There are few works which handle transgender characters well, and fewer works which people can actually say helped them understand what it’s like to be transgender. As a result, trans people tend to cherish such works and hold them dear. For me, that work was Wandering Son.
Wandering Son (Hōrō Musuko) is a manga written by Takako Shimura, known for her LGBTQ works, about a transgender girl named Shu. The series, which was serialized in Comicbean from 2002 to 2013, is one of the few works to really understand what it means to be transgender and the emotions associated with it. In the interest of helping people understand why this means a lot to me, I thought I’d dissect the themes of Wandering Son, the impact it had on me, and how aspects of it related to my own experiences coming out as transgender.
For the first part of this I’d like to focus on the main protagonist, Shuichi Nitori, and their best friend, Tatsuki Yoshino. Wandering Son follows Shu and Tatsuki’s journey of understanding and revelations from childhood to adulthood, and the friends and enemies they make along the way.
Shu begins to realize early on in the story that they might be “different.” We first see this in a scene where Shu is studying at a friend’s house, and notices a dress hanging from her wall. The following scene plays out:
Despite Shu’s protests, we see them beginning to consider the idea. Shu decides to instead take the dress home and give it to their sister, but later on we see Shu beginning to think twice about their earlier decision:
The next chapter starts with them dreaming about wearing the dress, and being accepted by Tatsuki while doing so. It’s here we first see Shu’s idealized female self.
Shu’s dream is then invaded by their sister, Maho, who demands “her” dress back and tears off Shu’s wig.
After which Shu wakes up.
This is one of the things which Wandering Son nails and other trans works tend to miss: The crushing and pervasive feeling of self-doubt which comes from realizing you might not be accepted by family, friends, or anyone else. It’s a constant feeling in the back of your head that you can never get rid of, and which presses down on you nearly every waking moment. This is what often prevents younger members of the trans community from coming out, or realizing that they are transgender.
in addition, an important detail of this scene is Maho ripping of Shu’s wig, and in the process, turning “her” back into “him.” This is a massive, pressing fear for any trans person, be they closeted or open: The fear that someone will rip off your gender, the “you” that you have built, and expose you to the world as nothing more than a freak. For many, this is enough to stop them from coming out, or to make them fear having contact with the outside world.
For Shu, however, further events keep them from simply forcing down their desires and backing further into the closet. A study group at a friend’s house leads to Shu’s friends attempting to dress them up as a girl. Tatsuki steps in and tells the girls to stop, but another girl, Chiba, confronts her and puts Shu on the spot:
Shu escapes having to answer this by mentioning that they need to focus on their homework, but the question has been brought up in their own mind as well. Did they really mind being dressed up like that? Were they enjoying it, on some level? This line of thought leads to Shu buying a headband of their own and experimenting with how they look in it.
It doesn’t take long for Shu, left alone in the apartment, to accidentally answer the door wearing the headband and be mistaken for a girl.
This leads to Shu becoming obsessed with being called “Miss” and trying on the dress given to them by Tatsuki.
This is another thing which Wandering Son really manages to get right: That moment in which you first consider the question “what if I was a woman.” For many, they never consider it simply because it’s something you’re not supposed to consider. But for Shu, it was the catalyst which solidified an idea in their mind: I want to be a woman.
Shu’s confusion over their gender only grows as Chiba, who knows that Shu dresses up like this, attempts to push Shu along. She suggests that the class put on a play where the boys play the girls and the girls play the boys, and gives Shu a dress for their birthday. Shu, however, is still uncertain at this point and returns the dress to Chiba, thinking she could wear it. However, Chiba later makes a point of throwing the dress into the school furnace in front of Shu.
Witnessing this causes Shu to feel so sick that they miss school the next day.
Now, a recurring theme in Wandering Son is absence. Specifically, absence following a shocking or mortifying event. It should come as no surprise that when people are stressed or depressed, they do not have any particular desire to go out or meet with other people.
After I came out, I began struggling with gender dysphoria, stress, and depression. This all led to me missing more and more class, until I eventually was missing weeks at a time. So I feel a very strong sense of familiarity with the themes of absence in Wandering Son.
Before we can continue talking about Shu, we need to talk about Tatsuki Yoshino. Tatsuki is, in many ways, the inverse of Shu. While Shu is struggling with a growing desire to be a woman, Tatsuki is rebelling against the pressure her parents put on her to dress and act like a “proper” woman.
Tatsuki, from the start, is shown to be more masculine than most of her classmates, and significantly moreso than Shu. The series draws special attention to the fact that people call her “Tatsuki-Kun,” an honorific usually reserved for young boys. This comes to a head when the class they’re in puts on a play adaptation of “The Rose of Versailles” where the guys play the girls and the girls play the guys. Shu plays the main character, Oscar, who is a girl raised as a man. Tatsuki is picked to play Oscar’s friend, Andre, with the whole class noting that she fits the role well. While trying to get in character for the role, Tatsuki digs out her father’s old school uniform and gets her hair cut, choosing the same barber as Shu and his father.
As they leave the barber’s, Shu’s father suggests that they look like a bunch of guys, while Tatsuki jokes that Shu probably looks more like a girl. As Tatsuki leaves, Shu’s father notes that she really is more like a guy, with Shu thinking to himself that girls have it good “because they can be either.”
Now up until this point, we’ve mostly seen Tatsuki be masculine, but never particularly expressing an interest in being anything other than a woman. The most we’ve seen is her complain about her parents forcing dresses and such onto her. But eventually, we begin to see that there’s more to Tatsuki than just looking like a man.
Tatsuki, wearing her father’s old uniform underneath an overcoat, gets on the train and takes it as far as it will go. Once there, she decides to stop by a burger place and order a cheeseburger and a coke, taking her coat off after getting her food. It’s here she meets another recurring character, Yuki.
Yuki flirts with Tatsuki a bit, buys her some fries, and asks for her name. In response, Tatsuki offers her the name Nitori Shuichi, firmly cementing the idea that she does not want anyone to know she went out like this. Yuki offers Tatsuki her number, causing Tatsuki to react with joy at the prospect of a woman hitting on her. Ultimately, we’re given the impression that Tatsuki doesn’t just look like a guy, but wishes to be a guy.
This all ends up converging in on itself with Chiba buying a dress for Shu’s birthday, and Tatsuki accidentally finding out about it.
Shu is initially mortified upon discovering that Tatsuki has learned their secret, but Tatsuki shares a secret of her own with Shu.
And it’s here we get to one of the things which Wandering Son really manages to nail, which is that coming to terms with the fact that you’re transgender is far easier if you know other trans people. Especially if they are close to you. Tatsuki decides to help Shu, first by bringing them her sister’s old school uniform (under the guise that it’s for the play).
And secondly, by offering to take Shu with her on her outings. The purpose being to see, in public, what it feels like to be a woman. We shall cover that next time.
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