Wandering Son is an important manga series, much celebrated for the sensitive treatment of its two young transgender protagonists. It offers nuanced portrayals of these two middle schoolers, their friends, and their families. The tone is sweet, gentle, and hopeful, making it a pleasant reading experience. At the same time, it doesn’t turn away from realistic issues like bullying and the pain of experiencing puberty when your body already doesn’t match the way you feel inside. However, I have one major caveat about this series, which will be discussed below. Note: I will be using female pronouns for Shuichi and male pronouns for Yoshino as these reflect the characters’ preferred genders.
Shuichi and Yoshino become friends in fifth grade and discover that they are hiding the same secret, or rather, opposite secrets. Shuichi loves pretty things and dreams of being recognized as a girl. Yoshino gets a short haircut, likes to wear his brother’s school uniform, and wishes to be seen as a boy. As the two become close, cue the inevitable complications with friends, romantic feelings, and the physical changes of puberty. It all takes place against a backdrop of school projects and family life that brings the story a down-to-earth realism, making it easy to sympathize with these very human characters.
Many unequivocally positive reviews of Wandering Son seem to be based on the first volume alone. This volume contains only a brief introduction to the character Yuki, a twenty-something trans woman who will go on to become friends with Shuichi and Yoshino. The introduction alone, though, might set off some alarm bells: Yuki spots Yoshino out in public dressed in a boy’s school uniform and hits on him, giving him her phone number; Yoshino is in fifth grade, only ten or eleven years old.
In volume two, Yuki invites Yoshino to her apartment, then pouts when Yoshino brings Shuichi: “I told you to come alone.” When Yuki’s boyfriend Shii suddenly returns home, he is furious, convinced that Yuki is cheating on him with Yoshino (now in sixth grade). After giving Yoshino a long, suspicious look, Shii grabs the sixth-grader by the crotch. “A girl?” He smirks. “No chest yet, but it’ll grow.” He then speculates about Shuichi’s genitals. The kids leave the apartment shaken, but never tell anyone about this and continue to consider themselves friends with both Yuki and Shii.
In volume three, Yoshino visits Yuki alone after an upsetting day at school. Yuki tries to peek at Yoshino’s panties and attempts to convince Yoshino to shower with her, saying, “You can let me enjoy those budding breasts.” Yoshino flees Yuki’s apartment, saying he’s “scared,” only to have Yuki fetch him back, murmuring, “Sheesh, you are a sensitive one, aren’t you?” Instead of being called out for her predatory behavior and avoided, Yuki becomes a sort of mentor for the protagonists. She is the only trans adult depicted in the series (as of volume seven).
The series was originally published as seinen with an adult audience, which fits the nostalgic, poignant feel of the story. It also makes bullies’ occasional use of homophobic slurs feel less shocking than if the story were aimed at children the age of its protagonists. These new editions put the manga into large, beautiful hardcover books with thick paper. Enlarging the art to fit bigger pages makes it a little spare and simple, but that actually fits the story well as the clear, straightforward images help keep the focus on the emotional storylines. The drawings are always realistic, not veering into wacky visual humor or over-the-top action. They keep a quiet, consistent tone that supports the story like a well-chosen movie soundtrack.
In her notes at the end of volume one, the creator laments, “My characters are hard to tell apart, my backgrounds are too empty, and I have a million other flaws to overcome.” While the characters do have similar faces and sometimes hairstyles, I didn’t have trouble telling them apart, even though I am prone to mistaking manga characters for one another. It helps that the artist pays a lot of attention to characters’ clothes, which hold great significance for Shuichi and Yoshino, so characters can be told apart by their outfits.
Each volume ends with a message from the series’ creator as well as a note on the translation, focusing on honorifics and pronunciation. We get some interesting insights in these sections, like translator Matt Thorn’s brief essay on trans people in Japan.
Outside of the characters of Yuki and Shii (who do not appear in every volume), I would have no reservations about praising the manga for all the same reasons that many reviewers have applauded volume one. The story features thoughtful, empathetic portrayals of a varied cast of characters, including three trans kids (a friend and classmate of the protagonists is another trans girl). The series could offer trans readers a mirror by way of acknowledging their experiences and educate cisgender readers. But the unexamined presence of Yuki and Shii is toxic to the progressive, accepting tone of the story. There are few enough trans people represented in fiction right now that it is dangerous, not to mention tone-deaf, to produce a story where the only trans adult sexually harasses pre-teens. I would recommend this series only to readers capable of recognizing its problems, and I would caution them strongly about the characters of Yuki and Shii.
Wandering Son, vols. 1-7
by Shimura Takako
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781606994160
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781606994566
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781606995334
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781606996058
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781606996478
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781606997079
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781606997505
Fantagraphics Books, 2011-2014