Wandering Son Volume 1

By Shimura Takako. Released in Japan by Enterbrain, serialization ongoing in the magazine Comic Beam. Released in North America by Fantagraphics.

I will admit I sometimes get intimidated by manga that are ‘important’ or ‘worthy’ in some way. Given a choice between discussing the latest gegika masterpiece from Drawn and Quarterly and the seventeenth volume of shoujo series X, I’m going to take the easy route every time. It’s the sort of book that reminds you that you’re actually meant to be reviewing, not just rambling on. And I felt a bit like this while seeing Wandering Son’s fancy, well put-together hardback sitting on my pile. Which is amusing, of course, as the manga itself is quite unassuming and easy to read.

Wandering Son is about a time in life when every single interaction with anyone is fraught with awkwardness. Especially for a shy kid like Nitori. Things are in flux, and you start to get a sense that even though you really want to do something, that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem if it will just lead to laughter and being thought of as ‘weird’. Yoshino is more self-confident, both in her general personality and in her feelings regarding how she wants to be seen, but her own body is the one reminding her that things aren’t simply cut and dry.

And then there’s Saori, who winds up driving much of the plot in this first volume. Saori interested me quite a bit, if only as she made my skin crawl at times with her trying to force things onto people. The combination of the dress and suggesting the play was interesting enough, but then there’s her reaction after Nitori returns the dress. Christianity is growing in Japan, but I think for a young girl such as herself, the appeal of penance and forgiveness is what’s drawing her more than the faith itself. I’ll be interested to see how this pans out.

The mood of the manga itself is sort of ‘slice-of-life’, but the plot really doesn’t follow the same format as your typical school 4-koma. The basis of this story is transgender issues, and that’s what you get for these first eight chapters. It just so happens that the issues are part of Nitori and Yoshino’s lives, so they aren’t presented with a huge amount of heft the way they would in an after school special. The other classmates have not made much of a name for themselves (indeed, the author admits she hasn’t yet come up with a name for Nitori’s perky friend yet), but I expect that will change.

As for the art style, it’s handled with an amazing deftness. The characters are subdued much of the time, but not in a way that, say, Adachi’s Cross Game characters are. We do see a lot of emotion here, particularly towards the end where Yoshino’s growing up gets thrown back in her face by the class troublemaker (via a proxy, another thing I found quite true to life). But what I liked best was seeing the looks on Nitori’s and Yoshino’s faces when they did try to dress as the other gender. Nitori’s look of bashful happiness as he wears the hairband. Yoshino’s stunned joy and pride after she’s ‘hit on’ by a woman at a fast-food place. They’re expressions you remember, and make for a stronger work.

Fantagraphics has done a great job with this. It’s a handsome volume, well-bound and with sturdy paper. Matt Thorn’s translation and adaptation are seamless, and his essay on the use of honorifics is both enlightening and amusing, inasmuch as he wouldn’t want to use them for most titles, but this is an exception.

So intimidation aside, in the end this is simply a well-crafted story, well-told. You want to read Volume 2 right away to find out how Nitori, Yoshino and Saori continue to deal with these feelings as they grow older. I’m very pleased that it was brought over here, and hope that it sells well enough so that we might see other titles in a similar vein. Not necessarily transgender, but handling difficult issues with such a light touch.

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