This is an extremely interesting anime. Not the least interesting is the response to it.
Fundamentally it is about a boy who’d prefer to be a girl and a girl who’d prefer to be a boy. This plays out mostly in how they dress. (OWLS recently did a couple months worth of blogs on masculine and feminine. Mine is here.)
Ultimately that is all it is about. Two different and difficult paths. Neither is yet far enough into puberty to really understand sexuality and it will be several years before they could do anything about it if they decided they wanted to physically change their gender. It has become a symbol for the entire LGBTQAI+ movement. Massive amounts of subtext are read into it.
I’d hate to be Nitori or Yoshino. They have become standard bearers for political and social movements far, far beyond their ken. It is an impossible burden for real 13-year-olds to bear. But these kids are just flickering images on a monitor, moving and speaking entirely at the whim of writers, artists, and a director. They can take it.
Wandering Son is also a manga by Takako Shimura. Aoi Hana, which I posted about earlier, is another of her manga that made it into anime. I have read that the two are companion pieces. Shimura is well known for her sensitive writing about lesbian and transgender issues.
Complete beginning to end spoilers follow.
Shuichi Nitori is the wandering son of the show. He is a biological boy who prefers a female gender role. He is 13 years old and his face is as pretty as his older sister’s. He likes to dress in pretty frilly things. But puberty is impending, with a lower voice, a bigger Adam’s apple, body hair, coarsening features, and enlarged and functional reproductive organs. Some of these traits can be hidden or overcome. Some cannot. This is a concern to him.
When he is dressing as a girl, he wears a brown wig with long hair and of course, traditional girl’s clothes.
Nitori the girl and Nitori the boy.
Yoshino Takatsuki is his female counterpart. A biological girl who longs for the masculine role. In the past Shuichi had confessed his feelings for her and she turned him down. Puberty is also affecting her as she is told after basketball practice that she needs to start wearing a bra. She is tall, has short black hair, and often dresses in loose casual clothes that would look normal on either gender. About the only female clothing she wears is the school uniform.
Ariga Makoto (Mako) is another cute 13-year-old boy and Shuichi’s friend. He has freckles, glasses and thicker eyebrows but otherwise, they are similar in appearance. He is completely supportive of Nitori and doesn’t mind cross-dressing in a gender-bending play himself.
Saori Chiba likes Shuichi. She projects an icy personality for most people. She is very supportive of him dressing as his preferred gender, even to the point of buying a dress for Shuichi. At one time she confessed her love to Shuichi but he turned her down. Ever since, she has been cool to him and has developed a hatred of Yoshino Takatsuki because she was the one Nitori confessed to.
Chizuru Sarashina is the designated wild and crazy girl. She comes to school dressed in a boy’s uniform and declares she’ll come to school dressed any way she wants. She is prone to breaking out in hysterical laughter at odd situations, usually those involving nonconformity with social standards.
She is very tall and athletic and free-spirited. Her close friend, Momoko Shira, is much shorter than her and very protective of the relationship.
Maho Nitori is Shuichi’s older sister. She is a teen fashion model. She loves her little brother even though she is frustrated by his cross-dressing. She fears that it will ruin his chances at a fulfilling life. The two of them share bunk beds in the same room. Part way thru the anime she gets a boyfriend, Riku Seya.
Anna Suehiro is a fellow model with Maho and a third more famous girl, Maiko. She and Shuichi become a couple in the last half of the anime. She gives him beauty advice. For some reason Maho doesn’t want them together.
Hiroyuki Yoshida (Yuki) is an adult male to female transgendered woman who lives with her boyfriend, Shina. She appears a few times in the anime but in the manga, she has a much bigger role as an advisor and role model.
There is a lot of arcane terminology within the LGBTQAI+ community. I’m going to ignore most of it. Shuichi is a boy. Yoshino is a girl. Nobody “assigned” that except the XX or XY chromosome pair. They would both prefer to express the other sexual phenotype – and that’s completely cool – but Shuichi is presented in Wandering Son as a son who’s wandering. Hence I always use “he” when referring to “him”. I’m not switching pronouns just because he wears a dress in a scene.
The lack of true gender-neutral singular pronouns is a PITA. “Them” and “they” are plural, making their use bad grammar and confusing. “It” is downright insulting.
In the past, Shuichi confessed his love to Yoshino. She wasn’t ready for love and turned him down. Saori had become interested in Shuichi and he turned her down. The question of why he turned her down seems to be an important issue. It looks to me like he wasn’t interested in another love interest after Yoshino. It doesn’t look like her lack of boyishness was the deciding factor.
Shuichi viewed Yoshino as a kind of kindred spirit. She had experiences that were similar to – and a mirror image of – his gender dysphoria in a world that wasn’t always supportive of such. That commonality just wasn’t enough to spark reciprocity in Yoshino. He also discovers the hard way that his sister does not appreciate him borrowing her clothing.
Saori had confessed her love to Shuichi but he turned her down. Her dour personality turned quite acerbic as she announced she hated Yoshino. Yoshino didn’t quite know what to make of this. Saori had no reason to hate her as she’d said no to Shichi’s confession. Saori’s response was that she hated her because she’d said no. Perhaps it was because it took away an external justification for his refusal and she had to face that he simply wasn’t “into” her.
He isn’t sure.
The character Chizuru is introduced. She’s a crazy genki type who laughs at everything. When she comes to school in a boys uniform and declares she will wear whatever she pleases to school, she elicits approval from the class and admiration from Shuichi and Yoshino. Chizuru has a sidekick, Momo. Momo seems jealous of anything that might catch Chizuru’s attention.
The stage is set. Literally, because the first major event is the cultural festival and the class is putting on a gender bender version of Romeo and Juliet.
Yoshida is the natural choice for Romeo and Shuichi the perfect Juliet. So, of course, those roles go to… Saori and Mako. Now, Ariga Makoto is another boy who enjoys feminine things, tho he isn’t so bold as to dress as a girl and go shopping. The thought of going on stage makes him very nervous. Saori tells him she hates spineless people. He determines to do his best.
The play goes on and after an initial flub by Mako, it turns into a resounding success. Saori appears to reevaluate her opinion of the boy and starts showing him grudging respect. That could be her way of saying; I could possibly like you someday – if you don’t blow it.
After the play, Shuichi notices a pimple on his nose. (Welcome to puberty; the next several years of your life!) He happens to meet Anna when she is visiting his sister and asks for her advice on skin care. Later, there is an additional pimple on his face. This leads to them going shopping together for the right skin cleanser for him and soon to a confession of his love to her. They become a dating couple even tho his sister would try to discourage it. Anna even asks him to go out on a date with her dressed as a girl.
Now that Shiuchi is unavailable to either one, Saori and Yoshida make up and reestablish friendship.
An instructive event happens. Chizuru often wears a boy’s uniform to school to general applause. Yoshida wears a boy’s uniform to school and there’s a bit of surprise but it’s still “cool”.
Shuichi is inspired by this and by a boy named Doi (who is amazed at how beautiful Yuki looks) and decides to wear a girl’s uniform to school. Chizuru tried to talk him out of it. Yoshida tried to talk him out of it. He wouldn’t listen.
This was about him being comfortable at last and declaring to the world who he is. Completely out of the closet as it were. There is an uproar. It leads to a breakup with Anna and humiliation for Shuichi.
Females are at far greater liberty to move into traditional male garb than men are to move into traditional female garb. Despite the substantial support Shuichi receives from the adults and friends in his life, in the greater classroom and in the greater society, many people, male and female, are not ready to accept that change. To them, a woman in a man’s suit is a bold statement while a man in a dress in real life is a comedy and he is the joke.
He doesn’t make that mistake again.
Still, it was a magnificent gesture and a courageous act.
Things slowly return to a kind of normal. There’s another gender-bender play in the works. He and Doi, the boy who had inspired him on to come to class dressed as a girl, make up and Doi coaxes him into returning to class. There’s also a “male maid” cafe. Saori still loves him, dresses and all. Yoshida is still friends with her and Shuichi. Anna makes up with him. He is even at peace with his changing voice.
But he is still a wandering son, not knowing who he is or where he belongs.
If you see an artistic similarity between this and Aoi Hana, you’re absolutely right. Same high key, soft focus, watercolor effect. Same manga artist behind both of them.
Puberty doesn’t have to be the end of being female for Nitori. It does mean acne,
vocal changes and a growth spurt. Nitori doesn’t just want to do female things and act with a female personality, he wants to look feminine and pretty as well. It will become more difficult to pull off as he gets older.
In terms of the environment he lives in, it is about the best environment one could ask for in this day and age. Never bereft of friends, in the end and despite his faux pas, he still had supportive classmates and adults. His isolation in the nurse’s office was mostly self-imposed. The class accepted him back when he returned and even put on his gender bender play.
He didn’t endure day to day harassment and bullying. Nobody left him a bloody mess in an out of the way corner. He has struggles but he wasn’t suicidal nor were there existential threats to his life. Where I grew up, he would have stayed deep in the closet or those threats could become real. (I am glad as f*ck I don’t live there today!)
At its heart, it is a coming of age story. I am a sucker for those. The details are believable. The emotions are believable. The large number of potentially transgender children in one classroom is a stretch but you need it for the concept to work. Nothing is contrived here as long as you accept the optimistic premise (EGBOK). A coming of age story without an optimistic premise is about the most depressing story imaginable, so not many get written.
The series ends on a very upbeat note. Between Anna, Saori and Yoshino, he’s got the beginnings of a harem. He’s not gay, that’s probably too big a twist for a mass market anime. Anna is about as feminine as a girl can be and he still loves her. He also loved Yoshina. She may present as a boy, she could possibly even be lesbian but at core, she is still a biological female and so are her pheromones.
I enjoyed this series. There was more action than in Aoi Hana and more significant characters. No slow spots where I was muttering under my breath to pick it up already. It is an idealistic and optimistic anime with a happy ending to cheer one up and give one hope. I’m sure the manga has much, much more material but I thought the way it ended, with him accepting the changes of puberty happening, was just perfect.
Definitely two thumbs up for this one.