Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Wandering Son

by Jason Thompson, Apr 18th 2013

Episode CXLV: Wandering Son

"Shojo manga have for forty years been offering an alternative view of homosexuality and transgender that sharply contrasts with the popular image of the okama clown…but that view has been problematic in its own way, presenting a romanticized image that is utterly divorced from flesh-and-blood LGBT reality."
Matt Thorn

I have to confess: I think transsexuals are sexy. The idea of people who go outside conventional boundaries of gender is, to me, an inherently fascinating idea. Based on the number of crossdressers, Andrej Pejic androgynous model types and magical-gender-shifters in anime and manga, I have a suspicion I'm not the only one who has flirted with these feelings.

But these romanticized fantasy-fetish images of transgenderism, as found in manga, aren't always welcome among actual transgendered circles, where people are struggling with identity and civil rights issues and don't necessarily want pervs like me coming by to take photos of the natives. OTOH, I know real-life transgendered people who were fans of anime and manga before and after they transitioned, so as with everything, an image that's exploitative to one member of a group can be positive to another. Manga is like a stuffy room filled with the steamy gender-bending fantasies of presumably-mostly-straight manga readers and creators…or are they straight? Is it any of our business? Fantasy and reality are a matter of perspective anyway; even a totally realistic, autobiographical story becomes a fantasy the moment someone else reads it and tries to imagine him/herself in the writer's place. Could LGBT-themed manga inspire closeted readers to believe that living a LGBT lifestyle might be possible? Or are they just fantasies, as distant from readers' lives as imagining being a ninja or pirate?

Wandering Son, by Takako Shimura (author of the yuri manga Aoi Hana which used to be available on the now-dead JManga.com), is a LGBT story from the offbeat manga magazine Comic Beam. It's a story about a boy who wants to be a girl and a girl who wants to be a boy. Shuichi, the boy, is shy and quiet at school. At home, he's overshadowed by his bossy (but loving) big sister Maho, who likes girly things like fashion and dresses. But late at night in his bunkbed, he has strange dreams. He dreams of Anne of Green Gables, of the Lady of Shalott, of himself as a woman: a skin he is comfortable in, an image of beauty he loves.

Then, in fifth grade, Shuichi meets Yoshino, a tall girl who cuts her hair short and always wears pants. (Incidentally, throughout this review, mostly for clarity, I'm going to refer to Shuichi and Takatsuki by their birth gender. I may also occasionally mix up the terms transgender and transsexual. Go easy on me.) They become friends and start hanging out together. One day, Shuichi compliments a dress Yoshino has hanging in her room (a gift from her relativess) and she gives it to him, saying she'll never wear it anyway. He awkwardly takes it home and hangs it in his closet, but he can't stop thinking about it. He wonders what it'd be like to dress as a girl. Bit by bit, he starts to experiment when he's home alone in the afternoons. One day, he forgets he's wearing a girls' hairband when he goes to answer the front door.  "Are you home alone, little girl?" the door-to-door salesman asks him. To be addressed as little girl—to have peole think he's a girl—fills him with a joy he's never felt before. Not long after that, he goes all the way, and puts on the dress when his parents aren't home. First a dress, then a wig, he starts gathering the magic-seeming items that make his self-image into a reality.

Meanwhile, Yoshino is going through her own gender issues, dreaming of wearing a boy's school uniform, maybe of being a boy. It's awhile before the two of them realize what they have in common, but when they do, they become best crossdressing buddies. Yoshino is the first one to go out in public dressed as the opposite gender; she takes the subway to a distant station and changes into a boy's uniform in the station restroom. Walking around as a boy, just ordering food in a fast food restaurant as a boy, is an incredible thrill. Soon, Shuichi joins her, and they start going on expeditions together, to the outside world looking like a cisgendered male-female couple. On one of these expeditions they meet Yuki, a twentysomething woman who gives 11-year-old Yoshino her phone number and says to call her…except, surprise! It's not what it looks like! Yuki's transgendered too! Yuki becomes their first adult ally, and invites them into her apartment to tell them stories about her own youth as a transgendered girl.

Of course, they don't have a plan; they're only 5th graders, they haven't thought that far ahead; and they can't just come out and tell everybody. One day Saori, a girl in Shuichi's class, sees him in a dress when she visits his house at the wrong time. He's worried she'll tell his secret to their class, but instead, she seems to love the idea of him crossdressing, and she starts hanging out with him and buying him dresses. Saori (like the author of this article) seems to have a bit of a thing for crossdressing; when the class needs to do a school play, she proposes The Rose of Versailles, because she not-so-secretly wants to see Shuichi in girls' clothes. The whole crossdressing thing is like a joke to everyone but him, and even his parents just laugh when the girls ask to see Shuichi in a dress. (After all, he is cute.) It isn't until volume 2 that people start to suspect that there's more to it than just a joke, and the pressure gets rough. Jerks in his class call Shuichi a "faggot", a word that Shuichi has already heard in his nightmares. (Matt Thorn translates okama as "fag"—it's disturbing to think that such an offensive term is in common usage in manga as mainstream as One Piece). On a school trip, Shuichi stays up all night in the hall because he's terrified of sleeping in the common room with the other boys. To Shuichi's surprise, Saori comes to his defense and helps him stand up to the bullies, and Shuichi finds himself wondering just how she feels about him, and if he feels the same way…

Fantagraphics, the English publisher, has positioned Wandering Son as the most realistic manga about transgender issues ever published in English, and it really is. As such, it's surrounded by high expectations and a fair amount of pressure. When there's only one high-profile manga (or insert: TV show, movie, etc.) about transgenderism (or insert: a given ethnicity, a given sexual orientation), everyone wants it to be their manga about transgenderism, to tell the story in the way that reflects their own experiences, or an idealized version of their experiences and the way they want things to be. Since these things are inherently subjective, it's hard to meet everyone's demands. Happily, the reaction to Wandering Son seems to be good, both inside and outside the manga community. (Actually, although I looked for awhile for a "Smash! Bam! Pow! Transsexual Comics!" style review of Wandering Son, I couldn't find a single review from someone familiar with TG issues but unfamiliar with manga; maybe that's a good sign of how well-accepted manga has become?) Although the two main characters have what could be described as gender dysphoria, it's not just a story about transgenderism; there's a large number of characters, more than I can describe here, and a lot of character-based twists and turns. It's a story about gender identity, about first loves, and about growing up.

About gender identity. I say it's not "just" a story about transgenderism; there'd be nothing wrong if it were even more closely on-topic, but this is a story, not a public service announcement. (Nor, thankfully, are there any info-dump characters who just exist to rattle off facts about transgender issues.) One potential criticism of Wandering Son might be that the trans characters are too 'androgynously attractive'—it isn't always so perfect in real life—but this is a staple of manga character design, and isn't it better to have trans characters who actually look good, rather than ones who look like caricatures of non-passing transsexuals, like when Kelley Jones drew Wanda in Sandman? Real-live people may not be so good at cross-dressing, but they don't have noses like tiny soft nubs that are only visible from certain angles, either. And Shimura does pay some attention to the characters' transgendered appearances, within the boundaries of her character design style: for example, Yuki's broad shoulders and just-slightly-large hands.

Takako Shimura is a subtle author, and a lot of her storytelling comes in the quiet moments, the stuff you'll miss if you read too quickly. Conveniently for American readers, she also expresses gender with some symbols any Westerner will recognize; the dress-up dolls in the chapter titles (the way Shuichi thinks of himself?), the "Snips and snails and puppy-dog tails/That's what little boys are made of" nursery rhyme. The characters in Wandering Son mostly limit their gender expression to crossdressing, as they're too young for hormones or sex-change surgery (although some people now get hormone therapy as early as the onset of puberty…still, there are cautionary stories of hormone use gone wrong, like in the disastrous David Reimer case in which a baby boy was given hormones and raised as a girl without his consent).

One reason for the unfortunate existence of transphobia, and homophobia, is that people compartmentalize sexuality to keep their lives simple: it's useful to be able to divide your life into "potentially sexy times" and "non-sexy times," and thus, it's useful to categorize others by their gender (i.e. whether you should be attracted to them) and their sexual orientation (i.e. whether they might be attracted to you). When these categories blur, when sexuality manifests itself in unexpected ways or from unexpected people, it can get uncomfortable. (And thus, bisexuality, and genderqueer/transgender issues, can sometimes be trigger issues even for people who are OK with the idea of homosexuality.) There's a scene where Yoshino experiences this, and it's one of the more interesting—and disturbing—moments in the series.

About growing up. At first it seems like a strange choice that the story starts out with the characters as 5th graders, prepubescents for whom issues of both gender and sexuality seem distant. (Some reviewers though they act mature beyond their years, and even Shimura writes in her author's notes, "Yeah, I know it's starting to look like some kind of Lolita thing, but I hope you'll stick with me.") But in fact, it makes sense: this is a story about growing into a gender, a time which can be upsetting and scary whether you're cisgendered or transgendered. For Yoshino, getting her first period is a depressing event, a sign of her body's undesired transformation into a woman; when the boys steal her sanitary pads and open them in front of the class ("You really are a girl!"), it's a crushing event. For Shuichi, the moment of change is his first wet dream, that slimy, sticky moment which provides clues to his sexuality as well as his gender identity. Some might even say that, to an extent, people start out genderless and "grow into" their gender; this is one way of looking at Wandering Son. And starting the characters so young sets the stage for an long story of growing to adulthood, and making life decisions along the way.

About first loves. Never forget, this is a manga. The characters get crushes and fall in love. It isn't long before a boy sees the cute girl through the window in Shuichi's house and wonders who it is. There are many crushes, and eventually some relationships, in this series. Shimura is also aware that one's gender identity and one's sexual orientation are not necessarily related. When Shuichi looks at the pretty girl in the mirror, is he being a narcissist? Does he love women? Or men? Or himself?

Shuichi, the cute boy, is sort of the center of attention. (Well, the manga is called Wandering Son, after all.) As Yoshino and Shuichi become closer, some other characters misunderstand the nature of their relationship (or do they misunderstand it…?) and become jealous. Soon, everyone thinks there's something going on between the boyish girl and the girlish boy; it's almost too perfect. Who is Shuichi attracted to? Who is Yoshino attracted to? Yoshino, always the more serious of the two, wonders what the future will bring for her and her friend: "I wonder if we'll ever have lovers and go on dates. I wonder. With who…? And how…?"

Some of you are probably reading this review and thinking, "I know what he's hinting at. This is another stupid fake-LGBT-themed manga where all the characters turn out straight in the end." Well, maybe. I honestly don't know. I've read the four translated volumes of the Fantagraphics edition (which features a great translation by Matt Thorn, who also wrote nice essays on Japanese gender issues in the first two volumes), but the series is up to 14 volumes in Japan. I also haven't seen the anime series (available on Crunchyroll) which covers so-far-untranslated parts of the manga storyline. Looking back on this review, I feel that perhaps I've focused too much on the "transgender" elements of Wandering Son and not just on the plain old story elements; but trust me, it's a good story, and the pace picks up after the slow first volume. Perhaps I've been cautious because I feel some elements of the transgender community are overly defensive about being represented by 'outsiders', as cartoonist Erika Moen discovered when she wrote a strip about transgendered men; it saddens me that Moen got slammed for expressing a personal fetish when she was open about it being just a fetish, whereas anime and manga with INFINITELY more fetishy and exploitative attitudes about various groups go unquestioned, perhaps just because the creators don't have English-language blogs. Anyway, Wandering Son isn't fetishy about transgendered people, even if some of the characters in the story are. It's a story of grey areas and transitions, of a time in people's lives—at least some people's lives, these people's lives—when who they are and who they love are still unanswered questions. I don't know where the story will end. Certainly, the characters don't know either. I hope it'll turn out a certain way, but not knowing makes it much more interesting.


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