Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-5 Streaming
Shuichi Nitori is an effeminate boy who wants very much to be a girl. Yoshino Takatsuki is a masculine girl who wants to be a boy. They were fast friends in elementary school, but enter middle school alienated by an ill-timed confession of love. Though they initially maintain their distance, in truth neither is particularly prepared to face their new school life without the other. A new school means new classmates and new problems, as well as some old friends with very old issues. If they're to make it through both, in addition to the looming changes of their incipient puberty, they'll need each other. For who can truly understand the problems of a transgendered child but another transgendered child?
If you ever doubted that anime could be art, check out an episode of Wandering Son. Each episode is work of beauty in every sense. Each combines delicate lines with gentle watercolors and washed-out backgrounds to create a unique look that beautifully emulates the expressive minimalism of Takako Shimura's original manga. Each is a window through which can be glimpsed a difficult yet unassuming web of intersecting lives. Each paints portraits of pain, anger, affection, confusion, and desire every bit as minimalist as its physical art. Each speaks to complex issues of gender and sexuality in terms poignant and human. Each carves intricately characters whose messy inner lives and composed outer lives are mirrors to our own. Each is an entrance into a world so beautiful in its unadorned ordinariness that it breaks your heart.
Satisfying as it will be to a certain kind of viewer, that artfulness comes at a price. Wandering Son doesn't tell a story so much as provide an experience. It has no overarching purpose; no direction or destination. The best you can hope for is a progressive uncovering of its world, a growing understanding of the people who populate it gained one conversation, one event at a time. More than anything it resembles one of those rudderless American ensemble indies, the kind that are set in small towns where human oddities live artistically-filmed, eventless lives that bore the hell out of hapless boyfriends dragged to art-house pics by their girlfriends. Only much prettier and much longer. And, to be fair, less concerned with flouting Hollywood convention than with getting at emotional truths that a standard narrative wouldn't have time for. Nevertheless, Wandering Son, with its diffuse structure and doggedly anti-dramatic tone, will have a good many of its viewers sympathizing with those comatose boyfriends.
It's a small enough price to pay, however, for a series as accomplished as Wandering Son. It isn't just a gorgeous series, whether one speaks of its sentiment or its aesthetics; it's also smart and sensitive, as well as fearless. Take its treatment of transgender identity. The series clearly respects Nitori and Takatsuki's desires, but it doesn't ignore their realities either. The incipient changes of puberty remind the pair that their bodies do not obey their hearts; Nitori's girlish habits alienate and even disgust his family; and one friend asks point-blank if Nitori would consider a sex-change operation if he could no longer pass for a girl. The series doesn't truck with reductive ideas about gender identity disorders either. Nitori is no "girl in a boy's body." His behavior, particularly when playing BFFs with his similarly-inclined friend Mako, is plainly that of boy enacting a boy's ideal of girlishness, not a spontaneous expression of inborn femininity. The questions that that one detail raises (how much does Nitori really understand about the opposite sex? Is his decision based on a child's preference for fantasy over reality?) speak eloquently of the series' deep and subtle intelligence.
Wandering Son does make the mistake of having its children think, act and speak in ways no child their age ever would. Chiba, a troubled girl with feelings for Nitori, argues like an understudy from Inherit the Wind; Nitori and Takatsuki have the emotional maturity and stability of an old married couple; and no one seems the least inclined to pull their briefs over their head and play Undie Man. It's a serious lapse in realism, but an almost inevitable one given the grown-up content, and certainly a forgivable one.
Musically Wandering Son is even sparer than it is visually. The series avoids big actions, but animates its characters with uncommon grace and care; it hardly lets its score out of the bag at all. Music is present, providing a humorous boost here and a melancholy run there, just not too often and rarely at significant volume. Of far more import is the series' sound design, which produces powerful effects using the simplest tools: a ticking clock, rain on a window, the peculiar acoustics of an empty stairwell. Also keep an ear open for Rie Fu's typically excellent closer.
Wandering Son trusts us to be able to follow it. It has no unnecessary explanations or introductions; it just dumps us in the midst of its characters' lives and trusts that we'll find our bearings. That leads to some confusion, especially at first. Its cast is huge for such a tiny show. Aside from Nitori, Takatsuki, Mako and Chiba, there's also Takatsuki's best friend and bastion of strength Sasa, devil-may-care iconoclast Chi and her obviously smitten best friend Momo, Nitori's alternately vicious and caring sister Maho, Chiba's intolerant church-mate Fumiya, Takatsuki and Nitori's older confidante Yuki, Maho's modeling coworkers, and everyone's parents—all with their own distinct personalities, feelings, and circumstances and all, with the exception of Nitori and Takatsuki, given equal weight and zero introduction. Which can make it difficult to keep track of everyone and their issues (and most everyone has them). But put in the effort and you'll find that the rewards are great. True art's rewards always are.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ A sprawling tale of transgendered children and those surrounding them, told with uncommon beauty and intelligence.
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