Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Review: Wandering Son, by Shimura Takako

This is a years-spanning story of the characters Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki. The former, a girl assigned male at birth, the latter, a boy assigned female at birth. One may think that in Japan, as in the West, the subject of transsexuality would be depicted in a sensationalist if not mocking fashion in popular media. Even in the rare cases where the subject is given the respect it deserves, it can quickly take a turn for the dark, dwelling in bigotry and hatred.        

But read any review or description of this series and chances are you will come across the word 'gentle.' The work's gentle analysis; the work's gentle treatment; the work's gentle story telling. And, indeed, it is this gentleness that makes the series special.

Wandering Son explores the everyday. The routines and ups and downs of grade and middle school life take centre stage. One scene is a family breakfast, the next is a class planning their school play. 

Nothing particularly momentous occurs in this series, no deaths, no shocking revelations. Even the bullying depicted herein is underplayed. The bullies are not violent, for the most part. You'll not find malicious psychopaths here, rather you'll find, realistically, antagonistic children. In one oddly effective panel we see a bully's face as his next prank ticks through his mind. His is not a face that says "I will make them suffer," but rather it is one of such dim, impulsive qualities that it says "This'll be fun." Shimura manages to entail in one expression an entire character.

Indeed, despite Shimura's self-deprecation in the first volume's afterword, her artwork gives the series at least half its charm. She draws each character simply, and although she does admit that they can look very similar around the beginning of the series, it is not difficult to tell them apart.

Even the empty backgrounds, which for many illustrators would be an undeniable fault, here add to the feel of the work. The abundance of white space on each page subliminally associates the story with a light, simple tone.   

The few faults one could, and some did*, level at the series include that the androgynous looks of all the characters (both to the reader and in-universe) detracts from the realism of the series. It is rather easy for Nitori and Yoshino to go out as their true gender. One wonders what the series would have been like if they aesthetically leant more towards their assigned sex. But this is a minor gripe when faced with the believability of the work as a whole.  

In the end, this work is a must read, a thoroughly effective story in both content and execution.

*Thompson, J 2013, 'Wandering Son - Jason Thompson's House of a 1000 Manga', Anime News Network, Accessed 6th December 2013, Source: from http://www.animenewsnetwork.com.au/house-of-1000-manga/2013-04-18


  1. Currently reading Volume Six… (Skipping a lot of dialogues), but this is a great method of story-telling, as it explores the psychology of all characters to great depths (despite their age…), but that everyone is a person trapped in a tangled web of relationship and either trying to sort it out or just tangle it further and further… Such depths are achieved at the same effect and atmosphere as “In My Life” to “A heart full of love” (Les Miserables), where Cosette, Marius and Éponine, each explores their own deepest desire, that they have established their own identity first, then you see them interact with each other, when Cosette and Marius are falling in love, feeling a sweet moment, Eponine must be in despise. The simple style is at its advantage like simple word, which conveys the most sincere form of the intensity of emotion. Each one is a person, loving, caring, loathing… and you can hate no one, but love all of them, despite they can all cause each other in pain.
    However, children are a reflection of adults (or society, if we never try to lay blame on humans…), I wonder how lucky those two characters (who identities with other biological sex), manage to find such a caring family, such good friends, and even proper loving relationship (have not read to that point yet), but then you have adults’ characters all caring, loving, and are express their own gender fluidity (by the way, I really wish to reform my language that I do not want to say trespass the gender line, or challenge the social norms… as gender and norm changes according to the time, and I wish all humans feel comfortable in exploring their own fluidity as a norm behaviour than ‘trespass’ or not being a ‘norm’)… It is not us and them, it is only us all the time, like in this comics, and good people are capable of making each other misery (unintentional or intentional…).

  2. However, this comic has pushed or rather persuaded a reality that even though gender fluidity may be accepted as it should be, but not to a political level (good or bad depending on your perception), that it is shocking to learn that they are so free and so compressed at the same time, and what is unconsciously ‘reforming’ or ‘restraining’ them in this fictional world? All their friends in some level all carries a much fluid gender expression, that they all attract the same type of people…
    Does it suggest that people with multiple gender expressions (or potential) could not befriend with people with more singular gender (at the current moment) expression (without any possible romantic attraction… but perhaps it is better to show that gender does not matter in term of attraction, even sexual or physical attraction as long as they are be changed into feminine or masculine forms…)? People is essential here, LGBTIQ and Straight are labelled we need to demystifying than defining, that we should not divide because we are such and such, but because multiply-gender expressions should be accepted, that trying to pin down or define a person’s identity can cause as much harm or pain as this comics explores the confusion, that when you are not ‘Straight’, then you must choose a label from “LGBTIQ”, but before our language and concept have been fully changed, that “I feel like I want to wear skirt today, but who knows what shall happen tomorrow? I may want to put the trousers back…”
    It is perhaps the ultimate power of the author that ensure me to see almost every character as a human that is capable of changing (or not in a manner), and thus in a rare moment, that we see from a character’s perspective, a dehumanised face has a chilling effect (also does not go well with almost all ‘cuteness’ atmosphere of all characters, that body size and appearance issue is discussed there and here (but mainly focus on one character…), that I could not help but wonder: what is the focus that was there initially divide us? But to fight against such division is simple, or perhaps the most difficult art of all, that is to see humans as humans.
    I must finish it here, (when I started it, I was in Volume Six, and I just finished Volume Eleven, through writing this review).

    1. You read five volumes in the length of a single review - My God, man!

      There is, in Takako's work, a humanising factor; all her characters are irreducible, their motivations and definitions multiple.

      To address labels: Takako has taken a convention from other Japanese LGBTQ comics, that of rarely (if ever) using an LBGTQ label. In most LGBTQ manga this seems a cop-out. They present LGBTQ scenes in a universe where LGBTQ seems not to exist. Perhaps this is a sign of progressiveness, but I disagree. To show LGBTQ scenes in a fictional universe sans LGBTQ as a distinct state of life seems to imply: 'This may only happen in a non-existent universe, i.e. not our own'.

      Takako uses LGBTQ labels, but sparingly. Her universes are ones where there is difference between states of life; and difference does not mean division. The use of labels says here is a difference (and this is not difference as relates a 'norm'; 'straight' and 'cisgender' are differences). But by using labels sparingly she shows us the people-in-themselves. Within them are characteristics which set them apart from other people (as does every human), but they are people.