessary tragedy. The story of the monster in the tunnel may be more real than any of them could have imagined.

Nijigahara Holograph is a dark and disconcerting work. The manga deals with some very heavy subjects: suicide, incest, abuse, and sexual and physical violence, among many other serious matters. Instead of being sanitized or romanticized, Asano has created an intensely disturbing tale in which all of these elements are incorporated and intertwined. Nijigahara Holograph is open to several interpretations. It’s dreamlike ambiguity makes it difficult to determine just how much of Nijigahara Holograph is real and how much of it is simply the product of the damaged psyches of the characters. It cold be a waking nightmare, it could be some sort of afterlife, or it could all be true. It would almost be comforting if Nijigahara Holograph was a portrayal of hell or purgatory; the possibility that it shows the characters’ reality is terrible to contemplate. But life isn’t always pretty and sweet, and it certainly isn’t in Nijigahara Holograph where innocence, minds, and bodies have been shattered.

As horrifying and distressing as Nijigahara Holograph is, the manga is also extraordinarily compelling and engaging. It is both brutal and beautiful. Nijigahara Holograph is also remarkably complex and layered—the characters, their lives, and their stories connect and overlap, often in unexpected and surprising ways. This is reinforced by Asano’s artwork. Visual cues are incorporated throughout Nijigahara Holograph which tie the narrative together, drawing upon the similarities between the characters and their circumstances. The parallels found in both the artwork and the story of Nijigahara Holograph are marvelously effective, underscoring the ever-increasing sense of despair as the characters are caught in a never-ending cycle of anguish and misery. Nijigahara Holograph is a work that can be and maybe even should be read several times. The clues are all there from the very beginning, but many of the subtle connections can only be seen in retrospect. It’s challenging and not always an easy read, but Nijigahara Holograph is definitely a manga that I’ll be thinking about for quite some time.

Wandering Son, Volume 6

Wandering Son, Volume 6Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606997079
Released: January 2014
Original release: 2007

Wandering Son is currently the only manga by Takako Shimura to have been released in print in English. Although I would love to see more of her work translated and published, I am particularly grateful that it is Wandering Son that has been licensed for print release. (Fantagraphics’ large format hardcover edition is simply lovely, too.) Wandering Son is a beautiful series that explores the young protagonists’ search for personal identity and addresses issues of gender and sexuality in a very sincere, sensitive, and accessible way. Wandering Son often hits incredibly close to home for me which is one of the reasons that I personally hold the series so dear. I’m not sure how popular the series is in general, but it has been well-received by critics both inside and outside of Japan. The sixth volume of Wandering Son was initially published in Japan in 2007. Fantagraphics’ English-language edition of Wandering Son, Volume 6 was released in 2014.

As the school’s cultural festival approaches, the students are hard at work preparing for their classes’ projects. Chiba and Shuichi are trying to put the final touches on their script for a gender-swapped version of Romeo and Juliet despite some of their classmates’ well-intentioned interference. To Chiba and Shuichi the play is much more than a simple seventh-grade class production. It’s also a very personal expression of their desires: Chiba wants to see Shuichi in the role of Juliet and Shuichi wants to be seen as a girl. In some ways their version of Romeo and Juliet is a reflection of Shuichi and Takatsuki as the two of them are faced with challenging society’s established gender roles and expectations. Shuichi and Takatsuki’s bonding over the play is a source of immense frustration for Chiba. She’s in love with Shuichi, and Shuichi has feelings for Takatsuki, but Takatsuki isn’t interested in pursuing those feelings. The result is that there’s quite a bit of drama both on and off the stage.

For my part, I’m glad to see Shuichi and Takatsuki becoming close again after their relationship was disrupted by Shuichi’s confession of love. Thankfully, they were able to work through that and are once again able to lean and rely on each other as friends. This is particularly important for the two of them since they share so much in common. The additional support is something that Shuichi especially needs. At the beginning of Wandering Son, Shuichi was a very meek and hesitant person. However, as the series has progressed, Shuichi has grown, becoming much more assertive and confident and is now able to begin to express in words needs and desires. In a very touching scene with Takatsuki, Shuichi sums it up quite nicely, “It’s my wish. You as a boy…me as a girl…a happy ending for everybody.” It’s really the first time that Shuichi has been able to be so clear and forthright about the their situation. Happily, it’s not the last time that it happens, but it is a very formative and noteworthy moment.

One of the things that Shimura captures remarkably well in Wandering Son is the natural development of the characters and their relationships with one another. Wandering Son is a story about growing up and determining not only who you are as an individual but who you are in relation to other people; how people see themselves in addition to how others see them. Life itself could be said to be a performance. It’s particularly interesting then that in Wandering Son, Volume 6 so many parallels are made between Shuichi and Takatsuki’s real life and the very deliberately crafted Romeo and Juliet production. Through it they are able to reveal a part of themselves for everyone to see. It may not be a particularly subtle narrative technique on Shimura’s part, but it is a very effective one. The play echos their experiences, emphasizing specific aspects of their lives and relationships not only for the characters, but for the readers as well. Wandering Son continues to be an absolutely wonderful series. As always, I am very much looking forward to the next volume.