Wandering Son Episode 4 – I Will Float Until I Learn How to Swim
Last week’s episode had me a bit concerned. I was worried that the show didn’t understand its strengths and would lose focus. It is perhaps, on some meta-fictional level, appropriate for Wandering Son to be unsure of itself or exactly what it is. For an anime that is so filled with understated drama and subtle character development, it is often in relatively uncharted territory.
A bit like its characters, Wandering Son is struggling to be both honest and likeable despite being different, and sometimes these goals seem at odds. What is true for the heart of a character is not always good or interesting drama. What may put people at Shuu’s school at ease does not necessarily align with how he wishes to be seen. Yet what draws people to Shuu—and lets us so readily empathize with him—is that he is earnest in all of this. Wandering Son is much the same, and episode four served to remind me that for all its follies Wandering Son is one of the most honest shows about childhood I’ve ever seen.
Last episode Yoshino was presented with the inevitability of her breast development and the expectation that she wear, as well as her eventual need for, a bra. Implicit in that was a the question: does she accept that she is what her hormones are beginning to insist, a girl, and give up on the boy she wants to be? This is a question that the show immediately dives into during the show’s opening moments, with Yoshino being told at swim practice that she is lucky to have a great figure that is “very womanly.” Her reaction is to retreat inward and dive deep into the pool away from everyone else. Her reaction, more or less, is to hide.
After school, Yoshino shows up at Yoshida’s house. Yoshida is an older transgender woman. She has been, throughout the series, someone Yoshino has turned to in moments of duress. In Wandering Son she represents a mother of sorts to Yoshino, whose parental figures remain a narrative nonentity. Yoshida is happy, confident if a bit gregarious, and most importantly living a stable adult life.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Yoshino puts so much faith in her. After snacks, Yoshida plays into this motherly role by telling Yoshino about a garment that will allow her to appear flat, sparking a hope that had seemed all but extinguished at the end of episode three. Wandering Son is deft in this kind of internal conflict, where the struggle is simple and clear, and the main obstacle to conflict resolution is either an easy to fix lack of knowledge, or as seemingly impossible to overcome as a body in opposition to the soul.
Elsewhere Shuu and Saorin continue to work on the Cultural Festival gender-reversal play. For Saorin this is a chance to be close to Shuu, and to have something that is only theirs. For Shuu it is a chance to make all the impossible scary facts disappear. It is deeply personal play to Shuu, so when Anna (friend of Shuu’s sister and the closest thing the show has to a tsundere, with her mix of curiosity and antagonism toward Shuu) grabs the playbook from him and begins to read it he breaks down and cries. This makes her relent, and later buy him a strap for his phone with a little handmade doll hanging from it. Though she probably means this as a peace offering everyone seems to find it disconcerting and possibly malicious based on the creepy look of the doll. If these scenes are any indication, and if my psychic powers (read: knowledge of the manga) are accurate, then Anna is being set up to be a more central character in future episodes.
In addition to the viewer, Shuu’s emotional sublimation through his writing is also painfully obvious to Saorin, whose love for Shuu is one of Wandering Son’s more nuanced and compelling dramas. So Saorin to ask Shuu, plainly, whether he sees Yoshino as a boy or girl, and asks how he wants Yoshino to see him. This is the question Shuu must answer: how does he see himself, and how does he want others to see him?
The question is still lingering in Shuu’s mind when, later at home, Yoshino shows up suddenly and unexpectedly asking to go shopping. It must be mentioned that this is the first time we get to see them together—both crossdressed—in public. The show had set it up as something they used to do, but something that fell apart after Shuu confessed his attraction to her, and so it is significant to their evolving relationship. The shopping trip, it turns out, is Yoshino looking for the garment that Yoshida had shown her. Seeing it, not just reading about it or seeing an ad online, is enough for Yoshino and she decides to save up for it. It is also, for the moment, Yoshino’s answer to the question I posed: she is not going to give up. Probably from the excitement this decision brings her, Yoshino decides to offer her name to Shuu, in exchange for his.
Rather than answer her, Shuu tells her he wants her to be Romeo for the play, and that he wants to be Juliet. He tells her the play isn’t just a play to him, it’s about them. He wants her to see him as a girl because he sees her as a boy. Read that sentence again. That’s Shuu answering the question Saorin (and then I) posed. It also means that something about my reviews needs to change: up until now I have been referring to Shuu using male pronouns, but this in no longer tenable. I said when I started these reviews that Shuu self-reflected as male, and that I would abide by that. Now she has made herself rather clear, and from here on out I am going to reflect that moment of decision. As well, based on Yoshino’s reaction to Shuu, as well as with a rather healthy body of evidence to support my position, I will also be referring to Yoshino as male. Please feel free to hate me for this in the comment section below.
At school the teacher asks if the class wants to help Shuu and Saorin with the play, and this encroachment on what Saorin sees as something special between her and Shuu enrages Saorin. I’ve been stating the character struggles as questions because this has been an episode about transition. Here is Saorin’s: what is the exact nature of her love for Shuu, and how can she cope? I’ve said already her love is deeper than mere attraction, but that does not change the fact that for a middle school girl to love in an entirely selfless manner is impossible, and that, indeed, Saorin manages this feat better than most adults. For this reason, though there is a transcendent quality to Saorin’s love, it is also something she barely understands.
Shuu has written the name swap that just happened to her into the play, so when she shows it to Saorin it has the unfortunate effect of causing Saorin to offer her name to Shuu. This is both my favorite and the most emotionally exhausting scene of the episode. Shuu admits that Yoshino has already done given his name to her. She also tells that Saorin the she’s decided her that being a girl isn’t something she is doing for Yoshino or anyone else, it’s something she is doing for herself.
Saorin, wounded, lashes out with the cold facts as she sees them, that name changing will make nothing any different, and that unless Shuu has an operation later in life a boy is all she really is. When Shuu ask why Saorin is saying this she says admits that hearing Shuu mention Yoshino is painful because of her love for Shuu, and that she’d rather not hear the name at all. The episode ends with Saorin, alone in church, as she prays for Shuu to be Juliet in the play, and for her to be Romeo.
All of the characters are figuring out how they are going to transition into adults. They are naïve as any middle school child is, but the decisions are shaping who they are. The implications of their decisions are almost unimaginable, to them or anyone else. From these the show makes its drama, and that drama resonates because none of us escaped childhood unscathed. We all had to make decisions of unfair weight that we could not have possibly understood. This happened, for most of us—and for Saorin, Shuu, and Yoshino—when we were far too young.
You can watch the episode here.