Friday, June 15, 2012

Initial Thoughts: Wandering Son

Shûichi Nitori is a 5th grade student who likes to bake and has always been something of a feminine boy. When he transfers to a new school, Shûichi is mistaken for his 6th grade sister on his first day. Then he ends up sitting next to Yoshino Takatsuki, a tall, boyish girl who everyone calls “Takatsuki-kun.” They both have secrets they can’t let anyone know… (Source: Kotonoha) 

Note: I am using masculine pronouns for Nitori and feminine pronouns for Takatsuki as they personally have not in-text indicated that they use differing pronouns for themselves. It is not meant as a sign of disrespect; I am just indicating that they have not transitioned to referring to themselves as the gender they were not assigned at birth. Apologies if this becomes upsetting to anyone reading.

God bless manga-ka Shimura Takako. She has certainly tackled a lot of LGBT-related issues in her plethora of works, including the yuri series Aoi Hana (whose anime was licensed for streaming by Crunchyroll) and now Wandering Son aka Hourou Musuko/放浪息子, a story of two young people who are growing into their trans* identities as well as their own bodies going through puberty. Not the greatest of combinations for someone who is questioning their own gender, a kind of self-examination that society tends to frown upon (to put it extremely likely). 

The fact that Takako has based an entire series around this issue is amazing, and is just one of the many reasons why I've fallen in love with the Wandering Son manga. It also helps that the main characters - "handsome girl" Takatsuki Yoshino and feminine-presenting Nitori Shuichi - are so loveable and endearing and real that you can't help but wish for them to have the best lives as well as the best transitions possible.

Note: I am cisgender, so if I say anything that rings wrong, please feel free to call me out in the comments section and I will edit the post appropriately.

Having read the first two volumes of Wandering Son, presented in handsome hardcover format by Fantagraphics books, I can safely say that it is one of the best works of fiction currently being published that deals with transgender youth and their unique problems. A lot of self-labeled LGBT fiction ignores the 'T' part but Takako embraces it fully, with a kind of respect not found in most aspects of popular culture. Nitori and Takatsuki's narratives are not dominated by their trans* status but their transgender aspects are not ignored or pushed to the side just because they are young.

The strength of Wandering Son lies in the fact that we get to see these characters as people first, see how they live at home and attend school and around their friends. They are not reduced to stereotypes but they are made into real characters. We know who Nitori is. We know who Takatsuki is. They are young people who have become friends and have to juggle their school lives and their friendships and their families and their own personal problems which includes their own genders.

We see the confusion, the exploration of Nitori as he struggles with his urges to dress feminine, to go into town as a girl. We also see this on Takatsuki's front when she has her hair cut short as a boy's and gets her hands on a male school uniform that she can wear in public. It is thrilling to her - and also frightening - when she is hit on by an older woman while at a fast food joint, the woman thinking she is a schoolboy on break. Of course, that encounter turns out to be a fortuitous one indeed for both Takatsuki and Nitori, as that is when they meet their new older friend, Yuki-san.

And that is another strength of Wandering Son: its supporting cast. It is diverse and multidimensional and really holds up the stories of Nitori and Takatsuki like support beams for a roof. And I'm so glad that they have so many friends to support them because many transgender youth don't have a support system or someone that understands them and loves them. That is what Nitori and Takatsuki have, and this is best highlighted through the character of Saori Chiba, who has learned how to support Nitori the best and is the best example of what can be considered a trans* ally in the series. She has made missteps but she learns what Nitori needs and she gives Nitori the emotional support - and the wardrobe - he needs to feel confident in his own body and with his shifting sense of identity.

Another great friend is Yuki-san, mainly because she is loads of fun. Just look at how she gets so excited during the trip to Nikko. I'm kind of surprised the class teacher wasn't more worried by her knowing a couple of grade school kids like she does! Or are older/young friendships like theirs more common in Japan than I thought? Probably not; it's probably Yuki-san's infectious spirit and smile that keeps her from getting arrested. Her and her boyfriend Shii-chan are amazingly cute together.

That's such an important part of this series, humor. It is hard to read a story about two young folks struggling with their exploration of gender and youth and puberty without something to lighten the mood. It's good that there are humorous situations in the manga! After all, a trans* folk's life in fiction does not have to be all down times and depression. Nitori and Takatsuki get to laugh and smile and have good days to temper the bad days. And there are bad days, like when Takatsuki gets her first period, but there are also good days, like when Nitori gets the dresses from Saori's mother and gets to take them home with him.

There is so much more that this series can touch upon and I'm sure will. Takako is an amazing storyteller and I'm sure she will continue to treat the stories of Nitori and Takatsuki with their deserved respect. Considering there's at least ten more volumes to read, I am certain we will see more of Nitori and Takatsuki exploring their gender identities - as well as society continue to push against them, trying to box them into what is expected of them based on what they were born as. Also, if we don't see something come out of Saori's attempts to become Christian or Seya-kun's crush on Nitori dressed in a wig and school uniform, I shall be severely disappointed.

You can watched subbed streaming episodes of the Wandering Son anime on Crunchyroll. Fantagraphics Books has released the first two books out in English in hardcover; the third book is slated to come out in the middle of July. Please support your local book shops and the manga industry and pick up your own copy of this amazing manga!

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