Sunday, May 19, 2013

cowCase Reviews: Wandering Son

It's strange to think about the roles that we fall into based on our inborn qualities and the societies in which we live. The very existence of the term “cross-dressing” seems to rely on the assumption that there's a “right” way to anoint ourselves with clothes to wear based on our sex, and to do otherwise is to risk social exile. But what if a boy doesn't want to look like or act like a boy, and what if a girl doesn't want to develop into a woman? Do we have any freedom in this regard, or are we slaves to birth and societal convention? Wandering Son is an eleven-episode anime series which looks at the implications of these and other ideas by taking a peek into the life of a middle school student: The feminine boy, Nitori, who privately cross-dresses and wants to be a girl. Sometimes at odds with others, and always at odds with himself, he walks through some confusing years searching for the answers to countless complicated questions.

“Simple, but effective” is a phrase that could describe Wandering Son on a couple of levels, but it's most immediately noticeable in the artwork. The color scheme is warm, consisting mostly of pastel pinks and yellows. Backgrounds are reasonably detailed, and they fade into a sea of off-white around the edges, like a drawing on canvas. At the most basic level, you could call the character designs generic, but they're drawn with the same light, rounded watercolor touch that's applied to the backgrounds, and the result is a world that's appealing to the eyes, as inviting and agreeable as it is distinctive. Each scene looks like a moving painting, remarkably fluid, with no out-of-place elements or sharp contrasts to break the sense of consistency. 

The music and sound share many of those same qualities. Short of some obligatory “light and cheerful” music for the more upbeat school scenes, the series mostly relies on a seemingly limitless series of piano melodies. Dramas can sometimes be guilty of leaning too heavily on the sound of the piano, but in this case there are a surprisingly large variety of tracks, and they run the tonal gamut from soft and somber to soaring and hopeful, so it didn't bother me in the least. What's more interesting is the show's willingness to use atmospheric noise in place of music. The soft ticking of a clock during a lull in conversation can become harsh and accusing, as can that normally-harmless loop of muzak playing in the karaoke place. In one heart-stopping scene, the shrill cry of cicadas and the beat of slow footsteps are all we can hear as an antagonistic classmate approaches the vulnerable main character behind a closed door, his motives unclear. In this regard, the series can produce an immense amount of tension and audience involvement from practically nothing.

The characters are both a blessing and a curse. Get ready to be completely and utterly lost as early as three minutes into the first episode: The cast is huge, and with the exception of two leads, Nitori and Takatsuki, none of the characters are explicitly introduced in any sort of depth. To make matters worse, in addition to their given name, every character is also referred to by several nicknames, so you can definitely expect to play a little who's-who early in the series. Many of the characters knew each other in past years, but this is touched on very briefly, and the series seems to take it for granted that we'll be able to grasp everyone's histories. To be fair, if you're paying close attention, you can do just that, but it's definitely a tasking introduction that might be a little more complicated than it needed to be.

The series also falters a little when it comes to making the lead roles feel believable. It's difficult to write children with true accuracy, but this is an extreme case; within this series, there are at least three middle schoolers who, by all indications, are more mature and intelligent than most adults. Nitori and Takatsuki are both unflinchingly honest and up-front about their motivations and desires, and Saori, the third lead, is a little girl who has the steely composure and resolve of a professional hitman. In one scene, Saori's mother asks her what she plans to do with her life, and Saori sullenly responds that, if all else fails, she could “just be somebody's mistress.” You'll pardon me for thinking that seems like an unlikely response from an eleven-year-old, and it's a drop in the bucket of unrealistic behavior exhibited by children throughout the course of the series. If the goal of the show was to comment on the concept of gender identity in children, then writing children who have the brains of adults contradicts that goal.

That's not to say the characters are a flop, though. Nitori is a character in a state of internal turmoil, trying his best to make sense of himself and work through confusion that most people could only imagine. It all shows through in his tepid behavior, his shyness, his inability to truly feel comfortable amongst others. He's complex, and believable as a person, just not as a child. By and large, the supporting characters are put to good use—as mentioned, they're many in number, so I can't dig into everyone, but some standouts include: Sarashina, a brazen and upbeat girl whose positive attitude and strong sense of identity make her a good role model for Nitori; Ariga, Nitori's friend and confidant who also has the desire to cross-dress; and Maho, Nitori's sister who, like true family, can somehow manage to be simultaneously spiteful and kind. The sense of realism isn't quite up to par, but there's definitely a lot of good chemistry between the characters.

Even by slice-of-life/drama standards, there really isn't much in the way of a conventional story here. Each episode is just a day or two in the life of Nitori as he faces numerous problems. In many ways, Nitori is the story—numerous subplots raise meaningful inquiries about him and the way that he is going to live his life. He starts to undergo puberty, he finds himself attracted to his sister's friend, he is conflicted about whether or not he should cross-dress at school. These beg some questions; how will he handle it when he is too “boyish” to convincingly cross-dress? Will he be able to have a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex despite his own confused state? Will he live in secrecy, or be open about his desire to be a girl? The series is good at provoking these sorts of thoughts without ever being too explicit about them.

In that same vein, Wandering Son really does have something that's absent from most dramas, and that is a sense of emotional understatement. It generates tension the same way that tension is generated in real life. Awkward silences; sometimes words unspoken are worse than those that are. Simultaneous sidelong glances in which both parties drop their eyes; just returning the gaze of a person you no longer call “friend” can be disquieting. A white flag offered by someone who has wronged you in the past; you want to let bygones be bygones, but you never can tell who's genuine and who isn't. Over time, Wandering Son collects all of these realities and more, hones them to their most disconcerting and incisive forms, and then uses them to great effect. The scene that I would consider the show's climax is so soft and unassuming, yet so full of visceral impact, that it's tough to even describe. Bad dramas default to artificially emotional screaming and crying. The good dramas are the ones that are built on the understanding that sometimes life is just cold, silent, and uncomfortable to the point where screaming and crying become a welcome change of pace, the finish line of an emotional gauntlet rather than the start. To that end, this series passes with flying colors.

What ultimately ends up marring the series more than anything is its treatment of its themes. Don't think for a second that I won't commend it for taking an idea that's normally denigrated to the rank of a joke and bringing it up to center stage, because I will. It's daring and original, and I respect that to no end. The series is great at presenting insightful questions. But it cheapens itself a little bit when attempting to provide the answers. For all of the inner toiling, the complexity of the problems faced by the characters, Wandering Son ultimately ends up being permeated and diluted by the same overly simplistic “just be yourself and everything is gonna be okey-dokey” content that seems to be omnipresent in all forms of media. My own cynicism notwithstanding, there's nothing terribly wrong with that message in and of itself, but in this context, it's little more than a cop-out, a juvenile thematic resolution crudely tacked onto an otherwise mature and involving experience. It turns Wandering Son into an inarticulate meditation on the topic at hand rather than a full-blown attempt to embrace it, and for lack of a better phrase, it's a crying shame.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to appreciate here, and if you lean at all towards the slice-of-life/drama genres, or if you're just intrigued by the idea but sitting on the fence about whether or not it's worth your time, this is an easy enough recommendation. It doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it might have, but it's still the kind of uniquely artistic and effective series that I wish was a little more prevalent in the entertainment landscape.

 Score: 7/10; general recommendation.

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