“‘Is that a guy or a girl?’ must rank just behind ‘Are these characters supposed to be white?’ as the most commonly asked question by people unfamiliar with manga,” Jason Thompson writes in his indispensable Manga: The Complete Guide. As Thompson notes, gender has long been fluid in the world of manga. Gender-bending characters go back at least as far as Osamu Tezuka’s 1953 shojo manga Princess Knight (about a princess born with both male and female “hearts”), were a key obsession of the pioneering shojo artists of the 1970s, and remain a popular element in manga to this day.
But these characters are almost always positioned safely in a fantasy setting, as in the sci-fi shojo manga of the ’70s, the comedy gender-swapping of Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2, or Hiroshi Aro’s more transgressive but equally fantasy-based Futaba-Kun Change. In recent manga (Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss, Aya Nakahara’s Love*Com), more realistic transgender characters sometimes appear in supporting roles, but seldom as central characters. “In contrast to the countless imaginary ways of changing gender, actual medical transsexuals and hermaphrodites rarely appear as main characters in manga,” Thompson concludes in his section on transgender issues, adding a splash of cold reality: “Gender reassignment surgery was not performed in Japan until 1998, and it is still impossible to get one’s gender legally changed” on a Japanese birth certificate.
Even at the time Thompson wrote this, however, things were changing, in manga if not in life. In the past decade, more manga artists have tackled transgender issues realistically, stripping away the usual layers of what-if fantasy or sex-swapping comedy. Chiyo Rokuhana’s IS, launched in 2003, follows several intersexual characters (some of whom have had surgery to look male or female, some of whom haven’t) and how their sexually ambiguous biology affects their lives. And Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son, launched in the same year, explores transgender feelings through two fifth-grade classmates: Shuichi Nitori, a girl in the body of a boy, and Yoshino Takatsuki, a boy in the body of a girl.
All of this build-up makes Wandering Son sound like a polemic on gender issues, which it very much isn’t. What it is, more than anything else, is gentle: a dreamy afternoon glide through the golden waters of early adolescence, waters only occasionally interrupted by sharp rocks and scary surprises. It’s clear that Shuichi and Yoshino’s voyage to adulthood is going to be especially fraught, but for now things aren’t too bad. Their families are warm and loving, their friends want the best for them, their school days are busy and happy. The rapids are still ahead, although they’re getting closer.
Quiet, sweet-tempered Nitori is drawn to girls’ clothing and dreams about being a girl, feelings he keeps secret from his friends and family. The more outgoing Takatsuki finds out about Nitori’s desires and reveals her own secret: she wants to be a boy, and has even begun taking the bus to neighborhoods where she can go out in drag without being recognized. Slowly, cautiously, the two build a secret life together, a life that can’t help bleeding into their public existence. Their class puts on a production of The Rose of Versailles (another of the great gender-bending manga) with all the boys playing female roles and vice versa, allowing Nitori and Takatsuki to be themselves onstage. Chiba, a girl with a crush on Nitori, presses him into trying on a dress, only to be wracked with guilt when it has a stronger effect on him than she expected. Nitori’s trendy sister is deeply disturbed by the idea of her brother cross-dressing. A class bully discovers that Takatsuki really, really hates being reminded of her period. And so on.
If the protagonists are not met with perfect acceptance and understanding, they are at least met with love, from peers who are busy constructing their own ramshackle identities. Nitori’s sister identifies passionately with a teen pop star. Chiba thinks she can change herself for the better by converting to Christianity. Are these ideas of self, the manga quietly asks, any more real, or any less, than Nitori’s nervous longing to be a girl, Takatsuki’s steady conviction of being a boy? Individual objects are infused with almost supernatural power: an old school uniform, a headband, a haircut, a dress hanging from a closet door. They mean nothing except to one person, but to that person they mean everything.
As befits the tone of the story, Takako’s art is soft and sweet, almost like a children’s manga; in actuality, Wandering Son runs in Japan in the alt-friendly men’s magazine Comic Beam, home of the thoughtful historical romance Emma and the outrageous underground comix of Junko Mizuno and Atsushi Kaneko. Backgrounds are sparse, and the focus is always on the characters: expressions, poses, details of dress. (The characters attend a school that doesn’t require uniforms, allowing Takako to telegraph information through sometimes subtle clothing choices.) The round, simple faces recall classic 1980s shonen artists like Rumiko Takahashi and Mitsuru Adachi, with perhaps an extra dollop of contemporary moe cuteness.
Like many manga about school days, Wandering Son is infused with a mood of warm nostalgia, but Takako adds a mild, bracing chill. The characters are losing the simplicity and innocence of childhood, but, in their cases, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to trade these things for the adulthood they want. What they want may not even be possible, or, at least, it seems impossible from their current positions. “Even Grandma can’t buy me this,” thinks Nitori, his eyes wide with longing. But right now they have friends, and right here they have someone who understands, and tomorrow is tomorrow, thank God.
I’ve read many gentle, nostalgic manga about school and growing up, and in many ways Wandering Son is not so different from the best of them (Yukie Nasu’s Here Is Greenwood, Fumi Yoshinaga’s Flower of Life). On another level, the very fact that it can be so quiet and casual and natural, and say all the things that it says, makes it a deeply impressive work. What Wandering Son says, above all, is that the kids are alright. Maybe they don’t believe it themselves right now. But they’ll make it through.