Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions, Wandering Son > Wandering Son Episodes 1 and 2 – All Secrets Sleep in Winter Clothes

Wandering Son Episodes 1 and 2 – All Secrets Sleep in Winter Clothes

we used to be close

As a child part of what drew me to anime was its seeming willingness to cover a subject that western shows (animated or otherwise) never acknowledged—gender identity. And it was something I needed acknowledged and discussed because it was a confusion inside of me and I didn’t much know how to deal with it or what to do with it. I didn’t have the understanding of Japanese culture then that I do now. I didn’t understand the glass closet that Japan tries to keep its LGBT community in, or the difference between portraying a man in women’s clothes (or transported in some way into a female body), and portraying a woman born male.

Though the idea of gender identity was approached, I discovered the various hand-waves that are in place to assure that the character’s actual internal gender identity aligned comfortably with birth genitalia. So yes, Ranma ½, Sailor Moon, Fushigi Yuugi and others peppered my childhood as I watched my own very real concerns ret-conned out of existence, or worse, saw villains without real gender issues characterized as crossdressing out of nothing other than incredible narcissism (which, really, is more insulting to women than crossdressers or the transgender community).

you look like a girl now

Somewhere someone is watching this show and derisively yelling “Trap!” and then laughing. This is why my soul dies a little each day

While much of it is steeped in gender confusion and transgender issues, Wandering Son is nothing like any of that. And that’s not the only atypical (and impressive) thing about it. Playing in the often lauded noitaminA block (especially here at antiotaku), Wandering Son’s cast of meaningful characters is large, and it’s to the shows credit that it manages to introduce and establish the majority of its cast, as well as set up the their nuanced tensions and histories, in a way that does not collapse completely under its own weight. Not completely.

Wandering Son made the very intelligent choice of starting as most of its characters are beginning middle school, thirty-three issues into the manga. In this way Wandering Son attempts to maintain the manga’s realistic pace and dialogue, two things that make it something rare and rather special in modern anime. The downside of this is episode one is mostly disguised exposition and character introduction. Even being familiar with the manga, the first episode left me feeling as though I’d missed a lot of meaningful drama, seeing only the climax as I was caught up before the show proper could start, which it does gracefully in the second episode.

i'm not sure

Small resolution size aside, there are actually two characters on that bridge. There are many wide dwarfing shots like this throughout Wandering Son, expertly used

The show makes a habit of showing the naked emotions of its characters for mere moments, only to linger on the scenery around them after, or to show them at a distance, nearly consumed by the static environment around them. These are stark visual reminders for how large the world was when we were young, and how small we often felt. And lingering is just fine because the animation is gorgeous. Backgrounds are a mix of dull grayish pastels and warm rainbow watercolors, with its characters all arranged of the same watercolors. In this way the characters glow out from the background while rarely seeming separate from it. It’s reminiscent of Shinkai Makoto’s work—particularly Five Centimeters per Second—and there is, without question, no greater compliment I can give to an anime’s aesthetic than that.

scream and shake the world

Some shows are prettier than other shows. That’s just the way it is

Rather than list Wandering Son’s major characters all at once (which would confuse and bore you) I will focus on the four most central characters and expand the list in future posts as other characters become more important to the drama (which is really difficult because nearly every character is worth writing about by the end of episode two). It would also be a mess to recount events sequentially as they happen in the episodes, since character arcs intertwine as focus bounces between them. Instead I will start here:

Halfway through the first episode there is a flashback in which three of the show’s principle cast—Suuichi Nitori, Yoshino Takatsuki, and Saori Chiba (hereafter, Shuu, Yoshino, and Saorin)—are taking pictures together with the ostensibly male Shuu dressed as a girl and the female Yoshino as a boy. They all smile warmly, taking turns behind the camera before setting the timer and all getting in one together. Back in the present as middle school starts, though, they have all wounded one another, with Shuu’s romantic feelings for Yoshino being rejected; and Saorin’s deep, abiding love of Shuu also rejected, leaving her feeling left behind as Shuu and Yoshino grapple together in their gender struggles. The show begins with the three barely speaking, and Saorin harboring a bitter jealousy of Yoshino’s place in Shuu’s heart.

it's a secret

There is an almost voyeuristic quality to the show in the way it maintains unflinching emotional honesty

Shuu is the titular wandering son, quiet and deferential. Wandering Son starts with Shuu nervously narrating right through the forth wall from an empty classroom. He (I use this pronoun hesitantly since I see Shuu as female and the show makes it increasingly clear that he will eventually identify in this way… but ‘he’ is currently the pronoun Shuu self-reflects as) describes the stiff suffocation of his middle school uniform, before smiling and acknowledging he must wear it. Then later, when confronted suddenly with rumors he falls into pained silent reflection, and is so shaken by it that afterwards a conversation with his male friend, Makoto Ariga, remains almost entirely one-sided as Makoto speaks openly and Shuu merely agrees.

am i really?

Shuu is called “a little girl” in gym. He takes it unexpectedly well

Shuu’s meekness is important, as it makes his moments of bravery more powerful and his pain and embarrassment far more acutely felt. Watching him sneak off into a public bathroom to change into a girl’s sailor outfit and don a wig to wander around town as himself—something he used to do with Yoshino—becomes watching someone who is confused and scared being as brave as they know how.

a mild heartbreak

The show makes meaningful capital (and not laughs) of honest moments like this one, with Shuu’s wig left all crooked after being bumped in a crowd

Since the show starts in medias res, most of Shuu’s friends are aware of his girl side, and are either approving or complicit in it. The exception to this rule is Shuu’s family. His parents are unaware and his sister, Maho, is neither complicit nor approving. After the day downtown Shuu sees a new dress his sister has just purchased and tries it on after she leaves only to be caught when she returns. Maho is understandably upset, but these feelings also mix with resentment at the world for perceiving her brother as so adorable when she, as a child model, works so hard to perfect her cuteness (see, so many character subtleties I could talk about!).

lunch attack from beyond the bag

Maho takes her frustrations out on the less-than-sentient

Shuu runs off angry at her and disgusted with himself, and these conflicted feelings of shame and release plague him for both episodes. In these first episodes, the heart of Shuu’s still positive outlook seems to be in the mending of friendships that occurs, with Shuu feeling that if friendships can heal, then everything will be okay.

this mirror is broken

Shuu runs off wig-less, dressed in a skirt and a plain shirt, looking and feeling stuck awkwardly between worlds

Episode one’s climax occurs when Shuu happens into Yoshino in the midst of his running. It is a moment they both realize the vulnerability they share. Yoshino is able, for that reason, to give Shuu exactly what he needs.

Yoshino is Wandering Son’s other main character. She is energetic and eager for confidence, but confused and frustrated as she quietly covets the lives and outfits of the boys around her. That first day of school Yoshino is enraptured as another girl, Chizuru Sarashina (henceforth, Chizu), shows up for school in a boy’s uniform. The whole class is either impressed or weirded out, but Yoshino’s reaction reaches deeper inside her, and plays out as a mix of idolization and the beginnings of a middle school crush.

oh my god, so nervous

Yoshino can barely get her words out as she confronts Chizu

Yoshino is giddy and nervous when she asks Chizu about the uniform, getting the response that Chizu just felt like it and tends to wear whatever she likes. While this certainly works as great commentary on the stricter gender standards assigned to men, it is more importantly an inspiration to Yoshino. It’s the reason that she tells Shuu that night, as they walk together, that she can do anything she puts her mind to.

Chizu is immediately likeable, not just as a character to viewers, but to nearly all the characters around her. Her unstoppable confidence and free spirit act as a representation of a kind of ideal world that the other characters wish to live in, where being yourself is flippantly easy. In this way she is something all the characters aspire to or, in the case of Saorin, reject as incompatible with reality (and tellingly Saorin calls her weird). Chizu, for this reason, sort of naturally falls to the top of the hierarchies that develop.

tell the fabric

After a fight with Saorin, Yoshino punches inanimate things. What a boy

So Saorin finds herself alone, and her and Yoshino come finally to blows, declaring open hatreds. This brings their mutual friend, Kanako Sasa, a light-hearted diplomatic girl (for whom it takes every ounce of my will to not give her a paragraph of her own) to tears in frustration. Only Kanako avoiding them both is enough of a catalyst for Yoshino to move past her anger at being unfairly maligned and, in one of the shows more powerful moments, reaching out to Saorin. It is a moving scene, and in it you see how strong and confident Yoshino can be, and how deep Saorin’s guarded heart actually is.

after school diplomacy

Kanako (center) does her level best to keep her friends friendly. Watching her fail is heartbreaking

Chizu’s foil, Saorin is brilliantly and amusingly described in the manga as “hating more things than she likes,” and though I am only reviewing the show this is a description too amusing and apt not to share. Saorin seems almost immediately full of contempt for almost everyone around her. She is a step away from a cliché. With her clear romantic inclinations toward Shuu a lesser anime would have made her the tsundere and been done with it. Two things make Saorin nothing like a tsundere and also make her an intimately real and empathetic character.

saorin justice

Saorin proves that justice is a dish best served textbook

One, her ire never extends to Shuu, and indeed almost as soon as we meet her she is in the act of isolating herself socially by acting out viciously in defense of him. With a tsundere, the typical mold leaves them being horrible toward the lead they love to cover for their desire to be vulnerable for him. The opposite is true here. Saorin seems willing and dedicated to a life defending Shuu from harm.

Two, her hatred of everything extends always to herself. This is seen most clearly at the end of episode two when—as everyone seems to have found some peace with one another, and the group of friends that was torn asunder before the season began is mended—Saorin tells everyone she doesn’t “deserve to be here” and then proceeds to explain why.

lonely locker

This was the moment I fell in love with the show. That is all

And this is what makes Wandering Son so good. The true brilliance of the show is that it isn’t about how hard it is to be transgendered. It’s a show about the slow anguish of childhood. All of its characters must learn how to orient who they are to the strange world around them. Transgenderism, the feeling that one’s innate self is in conflict with the others’ perception of them, is just a great metaphor for the struggle of learning who we are and how we share that, a struggle reflected in all of Wandering Son’s cast—Saorin can no more shake free of her negativity than Shuu can fold the dresses and put them away forever.

You can watch the episodes here.

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