Wandering Son, Volume 5

Wandering Son, Volume 5Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606996478
Released: September 2013
Original release: 2006

The fifth volume of Takako Shimura’s manga series Wandering Son was originally published in Japan in 2005 while the English-language edition of Wandering Son, Volume 5 was published by Fantagraphics in 2013. The entire series is being released in English as beautiful hardcovers; Fantagraphics’ treatment of the manga is simply lovely. Wandering Son is a series that has come to mean a tremendous amount to me on a very personal level. I am very grateful to Fantagraphics for pursuing the manga in English. Wandering Son is a wonderful story about growing up and personal identity with a very sincere and sensitive look at gender and sexuality. The series started out strong and it continues to be a powerful work. Although reading it can sometimes be traumatic for me because the story touches on issues that hit so close to home, I always look forward to reading the next volume of Wandering Son. I wish I didn’t have to wait for so long between volumes, but it’s always worth it.

With the beginning of seventh grade students are faced with a new school, new teacher, new classmates, and maybe even a few new crushes. In some ways junior high is a chance for a new start, but some problems are carried over from middle school. Shuichi’s close circle of friends has started to fall apart as romantic feelings get in the way and cause a fair amount of tension within the group. The rift between Takatsuki and Chiba has grown particularly wide. It seems as though the two of them may never be able to make up, despite the pain that their falling out has caused for the rest of their friends. Though they are still very close, things have become rather awkward between Shuichi and Takatsuki as well after Shuichi declared having feelings for Takatsuki and Takatsuki gently rejected them. Fortunately, Shuichi has Mako as a source of comfort and reason. It’s a good thing, too, as junior high and puberty have their own challenges; having someone to commiserate with is invaluable. Making new friends doesn’t hurt either, although sometimes that just complicates matters even further.

While the focus of Wandering Son, Volume 5 is still on Shuichi and Takatsuki and their families and friends, it’s interesting to see part of the manga being told from the perspective of their new teacher Manabu Saisho. It actually happens to be his first year teaching. He’s inexperienced and easily flustered, and his eagerness may end up getting him into trouble, but so far I (like Mako) find him charming. But as volatile as junior high and his students can be, I do worry for him a bit. And I worry for Shuichi and the others as well. Adolescence is upon them as are all the changes that entails, most of which cannot be ignored. Mortified after being publicly called out by the basketball coach, Takatsuki is faced with the embarrassing prospect of bra shopping while Shuichi and Mako are trying to come to terms with the fact that their voices will soon be changing. Even seemingly benign statements such as “they’ve grown taller again” are painfully bittersweet reminders of what is in store for them as they continue to physically mature.

Shimura does a fantastic job of layering the textual narrative of Wandering Son with its artwork. The manga’s composition is excellent. There is a particularly effective scene fairly early on in the fifth volume that takes place during the academic year’s opening ceremonies—the commencement speaker expresses the desire for everyone to talk together and encourage one another while the illustration clearly shows that Shuichi and the others can hardly bear to look at one another and that some of them aren’t even on speaking terms. Wandering Son is filled with deceptively simple moments like these in which the artwork and the text express far more together than they ever would alone. Wandering Son is told in such a way that it comes across as a sequence of closely related impressions or vignettes rather than a single, rigidly structured storyline. It’s quite effective in conveying the manga’s more emotive and introspective qualities. I continue to be impressed by Shimura’s work in Wandering Son and look forward to the next volume a great deal.

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.

The Heart of Thomas

Creator: Moto Hagio
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606995518
Released: December 2012
Original release: 1975

I was absolutely thrilled when it was announced that Fantagraphics would be releasing Moto Hagio’s manga The Heart of Thomas in English. The resulting volume is a massive tome—a gorgeous, oversized hardcover with over five hundred pages. The Heart of Thomas was originally published in Japan in three volumes in 1975, however the English-language edition appears to be based on a single-volume release published in 1995. Fantagraphics’ 2012 release of The Heart of Thomas also includes an excellent introduction by the manga’s translator Matt Thorn which explores the history and influence of Hagio and The Heart of Thomas. The manga was at least partly inspired by Jean Delannoy’s film Les amitiés particulières. In addition to being an exceptionally influential work for shoujo manga in general, The Heart of Thomas would also become one of the precursors to the the entire boys’ love genre.

The students and faculty of Schloterbach, a boys’ boarding school in Germany, were shocked to learn of the unexpected death of Thomas Werner, one of the most adored and beloved students at the school. His death is at first assumed to be an accident, but then Juli, an upperclassman with whom Thomas was in love, receives what seems to be a suicide note from the younger boy. Juli and Oskar, his roommate and friend, choose to keep the letter a secret. After a few week pass, Juli and the others are able to begin to move on from the tragedy but the school is thrown into turmoil once again when a new transfer student arrives. Erich, although he has a feistier personality, looks remarkably similar to Thomas; he is a constant reminder to the others of the other boy. While Erich struggles to be seen as his own person, Juli continues to be haunted by Thoams’ death, and Oskar becomes the keeper of more secrets than the others know.

Although The Heart of Thomas certainly has a plot, the manga is much more about the characters themselves, their inner turmoils, and their relationships with one another. The main characters have a tremendous amount of depth that is slowly revealed page by page and layer by layer. The further the readers delve into The Heart of Thomas the better their understanding of Juli, Erich, Oskar, and Thomas as complete persons becomes. Even the secondary characters have a distinct feel to them and distinguishable looks and personalities. They all have their good points and bad. I was very impressed by the characterization in The Heart of Thomas. The young men are all struggling towards self-awareness, self-forgiveness, and self-acceptance, each fighting against their own personal loneliness.

While there may not be a lot of action in The Heart of Thomas, there is still plenty of drama to be found within its pages. Schloterbach is its own microcosm, a part of the larger world but at the same time subject to its own rules. There, rumours can be just as damning as the truth and the truth can be all that it takes to destroy a person or to save them. The boys at the boarding school are just that, boys. But their trials and tragedies are no less because of it. Many of them are on the cusp of adulthood and some of them have had to grow up far too quickly. At times Hagio seems to be a little heavy-handed with the religious symbolism and metaphors, but by the end of The Heart of Thomas it is clear why they are included. The Heart of Thomas is a historically significant and important work, but nearly forty years after it first appeared it still remains a remarkable piece of literature.

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.