Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Maho drags Shu with her to the modeling audition at her idol Maiko-chan's agency with surprising results. In fact, Maho seems to be getting a little too comfortable with her brother's aspirations, which brings about some uncomfortable moments. Meanwhile, Shu makes his first male friend, which will help him when his exchange diary with Yoshino falls into the hands of their classmates. The world, he and Yoshino learn once again, is a harsh place for those who are different...
Puberty is a harsh time for all of us. Hormones make us crazy, or at least confused, our bodies change seemingly overnight, and all of a sudden we want different things than we did before. For the protagonists of Takako Shimura's beautiful and sensitive series Wandering Son, things are even harder. Yoshino wants to identify as male, but her period starts. Shu wants to identify as female, but he has his first wet dream. None of these things change who Shu and Yoshino are on the inside, and certainly don't negate their feelings of being the other gender, but they surely do complicate an already difficult issue.
This volume tracks some difficult times for Shu and Yoshino as it brings their wishes into the public sphere. While they have cross-dressed in public before, they did so without people knowing their physical genders, thus suffering no repercussions. This volume, however, begins with Maho forcing Shu to come with her to her modeling audition. Not only does she simply bring him along, she has him audition with her, proclaiming that he looks just as cute as any girl when he wears a dress and that the judges should consider the siblings as a set. This unthinking, and unintentionally cruel, selfishness is typical of Maho, and while Shu doesn't say anything about it, his wide-eyed silence speaks volumes. As is typical of his character, he doesn't protest aloud this time, and so Maho continues her inadvertent cruelty in another, more emotionally high-stakes situation. This time we do see Shu voice his discomfort and stand up for himself, while still maintaining his essentially shy personality. Shimura does an excellent job of keeping Shu in character while still showing that even the sweet and quiet can be pushed too far, and if his reactions aren't the violent outbursts of most manga, that only serves to keep him true to the personality that Shimura has established for him.
We see Shu's personality contrast with Yoshino's more outgoing one in the scenes following the discovery of their exchange diary. A classmate grabs it from Shu as he is handing it to Yoshino, and the boy promptly shares it with the class. Needless to say this has instant consequences, with the other students not understanding the two's feelings and damning them as “weird,” a pretty serious charge for that age group. Delighted with their new targets, they begin taunting the two, resulting in Yoshino distancing herself both from Shu and who she wants to be. This leads to a slightly uncomfortable chapter where she goes to stay with Yuki, the pair's adult transgendered friend. While it isn't clear if Yuki is actually attracted to Yoshino, there are still some moments that could bother readers, and Yuki's idea of helping tiptoes around the edges of some dangerous territory. More heartening is the conclusion Yoshino comes to as she learns to be true to who she really is, something Shu is clearly working towards as well in this volume.
Ancillary characters show a wide range of acceptance and non towards Shu and Yoshino, giving us some of the biggest dividing lines we have seen thus far in the society that surrounds our protagonists. Shu's mother, for example, doesn't show any outward concerns about his modeling as a girl, perhaps indicating that when he finally tells her the truth, she may be more accepting. Meanwhile the classroom teacher who witnesses the social destruction of Shu and Yoshino replies to a request that things be stopped by saying that “both sides are to blame,” implying that Shu and Yoshino are wrong to feel as they do. The bullying that Shu is subjected to both at school and at the modeling agency also give this impression, reminding us that this is far from a perfect world. While Shu reacts more calmly, and some may say better, than Yoshino does, his feelings find a voice in new character Makoto, another boy who questions his gender identity. Makoto says what Shu cannot, forcing him to face his feelings in a few cases where he might otherwise have simply retreated into himself or gone along with what someone else wanted.
While the story is just as compelling as ever in its own quiet way, Fantagraphics' translation has taken a slight hit. Most of the Japanese text is left untranslated (most signage, for example, and one cover) and the closest we get to a cultural note, apart from the now obligatory honorifics guide, is an asterix by the drink name Calpis saying “Google it.” While this is certainly not bad advice, it does feel a little unprofessional and sarcastic, and has the added misfortune of pulling the reader out of the story in a way that simply defining it would not. Sadly missing this time is an essay by Matt Thorn; while not actually a necessity, those in volumes one and two were still interesting reads. Other than that, the book is just as lovely as the previous two, and Fantagraphics should be commended for avoiding the color purple thus far on their book spines.
Wandering Son may not be a story that everyone can intimately relate to on all levels, but perhaps that is what makes it even more important that it be told. The world is made up of many different types of people and we aren't always willing to venture outside of our own experiences to hear their stories. Wandering Son narrates a tale that we might not be familiar with, making it all the more worth reading. If you haven't yet discovered this bittersweet story of children trying to learn and accept who they really are, you are missing out. It isn't filled with action, but Wandering Son is a story that is brimming with heart and soul.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Continues to tackle difficult topics with sensitivity. Shu's and Yoshino's reactions both strike a realistic chord, and this volume really starts to expand the story's world.
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