Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Wandering Son (Episodes 1 - 3)

Last December, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly passed a revised amendment to the Tokyo Youth Healthy Development Ordinance. The revisions focused on the content of anime and manga, particularly on the depiction of sexuality between minors and adults. During the conflict, Tokyo Governor Shintarô Ishihara’s war on inappropriate content also caught Japan’s LGBT community in the crossfire.

In particular, Ishihara feared that Japan has been too unregulated when it comes to the presence of homosexuality on television. When asked to clarify his statement later in the month, he noted that he felt “[homosexuals] are missing something. Maybe it has something to do with their genes. I feel sorry for them as a minority.”

While the genetics behind homosexual and transvestite behavior require more study, this period where tension between Ishihara and the LGBT community is thick is perhaps the best time to study what adolescents really do experience when it comes to curiosity towards these behaviors. Even better, the new noitaminA series Wandering Son (Hôrô Musuko) has been exploring these questions in the media form that Ishihara probably doesn’t want it—anime and manga. Considering that the series was created by Takako Shimura, who has written the Aoi Hana manga and Boku wa Onna no Ko ("I'm A Girl"), a prequel to Wandering Son, this attention to LGBT issues is bound to be amplified.

If you already know of the Wandering Son manga, you may be a little disoriented, as director Ei Aoki (Girls Bravo) has actually begun the show at an accelerated clip. While the original manga begins in elementary school, we meet the characters as they enter junior high school. We're introduced to a quiet boy, Shûichi Nitori, and a tomboyish tall girl, Yoshino Takatsuki, as they meet new classmates and old friends. However, the first day of class turns awkward as a girl named Chizuru rebelliously comes to school in a male uniform.

While this gets Chizuru laughs and glances in disbelief, it does bring up the real crux of the situation like a scraper gets to the paint underneath the fresh coat—both Shûichi and Takatsuki wish they were able to be their opposite gender.

For the first three episodes, we get some glances into the duo's past, as both have knowledge of the other's secret. We understand the pride coming from Saori, a haughty girl with a crush on Shûichi and his cross-dressing hobby. During the class's attempt to put on a play about gender-reversal, we witness the concerns from Shûichi's friend Makoto, whose own cross-dressing desires may apparently hide his deeper emotions regarding homosexuality. We may occasionally get confused by which character is which (convenient chart alert!), but this is a story about the gender-torn Shûichi and Takatsuki as both stare puberty and social influence square in the eye.

There are no real disappointments in Wandering Son, other than its short eleven-episode schedule—everything else in the show is just brilliant in a minimalist sense. Shimura's story, albeit shuffled to a spot further in the books, is one that has been given a great place to shine, relying on minute flashbacks to tell the story of the rickety love-triangle between Takatsuki, Shûichi, and Saori. The art doesn't dress characters in blinding colors, depending more on reflected sunlight and brighter outlines to make the characters glow. Some of the scenes are bathed in so much light it feels like they're still waiting to be finished.

You're not going to get much in vocal and audio volume either, but once again lesser is better. Voices are immature yet learning how to cope with maturity—Shûichi is actually voiced by Kôsuke Hatakeyama, a 13-year-old male actor who has yet to hit his own puberty, and Takatsuki is voiced by Asami Seto, another newcomer who manages to give her character an unstable voice. Even the soundtrack is built on brittle cherry blossoms, often performed by a slow hopeful piano.

The strength of Wandering Son, appropriately, comes from its realistic portrayal of gender-identity disorders and the psychology that accompanies it. In his own review of the manga, Anime News Network's Carlo Santos pointed out that the transvestism acts as "the actual heart of the story" and doesn't try to club the reader over the head with "gender reversal as a goofy plot device". For so many other transgendered shows, the goal is more to see the chaos from the character's love for the opposite's clothing, and it's mostly done from a male-to-female perspective. In Wandering Son's case, not only are the characters uncertain of themselves, but the perspective is shared by both sexes.

It is this softened view of gender-identity disorder that may ultimately get misguided attacks from conservative politics in Japan. A manga and anime written and composed by adults about pre-adolescent kids who talk and think about homosexuality and taboo subjects in a world also inhabited by adults? There is no doubt that the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly will have this show on their minds when they finally put the Ordinance into effect. They may even consider it to be dangerous to children for encouraging transvestism.

If people see Wandering Son as smut deserving of censorship, then I feel sorry for them as the minority.

(Wandering Son is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Thursday at 1 PM EST.)

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