Friday, 27 January 2012

The Boy Who's a Girl

Nitori Shuichi is a 5th grader, a boy who wants to be a girl, although he may not altogether realise that. Takatsuki Yoshino, his friend, is a girl who wants to be a boy. Volume One of Shimura Takako’s manga Wandering Son covers the months leading up to their graduation, and traces with an astonishing beauty the difficulties and excitement of both desires.

The sex/gender distinction is an easy enough one to work with and, whatever later revisions and challenges it may have needed, it still performs useful political work. Our desires and identities – and the not always simple connections between those two – work themselves out in the play between the two terms, as physical bodies and selves are shaped by and shape their cultural context and social construction. So far, so orthodox. There’s a certain frisson in the stretching and bending of these expectations and in the flouting of gendered roles (this is the debased account of Judith Butler current in some circles) and, it is sometimes claimed, these performances do their bit to undo gender binaries and their attendant oppressions. That all-too-easy leap from the personal to the political not only bypasses some difficult problems (to do with social structures of oppression, women and exploitation and so on); it also erases a whole raft of experiences that involve an intensely lived relation to the sex/gender divide, ones that don’t wish them severed. Feeling other to the body one is born with – and having to negotiate that otherness in a society happy to ridicule and damage you for this feeling – is a situation not well served by a lot of the language and theorising of gender.

Shimura’s manga chronicles of LGBT experience have been known from many years in Japan ; what makes Wandering Son so interesting, and so useful, as a representation of ‘this world’ and ‘this path’ is the way it focuses, in this early volume, on that time just on the cusp of puberty (a first period plays an important role in the story), when bodily identity and selfhood need not be associated so quickly with questions of sexuality itself. Wandering Son is a beautiful, delicate and careful tale of sex much more than sexuality – what does it mean to be a boy? And, following that, what might it mean to be a girl?

The most gorgeous, and moving, pages, are, for me, those in which Shimura hesitates over a significant object of identity – a hair tie, an old school uniform, a dress or a sailor suit – and uses the image’s isolation and stillness to prompt our reflection and sympathy with the characters as they invest these objects with identifying powers. Pages of ‘rush’ – people hurrying to school, a knock at the door, train rides – give over to single images or a character’s face. Scott McCloud calls that space between panels – ‘the gutter’ – the area that “plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics,” and this is the sense in which I read Wandering Son’s gutters. It’s a manga of transitions, of never-wholly-realised identities, and so the space between the image of a hair band and an image of a face points to the gaps between the bodies characters live with – alongside their often unwelcome transformations – and the bodies they feel as selves.

The difficulty of these boundaries, and the slipperiness of identity, plays out at the level of style, too. Shimura’s characters are very hard to tell apart (something she, half-jokingly, apologises for at the manga’s end), and her drawings make powerful use of simple contrasts, seemingly unfinished sketches and minimal detail to evoke something of the flux and incompleteness in Nitori and Takatsuki’s sense of self and relations. Her exploitation of Japanese’s ambiguities around personal address and gender adds another complexity still; pronouns having such specific contexts and uses in Japanese (私、オレ and ぼくall translating as “I” and yet in themselves gender- and socially-specific) and proper names appearing in place of ‘you’ in ways that make the English speakers norms for gender identification almost unworkable. Matt Thorn’s translation – and his intriguing Translator’s Note – make good use of this material by transporting it into the English and not trying to hide the problems it poses for his work. Shimura wrote another manga called ぼくは、おんなのこ, a title (and, behind it, a subculture) playing with similar gendered language.

Cultural translation is an altogether more vexing problem, though, and Wandering Son reminds us why the terms gay, lesbian and transgender may not be at all appropriate for discussions of Japanese identities. Mark McLelland has pointed out some of the ways in which the too-hasty translation of specific life experiences can cause us to misunderstand the richness of those lives; I’ve written on his work before. Wandering Son makes great use of Takarazuka – the all-female performance troupe – to allow the characters’ cross-dressing to develop in a social context (the classroom) and also as part of a relationship, as friendships help develop insights into self, clothing, and identity. Takarazuka is, though, notoriously hard to place using Western labels for sexuality. I won’t give too much of the story away here, except to say that a school performance of ‘The Rose of Versailles’ sets much of the anxiety – and excitement – in motion.

There’s plenty of the suffering of LGBT life in Wandering Son, too, of course; homophobic bullying and violence, hostility to ‘perverts’, scenes evoking aching loneliness. My dominant memories from the manga, though, transform these into a narrative that’s much more than a realist account of lives neglected in most representations, although goodness knows we need more of those. Rather, Wandering Son’s beauty, the studied quality and balance of each image, seem to bring something of a utopian sense to this alienation and confusion. There’s a sense of expectation and thrill to the discoveries here, to the moment spent looking in a mirror when wearing a dress or sporting a headband, and a sense of anticipation. That’s a rare enough quality in any serious treatment of ‘other’ sexuality, and it's an exciting, and inspirational, one.

Wandering Son has recently been made into an anime, and Fantagraphics Books have brought out Volume Two as well. So look out for Shimura Takako.


You can buy a copy of Wandering Son here. The pictures I've used here are from the anime, not from the manga.

Jennifer Robertson’s “The Politics of Androgyny in Japan: Sexuality and Subversion in Theatre and Beyond” you can read here (pdf)

Scott McCloud’s three-volume series Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000) and Making Comics (2006) is very useful.