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Friday December 30, 2011

Coming of age

Wandering Son: Vol 1
Author/Artist: Shimura Takako
Publisher: Fantagraphics

PUBERTY can be a tough time as one develops into a young woman, especially when that someone happens to be a boy.

Wandering Son is a manga by Shimura Takako that examines the lives of kids on the cusp of adolescence who face issues with their gender identity. Nitori Shuichi is a delicate, girlish-looking young boy who likes wearing dresses, while Takatsuki Yoshino is a handsome, boyish-looking girl who enjoys travelling to neighbouring towns disguised as a man.

Both attend the same fifth grade class and, over the course of the first volume, discover each other’s secret yearning to be a member of the opposite sex.

Now, before you either go “Eww, this manga must feature some really weird sexual stuff,” or, alternatively, “Yaoi/yuri, woo hoo!”, allow us to stop you right there.

Yes, there’s cross-dressing, but Wandering Son isn’t about sexual hanky panky. The manga is a coming-of-age story that explores the personal issue of gender identity and, to a lesser extent, the social issue of sexuality.

Throughout the first volume, we see Shuichi slowly - and somewhat reluctantly - coming to terms with his desire to dress up like a girl, while Yoshino rebels rather futilely against her gradual transformation into a woman.

They both have intense inner struggles, and their personal tales unfold against the familiar backdrop of an average school life and a somewhat normal family life, complete with teasing classmates and acerbic siblings.

The manga has a very well-thought, carefully paced narrative that allows us to explore what goes on inside each character’s head and to watch them develop as people. It’s much more a quiet slice of life affair than it is an over-the-top comedy and/or drama, which might be something you’d expect from a manga featuring cross-dressing (thanks for helping us develop that peculiar bias, Ranma 1/2).

Released by renowned American publisher Fantagraphics, this hardcover book (with 206 mostly B&W pages) represents a sophisticated side of literary manga. Translated with rare skill and sensitivity by veteran translator and comics scholar Matt Thorn, much of the story’s original flavour remains intact.

Shimura Takako’s gender-bending story has a very quiet, introspective touch to it, and her artwork – with its clean lines, minimal backgrounds and sparse dialogue – beautifully reflects this. The art is simple yet expressive, and this is particularly evident in the many scenes where not a single word is uttered – you can practically hear what the characters are thinking just from their looks alone.

While we thoroughly enjoyed the strong character development and deeply personal tales in Wandering Son (even if the characters act a little more mature than most fifth graders that we know), we really need to say something about the pacing of the story.

If we’re generous – and we are – we’d say that the thoughtful pace of the story helps portray the protagonists as believable, relatable characters without needlessly making the narrative drawn-out.

If we’re not, we’d say that the pace of the story is somewhere close to glacial; it takes the narrative almost the entire first volume and the protagonists’ graduation from the fifth grade before any sort of story-driving conflict crops up.

Again, this is related to what we mentioned earlier; if you pick up Wandering Son thinking it’s going to be full of dramatic high school moments with kids being cast out for their queerness, or non-stop hilarious shenanigans revolving around cross-dressing, then you’re going to miss the point of the manga by a mile.

Heck, even if you’re just expecting a story with a familiar set-up-conflict-resolution structure, you won’t be able to fully enjoy this manga. If there is some sort of dramatic climax in Wandering Son, it’s certainly not in the first volume.

Consider Wandering Son a manga that you’d read on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and one that you’d continue reading not because it has some dramatic hullabaloo that keeps you at the edge of your seat, but because you can empathise with the protagonists and want to see how things work out for them.

The second volume of Wandering Son, recently released by Fantagraphics, sees our conflicted young souls, Shuichi and Yoshino, entering the sixth grade.

All in all, Wandering Son is a very interesting manga to pick up: it has a strong, character-driven story that explores a very mature topic. If the manga has piqued your interest, do keep in mind that it’s up to 11 or 12 volumes already in Japan, so if you’re committed to the story, then there’s still quite a long road to wander down.

Suggested reading for older teens and young adults, Wandering Son Vols 1 & 2 are available at Kinokuniya KLCC.