Being transgender is tough. Every stage of the long, multi-step transition process contains sharp twists and turns, as well as hoop after hoop that people must jump through just to be themselves. On top of it all, trans individuals have to overcome discrimination and social rejection, which can put them in very real danger of physical harm. Crafting your identity is further complicated by the maelstrom of incoming information dictating the optimum physical appearances for men and women that everyone contends with. For many, living in a body with anatomy that doesn’t match your gender hurts on many levels and makes it hard to feel self-confident or approve of how you look.
Takako Shimura explores the impact of these visual gender norms in her series Wandering Son (放浪息子 Hōrō Musuko). The narrative follows the journeys of Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki, two transgender children trying to navigate the neatly compartmentalized male-female gender binary. Shuu wishes to wear cute dresses and clover hairpins like the other girls. Yoshino wants to simply walk around school sporting the boy’s uniform blazer and slacks. Aesthetics plays a large role in showing the depth of emotion that both characters experience as they work to find balance between their gender and social identities.
This post marks my first contribution to the Otaku Warriors of Liberty and Self-respect (OWLS) blogging project. The group of bloggers and vloggers work to promote the acceptance and inclusion of all individuals regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or disabilities, highlighting the respect and kindness due to every individual. Every month, the OWLS team uses anime and other media to explore a central theme that promotes diversity and equality. I am excited to join the OWLS group, so keep an eye out for future posts exploring important social issues.
The July blog tour focuses on the theme of “mirrors,” redefining and conceptualizing both inner and outer beauty and it’s impact on self-confidence. When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves staring back, but what do we do when the person staring back is someone we don’t want to be?
Earlier this week, Takuto’s Anime Cafe wrote a thoughtful blog covering impartiality and reflections in Time of EVE. Please be sure to check it out! Coming up next, keep an eye out for a tour post from All Andrealinia exploring self-confidence in the anime short novel The Melancholy of Haruki Suzumiya.
Before We Begin
A note on pronouns: It is not uncommon for people to use pronouns that match a person’s physical sex when speaking about someone’s pre-transition self. It is equally common to use the person’s true gender pronouns when referring to their pre-transition self, especially when the individual has not yet begun their transition. Given that they are fictional characters who I cannot ask their preference, I chose to use both Yoshino and Shuu’s true gender pronouns for this post. Both characters have not begun transitioning, but know what gender they identify with.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…
As a fun coincidence, this month’s mirrors theme has a literal representation in Wandering Son, as mirrors are an important symbol in both the manga and anime. Mirrors tend to serve as a double-purpose symbol in narratives, and this one is no exception. Functionally, they reflect light from the surrounding world, creating an inverted duplicate. Enter symbolism: symbolically speaking, light typically represents truth and understanding. In reflection of this, mirrors often emphasize the contrast between the visual world and truth. Creators also use mirrors to demonstrate a contrast between the outer self that we let the world see, and the inner self that we keep hidden.
In Hourou Musuko, mirrors and other reflective surfaces show a contrast between Shuu and Yoshino’s inside and outside selves (which occurs more often in Shuu’s narrative than Yoshino’s). The pair of them, born into the wrong physical sex, experience a huge disconnect between their outer and inner personas. Shuu, born male, instinctively knows that she isn’t meant to be male. Likewise, Yoshino, born female, feels disconnected from the female identity he wears at school. Mirrors occur frequently throughout (more so in the manga than in the anime) in order to highlight not only the visual differences between male and female, but also the yearning and disconnect that both characters experience regarding their sex verses their gender. Neither can look the way that he or she wants.
A person’s looks play a big role in self-confidence and development of identity. Not surprisingly, late elementary school and early middle school sees a larger emphasis placed on physical characteristics as children begin the long, often times confusing change from childhood to adulthood. The first episode of the Wandering Son anime conveys this through the greetings exchanged by Yoshino and his friends. The girls gather after their summer break, ready to begin 6th grade and marveling at the physical changes that took place over the short vacation. They complement one another on their figures and resulting cuteness, leaving Yoshino looking distinctly uncomfortable.
A similar situation surfaces poolside during P.E. class. Once again, the girls admire and compliment one another’s developing bodies. One classmate even comments to Yoshino that she’s jealous of his womanly figure. Meant genuinely, the compliment only plunges Yoshino into despair as his sense of body dysphoria grows.
While many of Yoshino’s struggles involve the aesthetic chaos of the developing female body, Shuu has image struggles of her own. People often compliment Shuu on her cute, feminine appearance. As a younger elementary schooler, this praise was welcome. Shuu enjoyed the attention and thought of herself as cute. As she navigates 5th and 6th grade, however, the feedback she receives begins to change. People still call her cute, but it now accompanies commentary asking how it is possible for a boy to look as cute as a girl. Someone even says that her cuteness makes it a shame that she is not a girl.
These comments cause the “cute” label to become more of a burden than praise. She enjoys when people call her cute, but it turns into a reminder that boys aren’t supposed to be cute, and that she’s not supposed to be a boy. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces vividly depict this disconnect. When she puts on girl’s clothing, she sees herself as cute. Her friends (and her sister’s friends) say she is cute when dressed in feminine finery as well, and it makes her happy despite knowing that she can’t dress like that all the time.
At times when her self-confidence sinks to its lowest, Shuu finds herself staring wistfully at her reflection, wearing headbands or borrowed dresses from her sister’s closet. Seeing herself in pretty outfits makes her feel more confident. Occasionally, it does serve as a double-edged sword, though, reminding her that this self only exists within the confines of her bedroom.
Yoshino also uses outward appearances to express himself and feel more confident. He wears hoodies outside of school and keeps his hair cut short so that he looks like a boy. Unlike Shuu, however, he has a much easier time wearing outfits that boost his confidence. As a result, we don’t usually see him staring longingly at his reflection in the same way that Shuu does.
Instead, mirrors in Yoshino’s story tend to show him reflected in ways that he does not wish to be. Ways that he feels he cannot overcome. One such moment occurs when puberty takes over and he has to start wearing a bra. He stares at himself wearing the bra in the mirror before pulling it off and tossing it aside in disgust. He clutches his boy’s uniform to his chest and desperately wishes that he did not have to contend with breasts, which will make appearing male much more difficult.
Bonus: In the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Evil Queen uses a cursed mirror to find out everything she wants to know about herself and how others perceive her. The vain woman infamously says to it, “Magic Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” and the mirror presents her with an image of the stunning Snow White, a woman more beautiful than the queen. The news throws the woman into a murderous rage and she runs off to right the wrong that the universe has done to her.
But why a mirror? She might as easily have used a magic portal or a window, things that we actually see through. The reason is that in addition to truth, mirrors symbolize our deepest desires. For the nameless Evil Queen, her deepest desire is to be more beautiful than any other living woman. The mirror reflects her desires and gives her ideas on how to rid herself of her unwitting nemesis.
In Wandering Son, Shuu and Yoshino often see themselves reflected in their true genders when they peer into mirrors. The inverted images contain their deepest desires: to become that gender rather than the one assigned to them.
Clothing, Style, and School Dress Codes
Clothing also appears as a reoccurring motif used to contrast both protagonists’ inner and outer selves. It is even thanks to garments that Yoshino and Shuu share their secrets with one another. On Shuu’s birthday, her friend Saori Chiba gifts her a dress, which Yoshino later discovers. Following the discovery, Shuu attempts some damage control by claiming that Chiba-san just likes putting dresses on her for some weird reason. In response, Yoshino opens his closet and reveals the boy’s uniform he wears to appear male in public.
After, Yoshino and Shuu begin taking the train together to places where they live as themselves in anonymity for a few hours. They bring appropriately gendered garb in bags and change into them in the bathroom. Appearing as their true gender helps them both gain confidence in themselves, and they find comfort in having the company of another person going through a similar situation.
Their attire becomes a bonding experience, one that extends to include several of their friends who enjoy participating in the dress up without fully understanding its significance. Periodically, they each add new items to their wardrobe to give themselves a boost. Shuu even buys a wig which enables her to wear a long hairstyle while maintaining an appropriately short boy’s cut for social appearances and school dress code.
School dress codes end up presenting another aesthetic obstacle for both Yoshino and Shuu. In Japan, most schools require their students to wear uniforms, often modeled after 19th century European-style naval uniforms or western Catholic school uniforms. Girls typically wear a skirt and blouse, while boys wear blazers and nice slacks. Uniforms negatively impact many transgender youth, as well as both protagonists. That being said, they often play a larger role in Yoshino’s narrative than in Shuu’s.
When they begin 6th grade, a girl named Chizuru Sarashina (self-nicknamed Chii-chan) comes to class wearing a boy’s uniform (this is where the anime begins). She rapidly becomes the talk of the school, and fully captivates Yoshino’s attention. He can’t stop thinking about this daring girl. When he asks why she wears a boy’s uniform, Chii-chan replies that she simply felt like it. Maybe tomorrow, she continues, she will feel like wearing a girl’s uniform.
Chii-chan’s utter disregard for the gender norms and school dress code simultaneously inspires Yoshino and makes him envious. He wishes that he could be that bold. The incident empowers and frustrates him. Up to this point, he has spent almost a year dressing as a boy and visiting a different area than where he lives in order to experience living as a male in public, but hasn’t dared to do it at school.
When he first ventures out to spend a day living as a boy during his fifth grade year, the experience is as terrifying as it is empowering. He lacks confidence in the situation, finding every interaction stressful. Even ordering a sandwich at a fast food restaurant causes his heart to race. After, he reflects on how incredible it feels. Each subsequent time helps him grow more comfortable in his own skin. Following this, he begins wearing his hair short and dressing in a hoodie when not at school in order to appear more masculine.
Shuu has her own struggles with clothing in the series. She dislikes the boy’s uniform. They feature stiff, itchy collars and fit uncomfortably. For Shuu, clothing creates a barrier that prevents people from recognizing her true gender. She wishes that she could wear the stylish outfits that her sister wears for her modeling job, or that Yoshino’s mom buys for him in the hopes that he will wear them.
Following a particularly jarring run-in with her sister, Shuu runs out of her apartment wearing a skirt and t-shirt. She feels frustrated and exposed, drawing the stares of multiple passers-by. Their eyes weigh on her, reminding her that she doesn’t look like a girl; she looks like a boy in a skirt. By coincidence, she runs into Yoshino, who rescues her by offering his hoodie and telling her that he saw an upperclassman wearing a skirt-hoodie combo.
After reflecting on the situation, Shuu tells Yoshino that he has it easy, being physically female. He has an easier time appearing male, or at least affecting more masculine styles in public. Social norms prevent Shuu from easily doing the same, and prevent her from wearing feminine garb in any situation.
Shimura’s work with Wandering Son does an excellent job of covering many of the trials and difficulties of growing up transgender, journeying beyond just aesthetic concerns. Her characters deal with average middle school problems such as evolving friendship dynamics and relationship trouble, with the addition of exploring sexuality, facing the impacts of puberty, and other difficult situations that transgender people face every day.
I can’t reasonably discuss even half of these themes in a single in-depth blog post. As a result, I left a lot out and focused only on the aesthetics for the OWLS theme. If you like what you read, I recommend checking out this incredible series yourself, starting with the manga in order to find your way to the beginning of the story (unless you don’t mind starting in the middle of things as the anime does. I did not finish the manga before picking up the anime, and felt confused after the first episode because it picks up after a major friendship dynamic breaks down).
Do you have any thoughts you want to share about Wandering Son, being transgender, or this month’s OWLS theme, mirrors? Share them in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter at @Popliterature, or send a message on the “contact me” page.
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!