Shuichi Nitori is a young, closeted transgender girl who has very few male friends, spends most of her time with girls, and has never shown any interest in typically "masculine" activities. She instead dreams constantly of being able to live outwardly as a girl; she has begun dressing in a wig and girls' clothing in order to experience a taste of that dream, and very few people know about this. One of the few is Yoshio Takatsuki, a transgender boy who's in much the same predicament; she struggles with her own feelings for him, knowing that she's attracted to girls and to femininity. As she starts to approach puberty, she's left desperately trying to find a way to live openly as her true gender while dealing with an unsympathetic sister, clueless parents, and a cissexist school environment.
Wandering Son is an uncomfortable series for me, as a girl who struggles with gender dysphoria, because so much of the discomfort and awkwardness the main characters go through is relatable. I wrote my first version of this review while I was in college, several years before I transitioned and at least a year before I finally admitted to myself that I was a woman. There's two things I regret about that version of the review: the first is that I made some pretty cringey mistakes, like using the phrase "biological gender" in the synopsis, but the second is that I was way too closeted to be able to admit just how eerily similar Nitori and Takatsuki's experiences were to mine. I've heard some criticisms that Wandering Son makes the experience of coming out and transitioning seem almost too easy; if that's at all a valid criticism, it would apply more to the manga, which I also highly recommend, but is more slow-paced. But really, what I like most about the series is that it captures the awkwardness and constant, background discomfort of being a trans person who's about to enter puberty, the wrong puberty. The series is such a worthwhile one because it conveys that feeling really, really well.
I've heard one complaint commonly echoed that the characters in this series act too maturely for their age, but when I rewatched bits of the series and started reading the manga, this stuck out far less. Personally, I think it may be that many American readers aren't used to how independent Japanese kids are compared to most American kids; there's both less violent crime and less paranoia about violent crime and Japan, so kids walking around and shopping on their own isn't all that unusual. I also chalk some of Nitori and Takatsuki's apparent level-headedness to their being forced to grow up fast, basically, and constantly be questioning and analyzing things (primarily their bodies) that other kids can just take for granted. I think the fact that the cisgender characters in the show act far more immaturely may testify to this.
An especially good example, I think, is how Nitori's rather antisocial classmate Saori, who pretty clearly has a crush on her male presentation, responds to her ill-concealed femininity by pouting, emotionally shoving Nitori away, and then lashing out when finally forced to deal with her gender identity. One aspect of Wandering Son that I liked was that Nitori and Takatsuki's classmates respond to their respective girlishness and boyishness with a variety of different reactions, all of them pretty childish: Saori pouts and lashes out, while another classmate, a tall-and free-spirited girl named Chu, barely seems to register it. Chu, for her part, often comes to school in a boy's uniform and strikes me as a potentially gender fluid or agender character (the latter potentially because she barely seems to register the shock she imparts). Her presence in the show also brings up the fact that people assigned female at birth have a far easier time presenting masculine or tomboyishly than those assigned male have presenting femininely, and Nitori comes to resent her for seeming to be able to do it so flippantly.
As for Nitori and Takatsuki, so much of what they undergo is relatable to me: their screen presence gives off this visceral "uncomfortable in their own skin" feeling that was very painful for me to watch because of my own experience. Nitori cringes and dies a bit inside when well-meaning adults comment on the fact that she'll soon enter puberty and "begin to look like a man," not knowing that they're essentially reminding her of her prison sentence. Another especially poignant aspect for me is that she's a lesbian. My own homosexuality was something that kept me from admitting I was a girl, for a long time, and I know I'm not the only gay transperson who's felt that way, given how much junk science has come out about transpeople "overwhelmingly" being straight. Nitori wants to both be friends with other girls and to be romantic with them, to both "be one of the girls" and to be with them, and while most of her friends don't draw much attention to her assigned gender, the frequent references to puberty in the background of the show build up this sense of "impending doom" that soon, secondary sex characteristics will make this hard to keep up. I'd say that Wandering Son actually does a very good job of acknowledging the differences in different trans people's experiences. Nitori is friends with Yuki, an older, straight transgender woman who now runs a gay bar and remains close to the gay male community, and she also makes another friend, Mako (known outwardly as Makoto), who's also straight, and while they bond over many things, Nitori struggles to understand her attraction to men, since to her, masculinity is something that's just gross and undesirably (which is basically my experience). There's also a palpable difference between Takatsuki, whose developing breasts and the onset of periods make him feel disgusting and dysphoric, and Chu, who seems transmasculine in gender presentation but not outwardly uncomfortable with her biology.
And the difficult terrane that the characters deal with is noticeable at every turn, Aside from expectations heaped on them because of gender roles, Nitori also has to deal with her sister, who knows that she likes to wear girls' clothing, and is both irritated by this and noticeably jealous of her cuteness; this plays on a common trope in cross-dressing manga, like in Whispered Words, of it being unfair as to how cute a "male" character is when presenting female, and Mako's jealousy of Nitori's clear skin and (in her view) cute face also plays on this. Nitori's also been socially awkward ever since a "friend" outed her years ago, and she constantly deals with an internal struggle between wanting to taste being seen as female by wearing girls' clothing and a paralyzing fear that she'll be found out. Takatsuki, meanwhile, has a somewhat easier time with dressing masculinely, but struggles with the fact that Nitori clearly has a crush on him and struggles to not see him as a "girl." In real life, that happens a lot between trans people.
It might seem that I've made this show out to be heavy-handed. It really isn't, and it's never terribly preachy. Again, a lot of what I describe is noticeable more in people's subtle reactions, and a good chunk of the show actually frames their struggles via plot devices one might normally see in a school-themed anime. A good example is that Nitori and Takatsuki's class put on a production of Romeo and Juliet (Takako Shimura definitely likes theater, if Sweet Blue Flowers is any good indication), and this takes up a substantial portion of the runtime; the difference, of course, is that the class puts on a crossdressing version of the show. Even that isn't an especially rare trope, but here, it serves to highlight just how different "cross dressing" as often portrayed in anime is from dealing with gender dysphoria (I'd also recommend Princess Jellyfish and Bokura no Hentai as other manga that address this difference); in so many anime, cross-dressing is portrayed for laughs more than anything. There are also plenty of lovely and sweet moments, and the secondary characters help with that quite a bit.
Like with Sweet Blue Flowers, the art approaches the manga's style pretty closely by using a watercolor style, which works well for the show; the pictures are colorful but the color palette is earthy and subdued. The character design basically faithfully reflects Shimura's style (which I've always liked), which, outside of some unnatural hair colors, goes for realism. the overall atmosphere of the show is "calm, mundane, and quietly beautiful", which suits the idea of the characters figuring out themselves while just living their lives, and not as part of any dramatic storyline, very well. The in-show music works great, but I'm not a huge fan of the opening and ending themes, which don't really suit the atmosphere well (too noisy, too loud, too obnoxious in my view).
Ultimately, when I say that Wandering Son is "uncomfortable" this isn't a bad thing: LGBT culture in Japan isn't talked about that openly at all, and for kids with little-to-no exposure to other gay or trans people, dealing with these feelings is a crushing and painful experience even when others aren'tactively making life more difficult for them. And that's nothing compared to the parts of the show where people do outright Nitori and Takatsuki trouble, which is difficult to watch and potentially triggering. It's a really, really good show as far as LGBT representation goes, but it's also a good show just in that it captures the discomfort of gender dysphoria so well and makes it so palpable. If the show really has any flaws, in my eyes, it's that since it starts in the middle of things and gets only eleven episodes to tell a story, it gets a bit rushed and more overtly dramatic near the end (actually, considering that the director has mostly worked on action shows before, I'd say he restrains himself pretty well). By the way, I'm aware of a criticism that the ending implies that Nitori won't transition....but I really don't interpret it that way, though I'd happily discuss that scene if people had thoughts on it. Anyhow, I really can't recommend this show enough, and I'm happy to be in a place in my life where I can speak more openly about how poignant it actually is.
It has some pacing issues and isn't perfectly-directed but I've really, really grown to love this series. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: There's no physical violence, but there's some pretty triggering material later in the show.....a characters is shunned and called a "fag" several times, namely. I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who cried at how similar this show felt to her own experiences, and sometimes, that crying is the painful, triggering kind.
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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