Wandering Son Episodes 6 and 7 – [The Trumpet Solo at the End of Communist Daughter]
I am transgendered. My life is the basis for my interpretation and critique of Wandering Son. Perhaps there is a part of me that would like to say my experiences better qualify me to review this show than anyone else who views it, but they don’t do that at all. What I see in Wandering Son is not more accurate, it’s just more me. Perhaps if the show had heavier pretensions, or its writers penned in more message-laden monologues… but it is far less handholding and far less condescending than that. It remains close to reality in that it has no clear truth, and no moral to hand us.
Wandering Son has been building slowly toward episode six: the inevitable episode that would cover the Cultural Festival, and Shuu’s class’s production of their gender-bending rendition of Romeo and Juliet. The last few episodes have seen the tensions building, and the pieces all falling into place for this midseason climax. If you’ve been following up until now, you know that in the last episode rolls were assigned for the play at random, leaving Saorin as Romeo as she hoped, but Ariga (rather than Shuu) as Juliet.
Ariga is the show’s other gender-confused boy. It’s up in the air at this point, but the way Ariga had spoken about boys and who he was it had me believing that he was less of a girl-on-the-inside (transgendered girl) and more of a boy-who-likes-to-dress-up-and-be-seen-as-a-girl-on-occasion (crossdresser). This, though, is beside the point, and after this episode is beginning to feel like an unfair judgment to pass.
In this episode, weighed down both by guilt and a deep sense of inadequacy, it is unsurprising that Ariga is barely holding things together. It’s sobering, even as a viewer, to see things from Ariga’s standpoint. He comes short of saying it, but the truth is that Shuu is beautiful—thin, naturally demure, soft featured. Ariga is bespectacled, broad faced, freckled, and clumsy. Next to Shuu he is laughably unfeminine. Ariga, from both his parents and his classmates, lives a life of being dismissed and there is perhaps nothing more awful than the nagging suspicion that your ambitions, and dreams, and even you, yourself, are a joke. In this way, through Ariga, it is finally clear how much of Shuu’s life really is as blessed as she’s been claiming.
Saorin, starring opposite Ariga in the play, is obliterating her life circumstance with dedication to her performance; she is in costume from the beginning and far before any of her fellow actors/actresses. She is concerned only with the play, and when the boy from her church (who, last episode, claimed to be her boyfriend) shows up at her school with flowers, she eviscerating him for adhering to a cliché and tells him the gesture makes her nauseous.
Of all the show’s characters, Saorin has the most alien perspective. She often seems like an old woman reflecting grimly on her childhood. Often the words coming from her mouth and her actions reflect this notion. It should feel unrealistic, and sound ridiculous. I must acknowledge its surface level absurdity, but it works.
It works because, unlike quirky 90’s comedies about adults pretending to be high school kids might have you believe (never take seriously any life lesson taught in a movie starring Drew Barrymore), being too old for your age is an alienating death sentence for a child. What the role of Romeo is for Saorin—more than a chance to succeed, more even than a chance to play out the part she wished she was in Shuu’s life—is the chance for her to not be herself, or at least to be her better self.
Ariga and Saorin are a compelling pairing for the episode—Ariga, who thinks he is unworthy, and Saorin, who finds the whole world to be unworthy. Ariga presents in this episode a chance for Saorin to reach through her spite and help someone. When the play starts with Ariga panicking, she does just that. Walking out on stage to save his floundering is a powerful moment, and one of growth for Saorin.
The play itself goes by as a montage, ending with a not-appropriate-for-their-age suicide-by-knife for Ariga’s Juliet. Afterwards Ariga gets nothing but congratulations on his performance. Still, instead of being ecstatic he is upset that no one actually saw him as a girl, and so Saorin gives him the flowers she earlier received and rejected, lying and saying someone told her to give them to ‘Juliet’. This moment broke my heart, and made me feel some shame that I, of all people, dismissed Ariga as nothing more than a mere boy.
Episode six ends like this. For a Wandering Son episode it is rather fast paced and densely plotted. It has an energy to it that the languid anguish typical of Wandering Son lacks, while never sacrificing the important character moments that are what Wandering Son does best. Episode seven is, after the comparatively bombastic episode six, a return to form for Wandering Son. I mean this as neither a condemnation nor a compliment. I loved episode six for its unique energy, and it is all the more powerful for being so at odds with Wandering Son’s general tone. Episode seven restores the world as it was: a mess of lingering concern, quiet hope, and confused love.
It starts as Shuu get’s her first pimple, another hallmark sign of the puberty that she rightfully fears will destroy her girl-like physique. I had my complaints at how the show played out these concerns in episode three, but it now seems as though a lesson had been learned. Here Shuu’s concern is given proper reality and weight. Unable to get advice from her sister, who mocks her for it, Shuu turns to Anna, her sister’s friend and a famous child model (the same Anna who gave Shuu her creepy looking phone strap).
Anna offers to help Shuu with cleansers and facial care. It starts as simple advice on how to use the face wash, but turns into shopping for it. Shuu followers her advice to the letter, insisting on using the same face wash. For Shuu, Anna has become someone to idolize. As a model she embodies an idealized female image, and Shuu’s slavish devotion to her advice isn’t uncommon for any young girl in that situation. But Shuu is not a trans-girl in a void. She is also still a boy to the world around her and awash in the expectations and suggestions (societal, familial, or otherwise) that may not take into account her internal monologue.
It is tricky for those of us unfortunate enough to fall between the established boundaries of society. As kids we are left with archetypes that barely match, and will likely desperately attempt to make them fit our uncommon experiences. Such is my explanation for why Shuu tells Anna she loves her, and then asks her out. Shuu feels a strong affinity for Anna and calls it love. It probably is some form of love, but I don’t see it as an infatuation of desire as much as an infatuation of form. If their date to the zoo, which follows, is any leading indication of what will come in the following episodes, the romantic connection is indeed lacking.
The truth is Shuu doesn’t know herself. She is trying to figure it out who she is, and so are the rest of us. I call her ‘she’ because that’s my opinion, but if Shuu doesn’t even know, how can Saorin? Or Yoshino? How can I? What I see as Shuu confusing idolization with passion the next reviewer will see as Shuu’s masculinity reasserting itself. The truth is no one knows, not even Shuu, and in some sense—regardless of outcome—no one gets to.
The news of this new relationship affects Yoshino in a way he doesn’t expect, and he begins to act distant from Shuu. It is a reaction that needs exploring, and this episode fails to deliver. I imagine, however, that it will show up in one of the next few episodes. Instead, episode seven explores the relationship between Yoshino and Saorin. Through a series of tense bathroom run ins over the course of a few weeks, in which Saorin either ignores or berates Yoshino’s best efforts, Yoshino finally lets slip that Shuu has claimed love for Anna and is now dating her.
After the news Saorin stops going to school, and Yoshino is filled with guilt. The guilt drives him to begin to deliver homework to Saorin’s house, and this eventually leads to the episode’s final moments, where Yoshino tries again to mend things with Saorin, insisting that since Shuu no longer loves him, there is no reason that he and Saorin can’t be friends.
Both these episodes have tested Saorin’s limits, and as a result pushed her empathy forward. On the other side of her wall of contempt is someone who wants to be good, and whether it is Shuu in her self-sacrificing concern for the world, or Ariga at his most self-loathing, or even Yoshino’s humble honesty—it is only when someone displays their own vulnerability against Saorin’s harsh facades that she lets her own guard down, and lets a small piece of her bitterness go.
And Jeff Mangum’s referenced trumpet solo can be heard, starting at 1:13, here.