Home > Episode Reviews, Wandering Son > Wandering Son Episodes 10 and 11 – How Strange it is to be Anything at All

Wandering Son Episodes 10 and 11 – How Strange it is to be Anything at All

All art is communication. Novels, films, paintings… they are all communicating, or attempting to communicate, something. I don’t that mean all things seek to make a point, but that they do impart something, even if it’s just a feeling. The best art is probably set apart in its ability communicate—in some quite way—the ineffable.

I believe that with these we can form messages of two intents: messages we make for the world—or for some part of it—and messages we give to the world, but make for ourselves. Some great works of art were made to allow the world to understand, exquisitely and soulfully, the message. Other works, just as powerful, were unconcerned with the world’s understanding, and forced us instead to inhabit them.

So this is where I am supposed to state my theory on which of those kinds of art Wandering Son is, but I don’t really know. This explanation was not building up to that; this explanation is about my critique. Not just art, but all writing is communication. Instruction manuals, forum posts, a letter… are all to say something. Everything we do communicates with the world, creating out of words, paints, shapes, actions … a message.  So I’ve approached reviewing these final episodes with a lot of trepidation. The episodic review format is not well suited for quality in-depth critique in that only so much can be said about four hours of content, especially given the languid pace of Wandering Son. I’d spent a lot of those words trying to communicate a certain feeling to anyone reading, and as of episode 9’s review I felt I’d accomplished that so I was really disheartened by the prospect of phoning in a final piece. So instead, I’m doing this one for me.

We find allies in the most unexpected places

Shuu’s dignity has been robbed from her. The adults are all dismayed or disappointed (except for the quiet moment of acceptance her father gives her).The kids whisper, call her names, and make her, in any way they can, an outsider (including shutting her out of the classroom). Being made into something separate is what name-calling and all the acts of cruelty are.  They are not acts of identifying someone, or labeling them. They may seem that way, but if you’ve ever been called a name or emotionally assaulted, you know it is a shove. The meaning behind those actions are in how they force you away, dislocates you from where you were and where they are, because at the heart of bullying is the fear that all of us aren’t so different.

“[We] mistreat and we exclude, not as a function of how little the other category overlaps with us, but as a function of how close the boundary is. If what looks so different from me is not that different, what happens to my sense of uniqueness?” –Richard Powers (The Time of Our Singing)

And having come to school dressed as she likes to dress, Shuu doesn’t seem to feel any more girl than she was before. Now she just feels like a joke and a disappointment. She doesn’t have what she saw Yoshino receive. She got no acceptance or adulation. Instead, all she has is an insurmountable pile of cruelties and puzzled looks.

I think I have more shame for the times I should have defended a friend or stood up for someone but didn't than I have for anything else

Now, acceptance and adulation are important—and I can admit how badly I yearn for both—but there is more to this event than that. What Yoshino and Shuu both attempted to send a message of intent to everyone; they were “the beast[s] that shouted I at the heart of the world.” But Shuu is not more of a girl afterward, and Yoshino is not more of a boy. They can’t be more. They can only be either how they feel, or what any given observer determines them to be. If you read my episode 9 review you know how I feel about this debate. External identity is not theirs to decide and internal identity is no one else’s. Everything else is just a message in the dark. And if it was just a message sent, then Shuu’s moment, though it may have eviscerated her, sounded the clearer intent. Yoshino was not judged, but instead something far worse, he was dismissed. It was to his convenience in the moment, certainly, but if expression is really about being seen as the way we feel inside then I do not honestly believe anyone that did not already know or suspect suddenly thought after that day: Yoshino is a boy inside and wants to be seen as such.

In some ways this argument rings hollow, because expression is, in part, an impulse. It is not simply something we do or do not do, it is something we allow or struggle endlessly against. I do not want to belittle the pain of that struggle by disregarding the sense of peace that Yoshino was granted that day, but I do think, for him (or any other trans-male) it will come to mean so much less than the day the world takes notice of who he really is.

Let this be a final celebration of AIC for making simple things beautiful again

So summer comes and passes. In Shuu’s absence (she has been spending her school days in the nurse’s office) the class votes to do another gender-reversal play for their upcoming cultural festival. For some this is perhaps inspired by Shuu’s actions, and for some it is perhaps because of fond memories, and for a few it is probably to mock Shuu. Whatever the intentions, Shuu is chosen to be their writer/director (this time with Doi, as the two reconcile in the face of Doi’s seeming contrition). More important though is that the play will be the original work Shuu had written for the prior culture festival, in which all the world has their gender suddenly reversed. A play in which Shuu will be the star, and not it’s narrator (as was the case when they performed Romeo and Juliet).

After inviting Shuu over to try on dresses, Saorin hugs Shuu's head tightly and tells her how special she is

Backstage, moments before the play begins, a peer tells Shuu her voice sounds different. This has been the ghost that has haunted the series, the specter of puberty that will destroy the things about Shuu’s body that she holds most dear. For a young transgirl, there is nothing more devastating, and the show has done well to acknowledge the weight of this problem. Shuu reflexively grips at her throat, as though she might catch the change before it can occur, but the after a moment she simply smiles, saying “it’s okay.” Then, with the audience clapping in anticipation, Shuu (dress and all) steps onto the lit stage and the season ends.

There are a few ways to interpret the finale, and I want to discuss those in the context of a scene that I believe is the crux of either intrpretaion. During the cultural festival, Shuu visits Yoshino and Ariga’s class for their culture festival presentation. In a dark room lit in flickers by a disco ball to represent the star-speckled night sky they are told to wish upon a cardboard cut five point shooting star. Shuu first wishes that her voice would stop changing but then wishes to be turned into a girl. Then she thinks to herself, of the latter wish, that “that isn’t right,” and then makes a third wish, which we are not made privy to, other than it begins “I want.”

Wandering Son frames a lot of its shot’s very voyeuristically, 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. This voyeurism establishes a degree of separation between the viewer and the characters, since we are treated as strangers peeking in (thanks to commenter Alice for inspiring this thought)

Later she tells Ariga that she wished for the play to go well. On Shuu’s internal monologue hinges any interpretation of the finale. One is kind of grim for the LGBT friendly among us, implying that Shuu is a confused boy, but whatever kind of boy he wants to be (crossdresser) is okay. The episodes title, forever wandering son, is a strong piece of evidence, as is Shuu’s smiling acceptance of her changing voice and the fact that she states, after wishing to be turned into a girl, that “that’s not right.” It is the stance implied when Saorin states that she used to think Shuu was special and diffferent from other boys, but now she is sure Shuu is just the same. It is a theory that then assumes that final wish was what she told Ariga it was.

The alternative interpretation is this. What Shuu wished for is unknowable. She will tell no one. Wanting to be turned into a girl “isn’t right” because she already is. Wandering Son has accepted at face value that Shuu is a girl for the last 10 episodes. To back down from that now seems like cowardice (though it is a cowardice that I do not put past anime, having seen enough of their retcons to know better). That in the final episode she has shed the wig and instead started wearing her own hair in a feminine manner is evidence of this interpretations, that the play that is the climax of the show is titled I’m a Girl is evidence, and that she says confidently to Anna that “this is how I am” is too. These are all her internalizing her sense of identity, implying that we may only define ourselves retroactively. That our stated identities are the caricatures enough like our true selves that we can tolerate the dissonance.

The boy is insubstantial

There has a philosophical question that, as a transwoman, I have wrestled with: If someone sees me and thinks “that is a woman,” did a deception occur? They are assuming that I am genetically female, based on the external evidence I have provided. If they knew my past they would almost certainly think differently (generalizing). So is that a deception? Or has life burdened me with the unshakeable deception: that when someone sees me and think ‘man’ they are being deceived? In other words: what is the lie? Is truth internal to me—or to Shuu—or is truth outside of us?

There are two truths that exist simultaneously and in conflict, but both of value and validity, but identity is not just something that aligns with one of those truths. Identity is art. In expression—through the symbols we have—we communicate, or try to communicate the message of who we are. Shuu, endlessly deferential, spent the season learning the limits that an identity tailor made for the world to understand has, just as Saorin learned the limits that an expression that demands people inhabit her world has. We all juggle this mix of rebellions and considerations for others. Shuu steps out, comes out onto the stage as the person she is. But unlike the day she came to school, now she is doing it for her.

If Shuu is lucky there may be a few people in her life that ever see who she really is. None of our lives will play out any different in that regard. Whether we are in opposition to the expectations of society or not we are destined to a world that is mostly confused by, or indifferent to, us. Few people ever get the art we put forth, and when they do we hold those people close. We call them family, we call them lovers, and we call them friends.

Episode 10 and the finale can be found here and here, respectively.

  1. Sophism
    April 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    I didn’t interpret that Shuichi’s wishing for something other than “I wish I was a girl.” to imply he’s merely a confused boy. That scene, alongside the comment in the backstage of the play, at least as I see it, meant that Shu has matured a bit.

    Shu understands that his body will keep changing and there’s no way to prevent that, at least not in the short-term. After all, he’s 14-years-old, if not 13. Research on what transitioning entails needs to be done, and he likely isn’t aware of the ramifications. Shu has also probably figured out that puberty, while uncomfortable, is inevitable at the moment, and that wishing upon a star (Especially a styrofoam one.) isn’t really going to accomplish anything.

    It’s one of the main reasons I hope the manga series continues onwards, past high school, college and beyond. I want to know if Shu will embrace his identity completely. I want to know if he’ll choose to transition or endure his body as it is.

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