Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Jan 20th 2012
While out on a “date,” Shuichi and Yoshino meet a woman named Yuki who is taken with them. Giving her each others' names (that is, telling her that Yoshino is Shuichi and vice versa), the two become friends with the adult. However, a visit by Yuki's boyfriend reveals that Yuki is just like Shuichi – a transgendered man. This relationship will prove helpful to Shuichi as he encounters his first real bullying while on the school trip and tries to come to terms with the person he is and the person he's “supposed” to be.
Sensitively portraying the middle school years (in the American sense of grades 6-8) is no easy task. These are times when one is constantly betrayed by one's own body and hormones can make every situation potentially catastrophic. When you are beginning to realize that you may not be just like everyone else in terms of sexuality and gender identification, those years can be even worse, and Takako Shimura deserves praise for her ability to make us understand and relate to the protagonists of Wandering Son.
The first half of this book is much slower than the second. Shuichi and Yoshino continue their cross-dressed outings, aided by a wig Shuichi purchases. They meet Yuki (who was actually introduced last volume but didn't play much of a role), who invites them back to her apartment. At first this seems creepy by western standards (and very possibly Japanese as well), but it soon becomes apparent that Yuki is not quite as she seems. When her boyfriend reveals that she was once a he, Shuichi and Yoshino acquire their first real role models – adults who went through the same things they are and who understand. Unfortunately, getting to this point is a bit dicey, as Yuki's motives come off as highly impure (she tells Yoshino not to bring her girlfriend next visit) and her boyfriend Shii-chan discovers Yoshino's true gender by grabbing her crotch and feeling up her chest. But the end result of Yuki and Shii-chan taking the children under their somewhat suspect wings looks to be a good one for the peace of mind of both kids, more specifically Shuichi.
While the first half of the book also includes moments such as Maho discovering that Shuichi likes to dress in girls' clothing, it is the second half where the volume really shines. The sixth grade class is going on a class trip, and assigned seat partners separate Shuiichi from his friends. The boy he is seated beside is a bully. He doesn't understand why Shuiichi is quiet and self-contained and expresses his confusion or out-and-out dislike of someone different by attacking. He harasses Shuichi in the bath, trying to strip him, and when Shu protests, he calls him a “faggot.” This bullying continues through the rest of the book, even after Saori impressively stands up to him, and is likely just a hint of what Shuichi will have to go through as the story progresses. The realism with which Shimura writes the bullying scenes is effective and shots of Shuichi sitting alone in the hallway instead of remaining in the room where the boys are sleeping carry a stark sense of his loneliness and isolation from the other boys. Any formerly bullied child will recognize the feelings.
Along with the more expected themes of social angst and emotional ups and downs, Shimura includes a more unusual reference – L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables is mentioned three times in this volume. The classic tale of an orphan succeeding against all odds does have thematic similarities to Wandering Son in that both are about young people trying to find their places in the world, but readers unfamiliar with Montgomery's text may find themselves a bit lost, particularly as one reference is not explained within the story. (It is a parallel between Gilbert's harassment of Anne on her first day of school and the boys' treatment of Shuichi.) Knowing Anne of Green Gables isn't necessary to understanding this volume, but it will enhance Shimura's story.
As with volume one, Fantagraphics has gone out of their way to make this a beautiful volume. While the oversize hardcover format does not enhance Shimura's very simple artistic style, it does lend the book more credibility as the literary work that it is, and given the topic it treats on, that's a good thing. If the art has been enlarged from the original Japanese editions, it is impossible to tell, as the images are crisp and clear. Shimura's panels are very easy to read, and while one could wish that more emotion showed on her faces, the art works for the story. Unfortunately a few baffling choices were made with this book, such as spoilers on the character introduction pages and a few instances of untranslated words - “sayonara” is three times written as such, and in the last chapter a character says “H-hai” instead of “Y-yes.” These moments detract from the overall professional quality of the book and give it that fan translation feel which is totally out of place in a release of this quality.
Wandering Son is in some ways this decade's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Like Judy Blume's book, Wandering Son addresses issues of growing up and puberty with sensitivity and in a way that is easy to understand. With its quiet emphasis on the way a group of four friends divides and redivides into pairs, the cruelty of children, and social norms, Shimura's work is a stand out, and when paired with translator Matt Thorn's excellent essay on the Japanese attitude towards the LBGTQ community, is one that you shouldn't miss.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Sensitively portrays such topics as sexual identity, social norms, and bullying. Thorn's essay is interesting and enlightening. Beautiful book.
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