This phenomenon may have been before your time, but do you remember those movies of the week that dealt with social issues? Recognizable small-screen stars would grapple with family strife, illness, and other bits of contemporary malaise, ultimately (though conditionally) triumphing by the end of two hours, where we’d often see Michele Lee or Lindsay Wagner walking serenely on a beach or joyously pushing a child in a swing. Freeze frame.
As with any subset of entertainment, the quality of these outings varied widely. There’s only so much you can do with a big issue in two hours (minus commercials), which tended to necessitate a lack of nuance and a reliance on the star’s charisma to carry the audience through all the exposition. My favorite of these has to be The Last, Best Year, where Mary Tyler Moore helps Bernadette Peters make end-of-life choices after Peters learns she has a terminal illness. It’s great because it forgoes lessons about living wills and detailed diagnosis in favor of what’s going on inside the characters’ heads and hearts. I mist up just thinking about it.
I mention this genre because it does tenuously relate to Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, which recently debuted from Fantagraphics. It’s kind of a big-issue manga, as it deals with transgendered people, but it’s the best kind of big-issue anything, because it’s so measured and tender and treats its characters with so much respect. Since Shimura doesn’t need to confine her story to 120 minutes or 120 pages, she has the leisure to explore the issue entirely through the characters immersed in it. The time it takes to tell their story is dependent entirely on Shimura’s commitment and the interest of her audience. (The story has been running in Enterbrain’s fifth-genre marvel, Comic Beam, since 2002, so both the commitment and the interest must be substantial.)
Her protagonists are fifth graders in the same class. Shuichi Nitori has transferred to a new school, and he immediately bonds with Yoshino Takatsuki, the girl at the next desk. Both respond to activities and aesthetics that are typically assigned to the other’s gender. Nitori likes to bake. Takatsuki cuts her hair short and covets her father’s old school uniform. Shimura gently shows Nitori and Takatsuki noticing these resonances and starting to recognize what they might imply.
Of course, the characters are 11 years old, so Shimura keeps their evolving feelings and knowledge on the abstract side. One of the most impressive things about this debut volume is how age-appropriate the protagonists’ thinking is. Shimuri isn’t writing about transgender
ed people issues; she’s writing about two kids and the way they feel. It’s mesmerizing how she can do so with such simplicity and directness while still giving the content often heartbreaking weight.
As Nitori and Takatsuki inch towards a more complex understanding of a part of their identities (and back away from it from time to time), we meet their families and friends. Most fascinating to me is Saori Chiba, who seems to have a precocious understanding of her classmates’ states of mind. Of course, she’s also 11, so understanding a part of a concept doesn’t give her any guidance on how to act on that knowledge. She’s a great catalyst character, interesting in her own right, invested with contradictory feelings and motivations.
It’s often argued that the key element to any successful manga is a relatable protagonist. Shimura has crafted hers so meticulously and is revealing their natures so carefully that it’s virtually impossible not to be deeply invested in them. In part, it’s the actual portrayal in this volume, but it’s also the tremendous potential they have. I want to see them age and mature, struggle and succeed, and find their ways to lives that give them happiness and peace. I don’t think there’s any more a reasonable person could ask of a story like this.