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Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Fifth grader Shuichi Nitori and his older sister Maho have just transferred schools. Shu is a quiet boy, struggling to come to terms with the fact that he may be transgendered. At his new school he meets Takatsuki Yoshino, a girl who is well aware that she would have preferred to have been born male. Will Shu and Takatsuki be able to discover their true selves in a world not all that kind to those who are different?
There is no urgency to this story. Takako Shimura's tale of a girl in a boy's body and a boy in a girl's is not written with moments of great pathos, unrelenting drama, or any other narrative tricks to pull you into the emotional heart of the book. Instead it is a quietly told story that encourages you to keep reading so that you may join in the journey of the protagonists as they come to terms with who they are. There is no glorifying of being different or any heavy handed messages about life to be found in this volume – there is just life itself.
When we meet primary protagonist Shuichi, he is starting at a new school. His sister's homeroom teacher mistakes him for Maho. This is the sole time in the book where Shuichi is deliberately labeled female by another character. At other points in the story characters may remark about how cute he is, but other than that first time, it is never explicitly stated that when dressed as a boy, Shu looks like a girl. This saves the series from collapsing into the cross-dressing pit and also keeps it from feeling hackneyed. Visually Takatsuki is more what readers may be expecting – even dressed normally, her character design reads “boy.” (Oddly enough, this is not true of the color image on the character introduction page.) But as Shuichi himself points out, girls have the leeway to dress either masculine or feminine, so perhaps this is less a visual cliché and more a statement about gendered clothing. Shuichi primarily achieves a more female look through the use of a headband in this volume, although there are some cases where he wears girls' clothing. Although Shimura's art is simple, his transition from boy to girl through the manipulation of just his bangs is effective.
Shu takes most of the volume to realize that he may be transgender. He goes to school, does a project with classmates, and plays the role of Rosalie in his class' cross-gender production of The Rose of Versailles. The slow pace does not detract from the storytelling, but rather gives it a more realistic feel. If he simply had an epiphany when classmate Chiba tried to give him a dress for his birthday the story would lose a great deal of its impact. By allowing him to feel discomfort at her gift, Shimura gives us a human protagonist. Chiba, as the primary classmate we interact with besides Takatsuki, is a bit less clear. Just why is she so keen on getting Shuichi to dress like a girl? Is she a budding fujoshi? Or has she recognized something about him that he is unaware of himself? That is never really made clear here, although she does feel tremendous guilt over her gift. Strangely, Shimura has her express that guilt by becoming a Christian and going to church. Are we going to have a story about religious tolerance as well as being transgendered? Will her newfound religion create a conflict in her friendships with Takatsuki and Shuichi? Hopefully these questions will be resolved as the story goes on.
A refreshing and remarkable thing about this series is Shuichi's family life. Unlike many young manga heroes, Shuichi lives at home with parents who are fully present. They are supportive, although they are as yet unaware that he is transgender, and have a happy, healthy interaction with their children. Older sister Maho is remarkably annoying, but as a thirteen-year-old girl, she is very believable as she sulks, pouts, and teases viciously. In fact, she is more in keeping with her age group than either Shuichi or Takatsuki, or any of the members of class 5-3. If this manga has a fatal flaw, it is that most of the children act much older than they are, wandering around alone and coming to conclusions too mature for most in their grade. This is not to say that there aren't fifth graders capable of such self-realizations; there are. It is the high percentage of them in this story that rings a bit false.
Fantagraphics has lived up to the standard they set with their release of Moto Hagio's A Drunken Dream. Like that book, this volume is oversized and hard backed without a dust jacket. Pages are thick and high quality with several color illustrations. Unlike most companies, Fantagraphics has printed the color pages matte rather than glossy. This adds to the overall restrained atmosphere of the book; high gloss images might have felt tawdry. You do pay for this overall quality - $19.99 – but the book is available discounted at most online retailers. It is, however, worth the high price if you buy it at your local comic shop. Translator Matt Thorn includes an extensive note about honorifics in the back as well as a detailed pronunciation guide. Some of Thorn's statements can be inflammatory, but in all fairness it is nothing that he hasn't said before.
Wandering Son is a kind, gentle introduction to the story of two transgendered children beginning to understand themselves. Older readers may find themselves reminded of Yu Yabuchi's The Blue-Green Years (Mizuiro Jidai) in the way the story handles puberty issues and classroom bullies, and there are similarities. But Shimura takes us down another path that some authors are uncomfortable treading. Transgender is a subject that many people who are not members of the LBGTQ community struggle to comprehend, and Shimura uses a light touch to try and bring a greater understanding of it to her readers.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Comfortable, kind treatment of a sensitive subject, realistic characters, and actual parents who pay attention to their children. Beautiful book on the physical level.
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