Graphic Novel Review: Wandering Son by Shimura Takako
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”—e. e. cummings
The beginning of Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son is in bright, happy colors, an indication of the perfect fantasy world someone would see looking in from the outside at Nitori Shuichi’s family. After the first few pages, however, the comic fades to black and white to show what life is really like for the shy Nitori. The rest of the comic has the feeling of being trapped in a dream, not unlike the feeling many children have of being trapped in adolescence without an actual identity of their own. As children, we know logically that we will one day be an adult with freedom and a life of our own, but we don’t quite believe it…neither does Nitori believe he will ever be able to express himself the way he yearns to—by wearing dresses and feminine jewelry. Nitori wants to be a girl.
Nitori Shuichi wants to be a girl and his best friend, Yoshino Takatsuki, wants to be a boy. Wandering Son focuses on these two characters and their journey of self discovery and growing up. While manga isn’t usually known for its subtlety, Wandering Son is an exception. The panels have little in the way of background, and there is less exaggeration and slapstick than you will find in a typical manga. The story builds slowly, drawing you in to the quiet internal thoughts of the two children.
The deliberately focused panels show how someone who feels trapped in a body not of their choosing can put such importance on something as insignificant as an outfit or a hairband. To those of us lucky enough to be comfortable in our skin, a little self discovery is of little consequence in the grande scheme of things. When your very identity is tied up in something that is at conflict with the basic aspects of your physical appearance, it’s not such a casual thing to throw on a simple accessory, especially not when you’re a vulnerable young adult.
The importance of clothing and appearance is a central theme in Wandering Son. When there is a splash page or large panel focusing in on a character, the details that stand out are things that define femininity and masculinity: the stitching and lace on a dress, or the angles and shape of a jacket. These are details that most people take for granted, but mean everything to someone trying to define who they are through the very gendered world of fashion. The monetary cost of things that form our identity is another recurring theme. We often see Nitori and Yoshino making a simple purchase that for them is obviously more than that. When Nitori buys himself a hairband, it is a big deal to him, a rite of passage. Paying 280 yen for it is part of this ritual. Yoshino dresses and poses as a boy and has a cheeseburger in a restaurant; what would be a simple meal for another is an accomplishment for Yoshino.
These simple moments of huge importance mirror the feeling that many of us had as children, whatever our personal discomfort happened to be. There are precious few adolescents that never experience a feeling of being different or ostracized, and while being transgendered as a child is unarguably more potentially traumatic, it is also a good comparison for growing up in general. Takako uses humor to lighten these more serious moments, such as when we turn the page to see Shu wearing a dress and headband for the first time. Before the reader has adjusted to him in the outfit, the doorbell rings and a humorous episode ensues when Chiba-San, another student, sees him in the dress and he frantically changes out of it only to have his sister catch him half-naked with his classmate.
Takako actually apologizes to the reader at the end of the book for her characters looking similar to each other and for her simple backgrounds. In a comic like this, about something so basic to our identity as gender, it actually works as an asset; the similarity in the characters’ appearances make it easier to relate to them, and more realistic when they are dressed in the clothing of another gender. The two children blend in with their classmates, making it that much easier to slip into their shoes and empathize with what they are feeling, to imagine what it must be like to want so desperately to have been born differently, to know that deep down you were meant to walk a different path. The androgyny of the children in Nitori and Takatsuki’s class helps the reader accept their gender, and thus what the two main characters are going through seems more normal than otherwise. The children are the ones most uncomfortable with their inner feelings; their parents and teachers never seem to judge them, but instead find their cross-dressing cute, as if it’s a part of growing up.
Takako’s Wandering Son works as an insight into how it feels to be transgendered, and also as a metaphor for growing up. I take for granted my transgendered friends’ identities, and I accept it as part of who they are, but it’s easy to overlook the internal struggles they must have gone through when trying to initially accept themselves. Wandering Son reminds us how hard it can be for anyone, whatever gender, to become who we want to be as a person.
all images courtesy Fantagraphics