Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wandering Son (manga, vols. 1-5) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

I had heard a lot of good things about Wandering Son and went into it with high expectations. Maybe too high. It turned out to have far more relationship drama (mostly romantic drama) than I expected, and it got to be a bit too much for me. That said, I suspect teens would enjoy that aspect.

This is one of those series that I definitely plan on continuing next time I'm on vacation, even though it sometimes makes me want to scream at the characters in frustration.

Warning: this post contains spoilers.

Wandering Son (manga, vol. 1) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn – This volume introduces Nitori Shuichi (original Japanese name order – family name first), a shy child who was born a boy but secretly dreams about being a girl. We also meet Takatsuki Yoshino, who secretly dresses as a boy and takes a train to places where no one thinks of her as a girl. And we meet Chiba Saori, a girl who wants to be a Christian and has been encouraging Shuichi's desire to dress as a girl (most of the characters refer to each other by their family names, but I'm going to try to stick with their given names to avoid confusion later on). Saori convinces the class to put on a play where girls dress as boys and boys dress as girls, so that Shuichi can dress as a girl without anyone thinking anything of it.

So far, this is a very spare, gentle, and awkward story. The primary reason I was on edge was because of what could happen. At any moment, characters' secret desires might be revealed to everyone. I felt bad for Yoshino, who was made fun of for having her first period, and Shuichi, who wanted so badly to have long hair and wear pretty dresses.

I checked this series out during my vacation because it had gotten a lot of buzz, and I wanted to finally see what it was like. Which maybe meant that my expectations were a little too high. It's a nice story, but not overwhelmingly awesome. However, considering how many manga series treat cross-dressing as a joke, and how few transgender characters there are who aren't played for laughs, Wandering Son definitely stands out.

Wandering Son (manga, vol. 2) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn – All the characters are in the 6th grade now, and Saori is in a different class than everybody she got to know in volume 1. Shuichi buys himself a wig for his and Yoshino's outings. They befriend Yuki, who turns out to be a trans woman. Seya Riku, a classmate of Shuichi's sister, falls instantly in love with Shuichi when he sees Shuichi dressed as a girl, leading to Maho (Shuichi's sister) discovering Shuichi's secret. Yoshino and Shuichi start an exchange diary.

This was my favorite volume of the ones I read during my vacation, in large part because of a few quotes I liked so much that I felt the need to record them in my notes. Here's the first one, said by a drunken Yuki to Yoshino and Shuichi:
“You two are so lucky. I wish I had had a friend like me.” (120)
I can only imagine how tough it must have been for Yuki, growing up. And then there's this one, said by Saori after she dumped her food on a jerk who was picking on Shuichi:
“I apologize to the people who prepared this food. But I will never apologize to you!” (I have no page number for this one, for some reason)
I'm still not sure what to think about Saori, who is an odd mix of supportive and self-centered. However, this part was awesome, even if it did get her in trouble. Shuichi had to deal with an awful bully who made fun of him for squealing when the bully started to strip him (what the hell? I was so mad for poor Shuichi).

Yuki's boyfriend made me...uncomfortable. Grabbing a teen's crotch, even one you thought your girlfriend was cheating on you with, is not cool.

In general, one thing I loved about this volume was that Shuichi and Yoshino were slowly amassing a support network. I hope that it's enough to get them through whatever future volumes throw at them.

Wandering Son (manga, vol. 3) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn – Maho drags Shuichi to her audition and asks to be accepted or rejected as a set. They're accepted, but their new modeling gig turns out to be both excitement and torture for poor Shuichi. Also for Maho, who is gradually beginning to understand that she is maybe being cruel towards Shuichi because she's hurt that Riku likes Shuichi more. She arranges a date for Riku and Shuichi, and Shuichi finally can't take it anymore – he tells Riku that he's Maho's brother. At school, others read Yoshino and Shuichi's exchange diary and make fun of Shuichi. Yoshino tries to help by distancing herself from Shuichi and dressing as a girl. During their time apart, Shuichi makes a new friend, Ariga Makoto (referred to from here on out as “Mako-chan,” because he'd like it), another boy who'd like to be a girl (this phrasing becomes important later on - I suspect Mako-chan isn't so much trans as he is gay and interested in cross-dressing).

Mako-chan seems to be one of the most emotionally stable characters in the series, steady even when he takes on Maho at her worst. After she almost calls him a faggot:
“You were just about to leave a scar on my heart that would never heal. And I would never have forgiven you for it. But you stopped yourself first, so I'll let it slide.” (136)
Yuki's overly touchy feely behavior bothered me since her introduction, and in this volume Yoshino reached her breaking point, becoming so uncomfortable that she tried to slip away from Yuki's place without telling her. If I had been Yoshino, I probably would have too. No matter what Yuki, Shuichi, and Yoshino all have in common, Yuki is still an adult with a sometimes screwed up sense of boundaries.

In this volume we learn that Yuki's relationship with her parents isn't very good. Maho's near slip-up with Mako-chan and her behavior lately with Shuichi makes me worry about what Shuichi's relationship with his own family might be like in the future. I worry about what's going through Maho's head.

I wish Shuichi were more outspoken. He just allows Maho to drag him wherever she wants, never saying what he wants. Does he want to be a model? Does he want to date Riku? Then again, the problem may be that he doesn't know what he wants, or is afraid to say his wishes aloud. But, ugh, it's frustrating to watch.

Wandering Son (manga, vol. 4) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn – Shuichi quits modeling due to issues with a girl in the group, Sueanna. Unfortunately, Maho becomes best friends with Sueanna, oblivious to the hurtful things she's said to Shuichi. Maho is upset that everyone seems to be falling for Shuichi. Meanwhile, Shuichi thinks he may be falling for Yoshino even though Yoshino only likes him as a friend. Saori likes Shuichi and hates Yoshino for being loved by him. The whole thing is a mess. And so everyone enters junior high with fragmented and awkward relationships.

This volume is so incredibly messy and complicated. There's so much going on that even the stuff that should be painful to read just isn't. There isn't enough time to stop and process everything.

I think I've overloaded on drama. I'm also getting super frustrated. We have gender, sexuality, and general “coming of age” stuff going on here, and the drama of it all is overwhelming. We finally learn that Saori encouraged Shuichi's love of dresses because it brought the two of them closer – she could invite Shuichi over and give him as many of her dresses as she could convince him to take.

I hate to say this, but at this point Shuichi comes across as kind of annoying, writing “poor me”-type stories. I have a feeling Teenage Me would have taken all of this much better than Adult Me. In part because Teenage Me wrote "poor me" stories too.

The volume's ending reminded me how very gendered high school uniforms are. I'm sure high school will be just wonderful for everybody.

Wandering Son (manga, vol. 5) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn – The start of a new school year. Yoshino makes a new friend, Sarashina Chizuru (I'm calling her Chizuru from here on out), a girl who showed up to the entrance ceremony in a boy's uniform just because she felt like it. Yoshino also has to deal with more unwelcome physical developments: she now needs a bra. Meanwhile, Shuichi is fretting about his voice eventually changing. The class decides (or is strongly encouraged by their teacher) to put on a play, which Shuichi and Saori will be writing together. Shuichi still isn't over Yoshino, and Saori isn't over Shuichi.

I'm “meh” about the romance drama, although I care about the characters enough to want to see where everything is going.

The new teacher Maybe not the best. And probably in over his head. He's a first-year teacher and a bit of a flake. He keeps arriving to school late, and he mentally matched every student in his class up with kids he used to know when he was in school, thereby handily prejudging everyone. He also pressured Shuichi and Saori into turning the class play into a mystery. He isn't very professional and seems very flawed. I'm worried he's going to somehow make the series' relationship messiness even worse.

Chizuru is strange. She seems oblivious to a lot of things, but she does try. When she realizes that Saori doesn't like it when she touches her, she stops. She doesn't seem to “get” Yoshino, though.

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