Home > Episode Reviews, Wandering Son > Wandering Son Episode 9 – Catching Signals That Sound in the Dark

Wandering Son Episode 9 – Catching Signals That Sound in the Dark

On an elevated crosswalk Shuu asks Yoshino about the bra he wears that flattens his breasts. In the trans-male community this is called binding. It is the first real step most transmen take toward transition. Shuu asks Yoshino if it is uncomfortable, but he says it’s comfortable—emotionally, at least. Implicit in this statement is his argument for a transition (a transition that he has not decided on or—in any formal way—declared) despite all obstacles: there are awkward aches and lingering pains that are more nagging and more demanding of relief than the discomforts of a body contorted.

So when Yoshino, at the episodes outset, goes to school dressed in a boy’s uniform that is why. It is because the specter of being dismissed, or mocked, or trivialized became less haunting than the alternative. Since he is not the first one to do this, as has been discussed as early as the first episode, the reaction from classmates and faculty is either positive or indifferent.

For all her cruelties, Saorin is becoming the shepherd of the gender confused

Mostly it slips by without much fanfare. Yet for a few people it is a moment of incredible weight. For Yoshino it is the moment he is accepted as himself by the society around him, that he more than survives the occasion, he flourishes. For Shuu it is something more complicated. It is a moment that she gets to see her best friend being brave and strong, watches him ‘come out,’ and it is the moment she is reminded how impossibly far away the life she wants seems.

Shuu, to abuse the other overused phrase of queer culture, remains ‘closeted’ to the world at large. Shuu is quiet and ashamed, denying who she is, often when asked directly because she is understandably petrified of the consequences. Instead Shuu is forming a tacit friendship with Doi, the bully who teased her in elementary school for her effeminacy. Shuu is saying yes when Doi insists on meeting Yoshida, the adult he saw Shuu with in the previous episode, and whom he found to be quite pretty.

Doi, Yoshino, and Shuu looking positively ecstatic to be hanging out together

Yoshida has hung at the periphery of the show, an adult transgendered woman who befriended Shuu and Yoshino. In a world that has left them without guidance she is their quasi-mentor. She is neither particularly well-suited nor horribly ill-equipped to do this, as likely to give good advice as she is to give bad advice or none at all. Like all of Wandering Son’s characters she is a complex character. Giddy and impulsive, it often comes as a surprise when she becomes suddenly wise and decades of emotional wounds can be seen briefly in what she learned from them. She is also integrated into society, so for Shuu and Yoshino she is a beacon of hope.

The depth and subtlety of expression that the animation team can conjure up never ceases to amaze me

Doi, however, is unaware of Yoshida’s gender-of-birth, a fact Yoshida seems to almost relish in dropping on the boy. This revelation leaves Doi initially embarrassed before forcing him to broach the questions that Shuu, Yoshino, and Yoshida have lived their lives under the weight of. Then it leads him to suggest that Shuu try being a girl as well so he can see.

Despite being her old bully, despite a lackadaisical nihilism that might well show her no quarter, she agrees. In part, this is probably a need for male approval. It is hard for a young girl to not be drawn in by such relaxed confidence—and want to be seen by him—to the point of acting irrationally. Also, though, I think she wants to be out, she wants to test the waters of what it is like to do what Yoshino did, if only on for an audience of one. And then there is perhaps something more grim at work as well: she finds Doi’s indifference comforting. Simply put, those of us who dismiss ourselves will find comfort in the familiarity of others who dismiss us, or are likely to.

Doi calls her cute! Yes, it really deserves an exclamatory statement that she was not, in that moment, deemed deserving of his derision. She was not disgusting. She was cute. The real her, which she has hidden from all but those who love her most, was approved of by a boy, by a former enemy, by the other. In last episodes review I said that bullies are our first experiences with the boundaries of society. They represent cultural rules, so to Shuu the weight and power of Doi’s approval is staggering. It is this context in which Doi then he tells her to come to school like this.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think I was breathing for most of this scene

Already the idea was brewing in her head. It had been, in some vague way, her goal for since before the show began. It had become tangible after meeting Yoshida. It had meekly tiptoed its way toward happening (unlikely to occur for years) until the moment Yoshino did it first. Maybe, after that, Doi was final spark or maybe it was already a fire inside her.

Shuu is going to do it. She will ask Chizu if it’s a good idea and she will get only a grim assessment. Still she will ask Yoshino for his (girl’s) school uniform and she will tell him that she is going to wear it to school. It will upset Yoshino, who will blame Doi—which is true in its way—and insist that people will say horrible things. Shuu will go home without the uniform, but still, the next day she will be standing in front of stunned teachers, wearing the kind of thing that had always felt right to wear.

I wish I could say that she was rewarded for her bravery and that she found acceptance just as Yoshino had

That all happens and it is absolutely riveting, but before all that there is my favorite sequence in the show so far. While spending the night at her grandparent’s house, Shuu is reflecting on Yoshino’s actions and Doi’s suggestion. Yoshino has done what Shuu can hardly imagine herself doing. He was himself in front of the whole school. The world didn’t end; it was intrigued, impressed, or didn’t care. Laying there Shuu can’t help but imagine what that’d be like to her. The sequence in question is just a small little montage of Shuu’s daydream of a world where she was always a girl, accepted and unquestioned.

If only—

It is quiet and it is simple. Shuu is not shown participating in actions that are exclusively feminine. She is just reading, rehearsing, shopping with Anna—all the things she already does. But things she does mostly as someone else. From either side it all seems absurd. To the onlooker it is hard to grasp that context could mean so much to someone’s identity. If Shuu is a girl, truly, then isn’t that on the inside? What do clothes matter? Why would someone encourage such antagonism, ignore so many taboos, only to more than likely be seen as an ersatz member of the other side for all their life, or at best to enact what, to the world, must feel like a lie: Shuu, a boy by all the definitions we learn, obscuring that fact. And then for her, how absurd it is that simply being comes with so many abject rules. That a wish as modest as expression could be so offensive. Indeed what do clothes matter? Why are they the sacred talismans of genetics rather than identity? How mind numbingly depressing it is to know firsthand that who any of us are might be laughable, or worse rejected, when no harm was ever done.

If only—

Shuu is a girl. Anyone can accept that premise or reject it. They can define gender or identity in ways that might make that statement irreconcilable with their world. But it is a claim no different from anyone else’s claim to gender—only that Shuu’s claim, and Yohsino’s claim, is to be challenged.

Anyone who has ever had heartbreak or love, who has ever been moved by inspiration or faith, must believe that there is more to who we are than the contours of our muscle and bone. And yet, on such a tenuous and decomposing thing we have hung the very core of who we are.

  1. Sophism
    March 26, 2011 at 12:06 am

    I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon this blog. I’ve now read through the backlog of your impressions of past Wandering Son episodes, and I’m delighted that someone else acknowledges how gorgeous this series is. It’s a damned travesty that Hourou Musuko isn’t getting more attention from the anime community. (And sadly, it’s apparently not limited to the western audience, if the show’s ratings in Japan are any indication.)

    Either way, thank you for the incredibly heartfelt blogging of this wonderful show. I’ll be sure to bookmark this site. 🙂

  2. March 26, 2011 at 3:07 am

    This is a lovely writeup. I definitely need to go back and reread your impressions of this series.

    It was at this point in the manga, when Shuu goes to school in the girl’s uniform, that I decided that Hourou Musuko is easily the best piece of transgendered fiction I have read. The brutal honesty that is applied to her case, the double standard in comparison to Takatsuki, the way her friends abandon her or find themselves unable to say anything, it all struck so close to home. None of it is sugarcoated.

    The sequence with Shuu imagining normal life as a girl at school broke my heart, the manga never dared let her have these sorts of dreams and it only makes knowing what was about to happen that much harder to stomach.

  3. March 27, 2011 at 12:57 am

    @Sophism I believe Wandering Son’s languid pace and lack of intensity, both of which fly in the face of a lot of modern anime, destined it for a pretty niche audience there and abroad.

    I do think, however, that most people go into an experience with a certain set of expectations on what they are looking for (which is why no one will talk about serious things on [my?] Facebook!) so I wonder if that might account for some of Wandering Son’s poor initial ratings. Perhaps anime fans that initially dismissed it because it seemed slow and weird (read: not what they were looking for at that moment) might fall in love once word of mouth starts getting around. From my perspective I’ll say my reviews have gotten steadily more views as the show has progressed, with more people are finding them via the “Hourou Musuko” and “Wandering Son” tags.

    @Alice I’m just going to go ahead and apologize in advance for the less consistent quality of my other episode reviews/impressions.

    I miss the days of pouring through the manga, issue after issue—seeing the sunlight peaking through my window and cursing myself for losing time. It was, and is, certainly up there as some of my favorite art about gender issues. I’d go even further, too, and say it (either the manga or the series so far, really) is perhaps my favorite art about growing up. Transgendered or not, puberty and the teen years are about our identity and how we communicate it to the world. I am hard pressed to find another piece of art that so captures alienation, self-doubt, and the simplicity of youthful triumphs quite so well (Freaks and Geeks, Mysterious Skin, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea come to mind as strong contenders).

    I find it interesting that the anime has chosen to occasionally let us into Shuu’s head (or the heads of other characters). Wandering Son frames a lot of its shot’s very voyeuristically (a topic I’ve been meaning to cover), often seeing things from just outside a room, or from a distance, as though it is being seen by a passerby. This has been especially prevalent in the latter half of this season. It is further reinforced by the occasional shot which lingers on an inanimate object during dialogue (such as a pair of shoes or a lamppost) as though that conversation is being overheard. I feel this establishes a degree of separation between the viewer and the characters, since we are treated almost as strangers peeking in at their lives. To pair this with the internal thoughts of the young characters is a really neat idea, and I’d liken it to reading their diary, which is something the manga accomplishes as well, though in a very different way.*

    @Both You two are my first comments since I started doing these episode reviews for bear. It is a validation of my efforts writing them, even moreso for the kind things you have both said. Perhaps there is no less professional thing a blogger can do than comment-gush, and yet here I am, giddy and hopping around. You guys made my day.

    *- If these thoughts appear in a subsequent review then, yeah, I guess that’d make me lazy. We shall see (hint: clarity is totally lazy!).

  1. April 8, 2011 at 8:01 pm

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