Wandering Son Volume 1 by Shimura Takako
I’d procrastinated reading Wandering Son when it first came out. I figured it would be good, just from reading other bloggers’ reviews, but I was wondering if the manga’s premise of a boy who wants to be a girl meeting a girl who wants to be a boy would be a bit ABC Afterschool Special in execution. Fortunately Shimura Takako is a master at portraying subtle events in a slice of life story about adolescence that never feels didactic.
Nitori’s shyness and manners cause him to be mistaken for a girl. He stars the school year by befriending the tomboyish girl Takatsuki. He visits her at her house and she notices his reaction to a dress she has hanging on her closet. She holds the dress up to him and says “It looks good on you. Your face says you want to wear it.” Nitori isn’t able to articulate what he wants and he makes a vague protest that the idea is crazy. Takatsuki says “Don’t you think buying your kid stuff she hates is some kind of harassment?” Nitori takes the dress home to his sister, but he’s left with a heightened awareness of feminine clothing and an idea in his head that he’s afraid to articulate.
One of the things I like about Wandering Son is the way many of the events in the book are simultaneously safe and filled with dramatic tension. As Nitori begins to take tentative steps to express himself, he’s met with acceptance for the most part. His parents seem supportive, but he’s being pushed to experiment with gender before he’s ready. A girl in his class named Chiba figures out Nitori’s attraction to feminine things and gives him an outfit he decides he can’t accept. She arranges for their class to do a gender-swapped class play. Weather she’s trying to help Nitori or merely attempting to collect and manage him as a curiosity is unclear. Takatsuki’s brash behavior causes her to be more bold with experiments as she attempts to pass as a boy in public, and she forces Nitori to go along with her. This might be a good thing, as he wouldn’t necessarily take steps like this on his own.
Like the storyline, Shimura’s art is simple but nuanced. Objects like a headband or a dress take on a symbolic weight for Nitori. His reserved but embarrassed body language portrays the way he’s not comfortable in his own skin, while Takatsuki’s more forthright mannerisms are the posturing of a girl who has to portray herself as outwardly self-assured no matter what she might be feeling on the inside. There’s a great scene of Nitori and Takatsuki getting haircuts together, which is one of the more memorable episodes of the book. He only wants a slight trim so his hair stays long, and Takatsuki demands a haircut as short as his. They end up with almost identical hair and the style that is slightly girlish on Nitori reads as manly on Takatsuki.
As you’d expect from Fantagraphics, the production quality for Wandering Son is excellent. I hope that more manga is on the horizon from them. While I’ll happily read more cheaply produced manga, it is nice to have a variety of options. Carefully curated manga like Wandering Son is a treat.