The fifth grade. The threshold to puberty, and the beginning of the end of childhood innocence. Shuichi Nitori and his new friend Yoshino Takatsuki have happy homes, loving families, and are well-liked by their classmates. But they share a secret that further complicates a time of life that is awkward for anyone: Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy. Written and drawn by one of today’s most critically acclaimed creators of manga, Shimura portrays Shuishi and Yoshino’s very private journey with affection, sensitivity, gentle humor, and unmistakable flair and grace. Volume one introduces our two protagonists and the friends and family whose lives intersect with their own. Yoshino is rudely reminded of her sex by immature boys whose budding interest in girls takes clumsily cruel forms. Shuichi’s secret is discovered by Saori, a perceptive and eccentric classmate. And it is Saori who suggests that the fifth graders put on a production of The Rose of Versailles for the farewell ceremony for the sixth graders—with boys playing the roles of women, and girls playing the roles of men.
Wandering Son is a sophisticated work of literary manga translated with rare skill and sensitivity by veteran translator and comics scholar Matt Thorn.
The main thing I kept thinking about while reading Wandering Son—beyond the continuous undercurrent of general squee—is how things that seem insignificant to one person can be secretly, intensely significant to someone else.
Wandering Son begins simply. Nitori Shuichi (the translation retains Japanese name order) is an extremely shy fifth-grade boy, and as the volume opens, he and his sixth-grade sister, Maho, are preparing for their first day at a new school. Upon arrival, Shuichi is instructed to sit next to Takatsuki Yoshino, a girl so tall and handsome that she’s called Takatsuki-kun by her classmates. They become friends.
One day, when Shuichi goes to Takatsuki’s house to work on some homework, he spies a frilly dress hanging in her room. Perhaps Takatsuki didn’t mean much of anything when she suggested that Shuichi should wear it, but it’s an idea that refuses to leave his head, despite his protests that he isn’t interested. He ends up taking the dress home and giving it to Maho, but its presence in their shared bedroom taunts him.
At this point, Shuichi isn’t thinking about things like gender identity. He’s ten! Instead, he’s dealing with processing the new idea that he could wear a dress and that he might even want to. Slowly, and bolstered by interactions with another encouraging classmate, he begins experimenting. First, he buys a headband. Then he tries dressing as a girl while no one else is home. Finally, when Takatsuki reveals her own treasured possession—her elder brother’s cast-off junior high uniform—he tries going out as a girl in public, with Takatsuki (as a boy) at his side.
One wonders what would’ve happened to Shuichi without Takatsuki to set the example. Would he have become aware of these feelings within himself eventually or been somehow unfulfilled forever? Her comments and her acceptance mean more to him than she knows, as he has a habit of internalizing things that are said to him. After an adorable turn in a female role in a drag version of The Rose of Versailles at school, for example, Maho conversationally notes, “You should have been born a girl.” Again, this is a concept that’s new to Shuichi, but one he gradually comes to believe is true. When his grandmother promises to buy him a present, he visualizes his female form and realizes it’s what he most wants. “Even grandma can’t buy me this.”
I had no problem seeing Takatsuki as a boy throughout, because of her inner certainty and obviously boyish appearance, but Shuichi was more problematic. The moment he confronts the mental vision of what he feels he should be, however, and realizes that he truly wants to be a girl, he starts to become one for the reader. By contrast, it’s shocking when the onset of her first period reminds readers that Takatsuki is biologically female. Though she mostly projects a confident air, her anguish at the undeniable truth that she is not really a boy is intense.
The story is subtle, simple, poignant, and innocent. The tone is matched by Shimura’s uncluttered artwork, which features big panels, little screentone, and extremely minimal backgrounds. These factors combine to make the volume go by quickly, and all too soon it’s over. While waiting for volume two, in which Shuichi and Takatsuki will progress to the sixth grade, I suspect I will have to console myself with the anime adaptation, currently available on Crunchyroll.
The first volume of Wandering Son—published in English by Fantagraphics—will be available in June 2011. The series is still ongoing in Japan, where it is currently up to eleven volumes.
Review copy provided by the publisher.