Fifth grade is a time of change for Shuichi. He’s at a new school, in a new town, and well on his way to making new friends. He and Yoshino, the girl he sits next to in class, get along well with their classmates, but as they get older and begin to move into puberty the two realize something different about themselves: Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy and Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl.
Wandering Son, vol. 1
by Shimura Takako
Fantagraphics, June 2011, ISBN 978-1-60699-416-0
203 pages, $19.99
Takako’s quiet manga is not a story to be rushed through. It requires careful reading and even a re-reading to grasp the pace of her writing. In many ways Wandering Son is a story that readers have to let wash over them, trusting that Takako has a destination in mind. As with most manga, volume one is only the introduction to the series, so I’m not surprised that it doesn’t get deep into the meat until the very last pages. By that time, though, you do get a sense of who the characters are, enough to make you eager for book two. No one is over-the-top. Shuichi is reserved, as is Yoshino, but this brings them respect from their peers, at least until the boys realize that Yoshino is showing signs of femininity. Both of their families seem to be loving and accepting, though there is no way of knowing how things will change as the preteens’ story progresses. Chiba, a classmate, is an interesting addition to the picture. She longs to dress Shuichi up as a girl, but also worries that there is something wrong with wanting that.
Despite the serious subject matter, there isn’t much darkness in volume one. Most of what darkness there is comes from Shuichi’s dreams. While asleep he is able to bring to life his fears that friends and family will turn on him if his desires become known. It is in one of these dreams that the only swear word in the book is uttered in this otherwise very tame, very gentle story. Even Takako’s art has a softness to it. Everyone has sweetly rounded faces and expressive eyes. All of the characters are clear and distinct from one another. Longtime manga readers will be able to clearly see that Yoshino is a boyish girl and Shuichi is a feminine boy, but new manga readers may struggle with understanding who is speaking when, due to the sometimes vague placement of text balloons.
Fantagraphics has done a beautiful packaging job. The attractive, sturdy hardback is larger than many manga volumes in the States, which allows readers more room to savor the pages. Translator, and manga expert, Matt Thorn offers a short essay in the back of the book about the difficulties of translating Japanese pronouns and honorifics into English. Unfortunately there is no glossary or explanation of cultural terms. This is a major problem as American readers are not as likely to understand what a Takarazuka Revue is or why it is acceptable that Shuichi’s fifth grade class would put on a school play in drag. But it is nice to see another side of transgenderism in manga, beyond its typical use as humor. I’ll be interested to see where this is going in volume two.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Fantagraphics.