Wandering Son Episode 3 – Two-Headed Boy
Perhaps you read and you know that, for a variety of reasons, I was rather smitten with Wandering Son. It was something quiet and gorgeous and unique. It still is those things, but episode three has misstepped in ways that have either simply disappointed me or left my faith in the show a bit wounded. It’s my failing as a critic to be unable to discern which. There will be some nitpicking here and I will acknowledge a few undercurrents of frustration that I have had since the show began. They did not make my initial post for size reasons so I was saving them for a future post. Well, this is that post.
Episode three opens at the girl’s basketball practice, with Chizu and Yoshino both there, as everyone is told they will need to wear a bra. This leaves Yoshino devastated. She is so stunned she falls flat on the ground, at which Chizu erupts with laughter.
Slapstick style humor and physical exaggerations are the heart and soul of lots of anime. When this works it is because it creates it creates a sense of goofy innocence, or because it provides release after a serious emotional climax has sunk in. Here, however, it is used alongside the climax, and the exaggeration undercuts and emotional earnestness of what is going on. This unfortunate misunderstanding of dramatic tools is sadly repeated throughout the episode.
From this the show cuts to the opening credits. I didn’t mention the credits (opening or closing) before primarily because they are nothing special. Slow panning shot’s of empty classrooms and of all the objects of school life as a J-Pop ballad plays out. These credits don’t even manage to be a good example of the show’s wonderful art style. Now there have been some truly brilliant credit sequences in recent years (see anitotaku’s season awards for more on that or watch the Welcome to the NHK) but this is not one of them. Both the opening and ending song are generic and bland, and the music in between fares no better. The show is filled with ballad-y piano that wants to be both wistful and somber at once. Instead it’s all just forgettable.
In class as discussions of the class’s contribution to the Cultural Festival, which is a Japanese tradition that is sort of like an annual school talent show that happens all across the nation—and in every grade level—with parents in attendance to watch. Extracurriculars are much more integrated into the Japanese educational system, and this kind of thing (as well as an expectation to participate in after school activities such as Yoshino playing basketball) is all but ubiquitous.
Saorin suggests a gender-reversal play—with her heart set on giving Shuu a chance to be a girl in public—and after a class vote it is chosen. The teacher asks for anyone who might be interested in writing the play to turn in a short explanation of their idea. This is the setup for the other two main arcs of the show, one of which is well handled, and the other which is not well handled.
The stronger of these two arcs involves the writing of the school play. Yoshino pushes Shuu to write it during a phone call while she sits at a bus-stop (with a mysterious shopping bag she seems nervous about—more on that later). He decides to take her advice, staying up all night working on an idea much to the ire of his sister, Maho. Yet when he goes to turn it in he finds Saorin turning in her idea, which prompts the teacher to passively suggests they work together to write something. Saorin is excited to write with, and thus be close to, Shuu. She insists they work on it at her house.
The arc that failed to jive with me involves Shuu and Ariga. Ariga is Shuu’s male friend, who also crossdresses (though it is implied he is gay rather than psychologically female). This is revealed after Seya (boyfriend of the sick-at-home Maho) surprises Shuu with his suddenly deeper voice. This cues the observant, if insensitive, Ariga to forewarn the coming of puberty. This must be frightening to Shuu and Ariga, but it is only touched on for a moment here, and then used as little more than setup for Ariga’s idea of Shuu and him ‘dressing up’ together and recording their still soft voices. It is a missed opportunity to not allow the horror of this to sink in for the audience, but it would be entirely forgivable if the scene it set up was not also fumbled.
At Shuu’s house they dress up and record their voices, with Ariga telling Shuu to use his sister’s name for the recording. Maho hears this, begins yelling, at which point Seya knocks on the door, further panicking Maho—who has insecurities about others finding her brother cute. She attempts to tear Shuu’s girl clothes from his body, with Seya walking in on the scene and then running off.
The failure here is that it is played for the hijinks and melodrama rather than featuring the emotional honesty that is the shows bread and butter. As with the basketball sequence at the beginning, the show seems to have the desire to be both sad and funny at once, but the creators lacks the talent to pull it off, so each emotion mutes the other one and what remains is unsatisfying and emotionally listless.
This feeds back into the other arc. Shuu goes to Saorin’s house to work on the play, where she is giddy to allow Shuu to try on any of her dresses. Shuu, fresh off the encounter with his sister, is too confused and ashamed to accept. Saorin immediately apologizes for her overzealousness, and they work in earnest to combine the plays. Saorin’s (a modernized Romeo and Juliet) and Shuu’s (a story about a girl who wants to be a boy and a boy who wants to be a girl when the whole world suddenly changes genders) are combined into a rendition of Romeo and Juliet where the titular characters both long to be the other gender. This mirrors Shuu and Yoshino, Saorin acknowledges, but tells Shuu that as long as he can be Juliet she is happy, and anyone can be Romeo—even Yoshino.
It is becoming clearer with every episode that Saorin’s love for Shuu is something deeper than a crush. It transcends romantic inclination and is a reminder that for all her bitterness, and perhaps because of it, Saorin is wise far beyond her years. She knows Shuu’s doesn’t want her, knows that she is unlikely to be the center of his future, but his happiness comes first. That is a hell of a thing for a middle school student, and that it’s believable for her character is a compliment to the show.
That night, alone in her room, Yoshino takes a sports bra out of the shopping bag mentioned earlier. She tries it on, but then yanks it off and hugs a boy’s school uniform—a gift from an older friend of hers. She looks utterly vulnerable and helpless. The next morning she dashes past Shuu, who sees beneath her shirt the outline of the sports bra.
The emotional strength of all these arcs, and their thematic link, is the fear of the inevitable. Puberty is a confusing, isolating time of strange and alien changes. For a transgendered adolescent it is even more immensely frightening, as their androgynous characteristics are corrupted in a hormonal onslaught, and they are left in what is to them a distorted and misshapen version of who they are.
You can watch the episodes here.