For my final segment under the Girl’s perspective theme, I have decided to take a spin on it with the “boy’s” perspective. But I promise you, this is still very relevant to the theme I’ve been talking about for Women’s History Month. I don’t say this very often in my reviews, but this is one of my favorite manga/anime series of all time. I love the series’ art and story, I have grown to respect many of the key contributors to the making of this anime, and believe it or not, I was compelled to name Prof. Shuichi Ginkgo from my fan fiction after the main character of this series.
Fair warning: many of the works created by Takako Shimura are under a very heavy influence of queer theory, and this one is no exception.
And as always, there will be plot spoilers.
Wandering Son (Hourou Musuko) starts at a time when Shuichi Nitori was a boy in middle school (the manga begins at a time when he’s in elementary school, but this is an anime review). But Shuichi has never been comfortable being a boy, doing “boyish” activities like sports or playing video games (I put that in quotes, because such activities are arbitrary). He hated his appearance as a boy, having to put on the baggy uniform every day, all because he was born with an extra piece of flesh dangling between his legs. Shuichi wanted to be a girl.
The moment I mention these details, a lot of people immediately start to think all sorts of things that might happen in this series. Someone once asked me if he ever tries to cut his penis off. Another tried to avoid the conversation about the gender roles and asked me about the love polygons in the series instead. Others tell me they want to avoid this series because this is one of those things that deals with a subject that’s too heavy for them.
First of all, there isn’t much in the way of violence in this series, nor anything particularly gory. Second, I realize that this subject is very confusing for those who don’t talk about this issue as much as I do, so we’ll get to that. And third, life would be too boring not to think about these things, if you ask me. That’s why I like to discuss these matters.
Still, Wandering Son is very well-received by the audience that watched it with an open mind. My anime fan friends who watched the series for themselves loved it. The watercolor techniques for the animation make the series feel more warm and calming. The characters are given more realistic looks, with black and brown hair colors and proportional bodies for the early adolescent age. And in my opinion, Shimura treated all of her characters with utmost care, no matter how involved they were in the series or how common they looked by appearance. After all, it is their personalities that made them truly unique.
The middle school age is one of the most delicate ages for a person. Children become much more aware of their identity and immediately try to find distinctions between themselves and others. One of those identities is one’s gender. And yet, I believe this is the perfect age for people to start talking about what it really means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. It’s when these kids become adults that the gender distinction is so rigid, that it’s even harder to accept those who do not fall under the standards of gender roles; and it’s adults who reinforce this idea in their children.
On a side note, I should say that I myself identify as a cisgender heterosexual male, which means I was born male, accept that I am male, and I like women. I may as well be the furthest away from those within the LGBTQ community, but I stand with them quite often as an ally. The whole “Lystria” thing on this blog is a facade because I like to confuse people.
But of course, Shuichi is not alone in his struggle to become a girl. During this awkward age, his classmates often make fun of him, because they know something is different about him. His own sister Maho can’t stand that he has a habit of cross-dressing. His teacher tries to play off the situation as some kind of phase he and his friends are going through. His mother searches for someone to blame for his actions, but his father considers the possibility that he and his wife made the mistake. And in all of this chaos, Shuichi found at least one person who was just like him.
Yoshino Takatsuki met Shuichi in elementary school, and they hung out together often because he wanted to be a girl, and she wanted to be a boy. Their friendship goes in and out throughout the series, and in the past, Shuichi even confessed his love for her! But those feelings aren’t so easily reciprocated, as Yoshino rejected the boy Shuichi. Still, their friendship was not much out of love as it was for a mutual understanding of feeling different in one of the most awkward times in anyone’s life.
But other friends of theirs also share similar experiences. Makoto accepts Shuichi for who he is, and discovered that he might be gay. Chizuru has no problem dressing like a boy or a girl, but her best friend Momoko worries that she will be marked as a freak for associating with Shuichi. Saori despises how Yoshino acts now, and takes it out on the rest of the world. Kanako just wants everything to go back to the way it used to be. Maho’s boyfriend Seya appears to be the most accepting of the little brother’s lifestyle, having once asked him out while he was cross-dressing once (in the manga), but Doi uses Shuichi at his expense to cause even more trouble for him, but later becomes an unexpected ally. Shuichi’s girlfriend and Maho’s model colleague, Anna, doesn’t mind Shuichi’s cross-dressing lifestyle, but only to the extent that he remains a boy.
I should mention that Christianity plays a very brief role in this series. I’m not sure what Takako Shimura’s relationship is with her faith, but it comes up through Saori Chiba, the girl who is still madly in love with Shuichi, regardless of his cross-dressing habits.
Christianity in the United States is often viewed as one of the most important religions in this country, and everyone seems to have an opinion about it, whether they are Christian or not. But in Japan, Christianity is hardly an influence in terms of religion, and Christianity in some cases has become a beacon of progression in their society because it’s so different.
Having said that, Saori prays to the Christian God something that suggests she has never come across the hatred God may have had over people who do not identify as their sex. Regardless of what anyone believes is true Christian doctrine, I suppose this suggests that God is not making judgments on one’s identity; people are.
Gender as we understand it today, which is best described by Judith Butler, is an identity that we perform, as if we are given a role in the play of Life. Some folks are better at fulfilling this role than others. That’s not to say that we should just ignore it because it’s a fiction. However, we should also not be inclined to define ourselves by our gender. Our true identity lies within something other than how we look, although this body influences how we will act.
Cross-dressing is nothing out of the ordinary for Japanese culture, or any culture for that matter. Theater styles like Kabuki are performed exclusively by men, despite the fact that they dress like women for the performance. But the very idea of gender-bending is often just a form of entertainment, even in anime and manga. We like to laugh at it because it’s so out of the ordinary. Rarely do we think of gender anomalies as a lifestyle or identity that people have on a daily basis. The fact that Japanese manga companies even make gender demographic distinctions is testament to how rigid the culture is in indoctrinating what is for boys, girls, men, and women.
But I have seen or heard a lot of people discuss this series without even mentioning the fact that Shuichi wants to be a girl or that Yoshino wants to be a boy. And while I personally cannot agree with avoiding this conversation, I think what these people are identifying is one of the elements to Shimura’s storytelling that makes this narrative unique among stories that involve the gender issue.
One of the goals of Wandering Son is to think about a world where boys and girls, men and women, switched roles: the possibility where everything we know about gender is flipped upside down. Would people be worried, or wouldn’t they be?
While so many other stories about transgender identity and queer theory focus on the struggle and conflict in identifying as one, Wandering Son makes it feel much more commonplace, illustrating that it is universal, and it’s not anything we have to worry about. Yes, Shuichi and his friends experience all kinds of conflict from within themselves and with each other, but that’s like any other story. As reflected in Shuichi’s friend Yuki, all transgenders today have had a great deal of struggle and hatred before finally identifying as the other sex, but Shimura wants us to recognize that this struggle doesn’t have to be so earth-shattering to ourselves or to those around us!
I was told once that it doesn’t matter whether someone is born this way or they decide to become it by choice; make it cool! Let them know it’s okay and that you accept them for who they are, and not for their gender or sexuality! That’s what it means to be human.
Finally, I would like to point out that Wandering Son briefly parallels with William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, since the kids made a gender-bend play from it. While I suppose the awkward romance between Shuichi and Yoshino plays a big part, it touches upon the very idea of acceptance (or lack thereof). Just like how Romeo and Juliet were forbidden to love each other because of their identity by blood, Shuichi and Yoshino are forbidden to be a different gender because of how they were born.
But this is not the story that Shuichi wants to play. He reluctantly goes along with the play during the first half of the anime. When Shuichi gets a chance at another play, he uses it as an opportunity to tell his story, his way. And there was no one else to make this choice other than Shuichi.
Shuichi saw Yoshino as an inspiration, a courageous boy who could do anything, while he was the narrator doing all the commentary. But at the very end, Yoshino is the narrator, saying that everyone is unique in their own way. And at last, Shuichi becomes a star of her own.
So if you have an open mind and you want to see what I believe is one of the most important anime from this decade, watch Wandering Son. And please tell those you care about most that it is okay for them to be exactly who they are, not who we expect them to be.