If I were to describe Wandering Son’s aesthetic in a word, it would likely be “gentle.” The color palette is light pastels, painted gracefully with an uneven color density, as if the moving images are a series of watercolors. The character designs are rounded and attractive without moving into the deeply stylized; their loose shapes and curved faces lean towards a kind of universal androgyny. Those designs are offset by light touches of pure white, an inlay just inside of their outline that makes for characters who seem constantly lit by sunlight and also just slightly removed from their environment, like cut paper actors.
That emphasis on light expands in all directions in the show’s backgrounds. Warm pastels fade into pure white at the corners, making for images that seem almost like illustrations in a children’s picture book. This is a beautiful show, and its beauty seems purposeful, all tethered to one atmospheric intent. We are witnessing a story of near-children discovering themselves, a tale one step removed from innocent childhood, but still existing in the smallest of worlds.
The first episode’s title plays into the show’s picture book affectations, mixing together two classic nursery rhymes – “what are little girls made of?” followed by “roses are red, violets are blue.” The show’s aspirations in a nutshell, there; this is a story about childhood and a story about identity, a story about growing into yourself and finding a place that suits you in a wider world.
Wandering Son opens with a direct confession, as new middle schooler Shuuichi Nitori speaks to the camera of feeling uncomfortable in a boy’s school uniform. A choice like that seems reflective of this show’s series composer – in spite of being an adaptation, Mari Okada’s clear preference for interiority being the motivation for narrative drama matches this material perfectly. Nitori is uncomfortable in these clothes and seemingly uncomfortable in this body; wishing for the ostensible simplicity of the past, Nitori reflects on an old photo, where she (based on the material so far, I’m going to assume Nitori is transgender and would if possible identify as female) felt free to dress as a girl with friends who supported her.
We see glimpses of that past simplicity, in hints of old friendships and relationships that went sour. At her new school, Nitori runs into Yoshino Takatsuki, a short-haired boy (ditto in reverse) who is currently known as a girl, but would dress as a boy on “dates” with Nitori. But their relationship fell apart, and now, their chance meetings in the halls of their new world are fleeting and awkward.
Wandering Son is very graceful in how much of a larger context it implies with just offhand details. The class introductions offer a wealth of intriguing characters, and also emphasize the fundamental shift of middle school. In elementary school, it is possible to exist entirely within your own world; you go to classes, spend time with friends and acquaintances, and go home. But as your adolescence begins, it becomes impossible to ignore the existence of a larger culture – of social assumptions, rumors and baggage and lines you must not cross. Nitori yearns for the simplicity of the old days, but that simplicity is as ephemeral as the rest of childhood. The show understands this, and thus our image of that nostalgic period is framed as an actual picture, a snapshot of one brief moment in time.
The framing of middle school’s significance isn’t the only way Wandering Son adds lived-in texture to its world. I really appreciated how the show’s opening song is accompanied by a sequence of incidental shots of Nitori’s new school. Like K-On!, Wandering Son seems to understand that dramas like this are richer for having the school itself be a living character. And beyond that, all the information we receive about Nitori and Takatsuki’s relationship comes through in offhand conversations. We learn of Nitori’s situation because Nitori is already living in it – we learn of her past with Takatsuki when a mutual friend bemoans their lack of contact.
Nitori and Takatsuki are each supported by well-meaning friends, but sometimes that is not enough. I felt a twinge of discomfort when Takatsuki’s friend mentioned how he “looks cute the way he is” – though intended to be comforting, a line like that does not reassure someone struggling with a rejection of who people assume they are. Though this episode is filled with warm moments, its framing also emphasizes the distance between characters – Nitori small and alone on a walk in women’s clothes, Takatsuki drawing back from a friend across the frame. And always mirrors and reflections reappear, emphasizing the distance between who you seem and who you want to be.
Wandering Son understands the difficulty of finding yourself, and emphasizes the importance not just of comfort and assurance, but of visibility and true support. Takatsuki’s eyes light up when he sees a girl in class wearing a boy’s uniform, as if for the first time he’s learning that people can do that. And when Nitori and Takatsuki ultimately reconcile, it becomes clear how much they need each other. We work to be true to ourselves, but having a support structure is sometimes the only way to get there.
Wandering Son’s first episode is simultaneously charming and stiflingly true. Its characters come to life through assumed relationships, understated dialogue, and lovely character animation, and the world they inhabit brims with both possibility and uncertainty. Pastel colors and light piano chimes offer relief and a sense of fairy-tale distance, but there is a sharpness here only ameliorated by intimacy, by understanding as a salve. “I saw a girl wearing a hoodie with a skirt,” Takatsuki tells his crying friend under the starry moonlight. It is tough to be almost anything. It is good to have a friend to help you be you.
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