Fifth-grader Shuichi Nitori has never felt comfortable with her biologically male gender. For several years now, she has had few male friends, has spent most of her time with girls, and has shown little interest in the traditional roles and attributes of her biological gender. She has instead quietly dreamed of a life spent as a girl, and unbeknownst to anybody besides her friend, Yoshino Takatsuki, a transgender boy with the same predicament, and a very few other people, she frequently dons a wig and girls' clothing in order to experience a taste of that dream. Nitori, however, is painfully aware that her orientation both puts her at odds with societal norms and will likely expose her to bullying, and her problems are compounded when her romantic feelings for Yoshino (with whom she dreams of having a same-sex relationship) go unrequited, leading to strains in their relationship. She must also deal with her unsympathetic sister and clueless parents, a deep fear of losing her friends, and the pressure brought on by a heteronormative school environment as she begins to decide who he is and who she really wants to be.
I will lay the one serious complaint I have about Wandering Son on the table right away, simply so that my viewpoint on the issue is clear to the reader and so that I can move onto a discussion of a series that touched me in all other regards. Simply, the believability of a "realistic" series will diminish whenever a script gives a group of young children more emotional maturity than children of a similar age are ever likely to have in real life, and to engage in Wandering Son's story is to accept this inconsistency from beginning to end. Unfortunately, those who can't get past their reservations about such a stylistic choice will likely have to skip this series, as it is almost impossible to ignore. Although I admit that I found myself bothered enough that I can't give Wandering Son my highest recommendation, it nonetheless holds a special place for me: it is a sensitively told story about a topic normally treated with flippancy, carelessness, or even derision, a series that never presents its message in a preachy manner and instead makes effective use of its characters and their life stories to express it. I finished Wandering Son feeling strangely refreshed in spite of its many sobering moments, and of the anime that touch upon LGBT topics, this may be the best I have yet seen.
At the start, Nitori and Yoshino, our main characters, are both essentially likable but somewhat ineffective characters who are obviously and painfully uncomfortable with the bodies they were born in. Nitori, for example, cringes whenever well-meaning adults comment on the fact that she will soon enter puberty and begin to "look like a man", and near the end of the series she is left to ponder the fact that if she wants to have a feminine appearance she will have to make the difficult choice of whether or not to take hormones. The series depicts the real situation of many closeted LGBT people more realistically than most: Nitori has a handful of friends on her side, including Yoshino, an effeminate boy named Mako who fantasizes about dating men and also enjoys dressing as a girl, and an older transgender woman named Hiroyuki, who often gives her advice, but for the most part she perceives that people are unlikely to be sympathetic. She is wary of her older sister, a child model who is both bothered by his cross-dressing and secretly jealous of his "feminine cuteness", and she has been socially awkward ever since a supposed "friend" almost exposed her. Yoshino, meanwhile, is made uncomfortable by other character's frequent suggestions that he grow his hair out and wear traditionally feminine clothing, and he is further troubled as he realizes that Nitori bears romantic feelings towards him, specifically him in his unwanted female identity. Thus, in spite of living what appear to be reasonably comfortable lives, both are stuck: if life continues as is, neither Yoshino nor Nitori can live openly as the gender they want, but neither has the confidence to risk the incredulity or bullying they fear will come about if they express openly.
This, interestingly, is where the rest of the cast comes in. I have to give mangaka Takako Shimura for using her secondary characters as well as she does: their collective presence humanizes the story greatly and provides a sort of "mixed pot" from which Yoshino and Nitori glean ideas and learn a bit more about themselves in the process. To give an example, among their classmates is Chizuru Sarashina, a tall, loudmouthed, and gregarious girl who arrives on the first day of class in a boy's uniform. Nitori has two distinctly different reactions to her personality: she enjoys her company even as some of her other classmates find her overbearing, and she admires her free-spiritedness and generally accepting nature, initially lamenting that she lacks her confidence but later taking a cue from her and breaking out of her usual passive mindset several times later in the series. At the same time, Nitori is shown to resent her slightly for being able to get away with wearing a boy's uniform fairly easily, as he would likely be sent home were he to do the same; similarly, Yoshino and Nitori relationship becomes strained as they realize a comparable difference between them. Meanwhile, the concurrent topic of a transgender person's sexuality becomes very important to the plot: for example, a friend who had previously encouraged Nitori to crossdress but has recently behaved sourly towards him over her acting too "girlish" is shown to have made her outbursts because she has developed a crush on her as a boy. Indeed, we see a variety of sexual orientations, including the baggage they bring in a traditional society, and we are never meant to make simple assumptions about the characters and what they "might" want: Hiroyuki, for example, has been in a relationship with a cisgender man for years, but Nitori continues to find herself attracted to girls, and later in the series her confidence is built somewhat as he is able to develop a relationship with a girl who doesn't find her identity to be strange. Perhaps what I liked best about this show, really, was that its characters somehow seemed to embody everything the show wanted to say: by the end, we understand almost everything because we've been exposed to as wide a variety of personalities, views, and orientations as this cast presents. There's a lot to think about, but it's easy to think about in terms of the characters and their interactions, which I think is why this series works as well as it does.
Perhaps you think, however, that I've made this show sound heavy-handed. While I'd never consider Wandering Son to be "light" entertainment, it's actually a fairly easy show to digest: amidst what is a serious story, there are many humorous moments, and the slowly-paced and rather leisurely plot itself largely centers around the class, with Nitori as one of the writers, putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet in which the characters cross-dress, a choice that, ultimately, highlights how different cross-dressing for comedic effect ends up being from the lifestyle of those who change their gender. There are plenty of moments in which I felt momentarily as if I were watching Usagi Drop or another similarly optimistic show, and I think again that Nitori's classmates, who run the gamut from dour to chipper but who brighten the mood as a collective, helped tremendously in giving the show the relief it needed. As was the case for Aoi Hana, meanwhile, the art for the anime adaptation of Wandering Son approaches the manga's style fairly closely by approximating the style of watercolor paintings: the pictures are colorful but slightly subdued, with a varied mix of grainy, smooth, and blurry textures held together by solid animation, copious use of highlights, and a good representation of Shimura's character design. The in-series music suits the mood well consistently, and while some viewers have complained about the opening theme (which is, to put it bluntly, a rather loud if not particularly upbeat pop song) feeling out of place, I personally rather enjoyed it. Thus those who are concerned about the show simply being an overload of preachiness don't have anything to fear: it's incorporated into a story that is generally very pleasant, although I found a few episodes near the end to be extremely sad, and the art and animation hold the piece together nicely. Though I can perhaps give Shimura a little more credit than director Ei Aoki (whose other works as director, strangely, are limited to the strikingly dissimilar Fate/Zero, Girls Bravo and Ga-Rei-Zero) for making the story as engaging as it was, the anime adaptation of Wandering Son is nonetheless a very solid piece of work.
With that, I leave the reader to decide if he or she can accept the fact that these fifth graders behave with much more emotional maturity than you, I, or anyone else had at that point in one's life. Shimura has said that she made the choice deliberately, as she wanted the children to be prepubescent in order to discuss that aspect of transgenderism; nonetheless, it leaves us with several frustrating loose ends to deal with. I personally believe that the show was worth overcoming these reservations for, but I'll concede that it may be too large a sacrifice for some to make, and I'll admit that I was bothered by it occasionally myself. Nonetheless, Wandering Son really does have its heart in the right place. I'll admit that I felt very moved after seeing it, and it has definitely made me interested in exploring more media, anime or otherwise, that touches upon the topic with the degree of gentleness that this series does.
It loses a star largely because I can't accept the characters' level of maturity at face value, but in my opinion, its content is worth a full score. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: While there is no violence to be seen, there is one very upsetting episode later in the series in which a character is bullied, shunned, and latter called a "fag" several times; those who may have experienced similar bullying should be aware of this. This reviewer has known several people who cried while reading or watching this because it reminded them so much of their own experiences hiding their own sexual orientation or gender identity.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream from Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (11/11)
Wandering Son © 2011 Shimura Takako/AIC
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