Wandering Son

Wandering Son

WANDERING SON

Watched via Crunchyroll

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Ah, the joys and tribulations of youth. Wandering Son is a slice-of-life school drama that focuses on the hardships of growing up different while starting those ever so painful years of puberty. It’s not too uncommon for anime to focus on middle school and high school life, but Shimura Takako (the author of the manga) creates a unique spin on the genre by adding in questions of gender and sexual orientation.

The series starts off by focusing on two friends, a delicate young boy, Shuichi, and a tomboyish girl, Yoshino, who both feel compelled to dress as the opposite gender. At first Wandering Son seems like a simple flipped love story, and I assumed while watching it, that the two children would simply switch gender identities and fall in love. However, just like with real life, it’s not quite so simple. Instead we see a development of all sorts of love triangles and unrequited loves. Unlike most series which use unrequited love to prove the strength of the “OTP”, these relationships and attractions are used to show how love doesn’t fit into neat little boxes and doesn’t always make sense or end nicely for everyone.

The setup for the anime is a little different than the manga. Instead of following along from the beginning, we see a lot of backstory as flashbacks. I think this really helped moved the story along quickly through its 12 episodes. I only wish this show could have been longer, as I felt rather confused at times by information that was generalized or left out. I think some of the editing even went so far as to give some characters harsher personalities, such as Shuichi’s older sister who constantly bullies him in the anime.

Shuichi’s sister is an interesting character who’s realistically selfish and self-conscious, but she also looks out for her brother. The end of the anime does a better job of showing her various sides, and the time skip at the beginning didn’t do her any favors.

PLOT: Wandering Son begins with Shuichi and Yoshino, two transgender kids, beginning junior high school. They have their old friends and old feuds, and they begin to make new friends, as well. Understandably, they aren’t very open about the fact that they’re both transgender, though one of their friends, Saori, knows about it and was supportive of them until their friendship came at odds with her crush on Shuichi.

This show’s entire progress centers around the characters’ interactions with each other and feelings about themselves. They do encounter major events—mostly class plays for the yearly culture festivals that tend to deal with gender swapping—but primarily the show’s about Shuichi and Yoshino growing up and trying to find a way to be comfortable with themselves and their desires.

As Whitney mentioned, Wandering Son is based on a long-running manga series, which is by the same author as Sweet Blue Flowers, my favorite shoujo-ai series. Unlike Whitney, I think the manner in which they adapted Wandering Son is ridiculous. The anime drops the viewer in over a year after the manga starts, which led to a lot of confusion for me. Why is Saori so upset about Yoshino? How did Shuichi and Yoshino meet an adult transsexual woman? What’s up with Shuichi’s sister and this modeling business? The anime has a lot of backstory that’s necessary in order to fully understand and enjoy it, which is the main reason why I didn’t finish it until recently. Now that I’ve read the first three volumes of the manga, I was able to follow the anime a lot better, but there shouldn’t be that kind of barrier to entry for an anime adaptation.

I didn’t say it was a great way to set up the series, just that it moves through information faster. It turns a meandering plot into one that has a specific and quick direction.

SETTING: Most of the events of Wandering Son take place in all the usual places of a school drama, at school, in club rooms, local restaurants, a friend’s house, etc. Really the setting doesn’t stand out at all as being different or unusual in any way. Typically this would make a series feel bland and unimaginative, but it’s the mediocrity of the setting which offsets the characters and brings them to life. By developing the cast of characters in typical everyday situations, the series feels more like a case study rather than an idealized rendering of youth. Don’t get me wrong, there are still loads of idealizations, such as everyone being a model as a part time job, but the setting works well with the story elements to heighten the drama in a way in which the audience can empathize with the cast of characters.

SETTING: This series is set in a fairly normal Japanese town, so it came as a shock to me how common trans people and models are. I don’t know anything about trans people in Japan, but it’s surprising to me that two transgender kids are in the same class along with a homosexual kid. The presence of a full-fledged transsexual woman is also pretty surprising to me. Or maybe I’m more surprised about how open everyone seems to be about these things. Either way, the initial grouping of people in one town feels a little strange, so it was nice when the series branched out to show other classmates acting in a reasonable spectrum of reactions.

There are also way, way too many models in this series. Is it really this easy to be a child model in Japan? Or to be friends with them? Maybe it is, but every time modeling came up in relation to another character, I raised my eyebrow. I’m going to get forehead wrinkles from all of the models in this show!

I don’t really find it that shocking that there are so many homosexual or transgendered individuals in one town. During my time in undergrad I met at least three transgendered individuals, and those were just the ones who shared that information with me and who I saw on a fairly regular basis. And really the whole goal of being transsexual is to have it so people can’t notice outright if you’re biologically the opposite gender, so it’s probably successfully hidden most of the time. And as far as homosexuality, that’s very common as well. Like I said, I like that the series highlights many varieties of individuals and shows how labels don’t really exist. The high proportion of models is annoying though. Then again, if you worked at a restaurant, many of your friends would be waitresses.

I’ve also met several LGBT people in college, but we’re in college, not in middle school, which means we’re encountering a significantly different group of people. Furthermore, Japan seems to be less forgiving of being different, so I still find the amount of people who come out throughout the show to be a little too convenient.

CHARACTERS: Wandering Son is the only anime, I can recall, which tackles gender in a straightforward and honest way. I know there are tons of anime series that feature gender bending and all of that, but this series demonstrates that there are no clear labels for people and that everything is relative.

Shuichi is a young boy who is strongly drawn to female clothing and beautiful things. Over the course of the series he displays a curiosity and desire to wear dresses and accessories. Throughout the anime he grows confidence in himself and learns to accept his desires all in the midst of swiftly approaching puberty and the fear that comes with changing into a man. Yoshino is provided as a sort of opposing lead to Shuichi. She has a strong aversion to becoming a woman and freaks out at the idea of getting a bra and beginning menstruation. When she sees a fellow female classmate show up to school in a male uniform she is inspired to do the same herself.

What really appealed to me about Wandering Son is that each relationship between characters is relative and personal. Shuichi has confessed his feelings to the masculine identity of Yoshino prior to the timeline of the series. However, throughout the anime he develops feelings for and begins to date the very feminine friend model of his older sister. Yoshino, on the other hand, never reciprocates feelings for Shuichi and her sexual orientation remains undeveloped for the meantime.

It is unclear if their cross dressing tendencies are attempts to become the opposite gender, reject adulthood, or as a means to draw themselves closer to an attraction of the opposite gender. This is demonstrated as well through the support each receives from friends, whose own motivations also hint at their own possible sexual orientations. Two strong examples are Shuichi’s close friends Makoto and Saori, both I suspect are homosexual. Makoto shares the same desires as Shuichi to become pretty, but seems to acknowledge that it comes from his attraction to men. Saori is probably Shuichi’s biggest supporter of cross dressing, even going so far as to give him her clothes to wear. It isn’t said outright, but I suspect it is her way of dealing with her own homosexuality.

I’m not sure why you think Saori’s homosexual, since I thought it was pretty obvious that she has a crush on Shuichi. Maybe his transgender identity makes her more likely to be homosexual, but other than that, I don’t buy your interpretation without some evidence.

I don’t have supporting evidence from the anime, but I have my gut feelings from reading scans of the manga.

CHARACTERS: As the transgender leads, Shuichi and Yoshino fit the bill very well. Shuichi’s always liked pretty clothing and wants to wear dresses, which he looks prettier in than his older sister. He’s also very soft-spoken and shy, which leads to him getting teased in school. He feels most comfortable in a dress, with or without a wig, and he’s adorable with barrettes. His sexuality develops interestingly, as he has a crush on Yoshino early on, but then he begins to like one of his sister’s friends from modeling. Because he’s so young and in the midst of becoming his adult self, I don’t think we can make any hard judgments on his sexuality, beyond the fact that he likes people who support him and care about him almost selflessly. I’m very intrigued by his development, but his serious thinking might seem strange to people who weren’t deep thinkers as children.

Yoshino’s easy to relate to as she encounters those awful parts of maturing as a female, like growing breasts and menstruating. No girl wants to encounter those, and, for a girl who wants to be a boy, it must be especially humiliating. Notably, Yoshino has an easier time fitting in societally, as boyish women who can wear male school uniforms are considered cool, like Utena or the Takarazuka revue. This disparity between the experiences of Shuichi and Yoshino, even though they’re both transgender, brings up some interesting and problematic thoughts once you hit that part of the series.

The opinions and reactions of those around Shuichi and Yoshino are both integral for the series’s success and very revealing of Japanese society. The expected prejudice abounds, but double standards also crop up from characters who I had hoped would be beyond them. Really, though, they just demonstrate how realistic the characters are and how complicated it must be to be transgender in Japan (or any society). I appreciate the kinds of interactions this show presents, and I wish I could watch everyone develop further. I guess that’s what the manga’s for….

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: I’m not sure what it is about shoujo and josei manga today, having to be animated to look like manga. Wandering Son has a very sketchy, loose, watercolor appearance. Even the animation movements feel a bit choppy, giving the feel of looking from panel to panel and flipping through pages. While it does make a nice tribute to the origins of the story, it also makes the series seem bumbling and confusing.

The twelve episodes squeeze in a lot of information, and with the banal backgrounds and quick paced story boards, I often felt a bit confused as to what was going on and how characters got from place to place.

I’m not sure if it’s a pre-pubescent thing, but the characters all really look alike. Sure there is variation, like Makoto having adorably large glasses and a freckled face, but even he isn’t drawn too differently from the others, despite his appearance being alluded to as too awkward to wear cute things. In comparison Shuichi’s older sister, a successful part time model, looks like everyone else. There are few of the typical identifying features that create labels for characters. This can be seen as a good thing, as it keeps the cast from being labeled and sorted, but it can also make it hard to recognize people.

I hated when characters changed their hairstyles, since that’s basically the only defining trait they have. Please, Takako Shimura, learn to draw different kinds of faces!

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: I love how fully this series embraces a watercolor aesthetic. Bunny Drop only used it before the opening credits, but Wandering Son looks this way throughout the entire series. The effect is most notable in the hair, which simply eschews color for highlights, and the shadows are fairly gradual changes in tone instead of the sharp color distinctions I’m so used to in anime. This series’s visual presentation immediately helps it stand out from the rest of anime, as it looks more adult and artsy than everything else coming out. I also think the watercolor style made me identify more with the characters, since they look soft, warm, and approachable.

The character designs also have an appealing simplicity to them, but everyone begins to look alike after a while. Faces and body types are all fairly consistent, with the exception of Chizuru (she has pointy eyes) and Makoto (he has glasses and freckles). Beyond that, the only way I can tell any of the kids apart is by hair style and color. When we visit Saori because she’s sick, it took me a minute to recognize her with her hair down. When Yoshino decides to grow out her hair, I had the hardest time remembering that it was Yoshino. The manga-ka really needs to work on differentiating between characters, and I wish the anime had adapted everyone’s faces to look more distinct.

Ditto! It doesn’t help if you stop watching for a couple of weeks, or if you were like me and started reading Sweet Blue Flowers while waiting for new episodes to come out while it was streaming. I started to get the two series confused since it essentially has the same characters. D:

OVERALL: There is no question in my mind that Wandering Son is a much needed story that covers controversial topics, which our modern day society should hear and be aware of. That said, I’m not really sure there is a large audience already present for Wandering Son, and as such, I can’t say that the series fits the wants of anime fandom at large. Additionally the premise of the series does nothing to entice new fans or naysayers to give it a try. Consider Revolutionary Girl Utena, which deals with identity, gender roles, and sexuality, all while being wrapped up in a stylish shoujo package. Not saying that Wandering Son needs to be Utena by any means, just saying that it could have a bit of duality to its plot instead of such a singular focus.

OVERALL: I love that, at its core, Wandering Son is just a series about growing up transgender and trying to find out how to feel comfortable in your own skin. I don’t really see why this needs to appeal to anime fans, since gender identity and sexuality should have a much broader appeal than a niche group of fans. I appreciate that Fantagraphics licensed the manga, so it can be brought to the attention of people who would like the story but avoid manga because of the fanservice and genre conventions that plague so many series. The main fault I found in Wandering Son’s anime is that it skips so much backstory and leaves the viewer confused. Other than that, it does a fabulous job of portraying Shuichi and Yoshino’s development, and it gives a cutting look at the world around them, with its prejudices and double standards. I think this series could help out LGBTQ youths beyond anime fans, and I hope it gets more exposure than it currently had for just that purpose. It’s nice that this series came from my medium of choice, but I’d really like it to crossover more than most niche anime does.

FINAL SCORE: (8/10) FINAL SCORE: (8/10)
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2 thoughts on “Wandering Son

  1. I loved, loved, loved this series. I went in without having read the manga, and though I found the opening a little confusing, I actually thought the decision to start well into the story made sense. Since there were only 12 episodes guaranteed, they started at an interesting spot, and though it was confusing, I really kind of like the uniqueness of being introduced to a large cast quickly and then finding out about them bit by bit.

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