Episode four opens with another perfect venue for body-related insecurity – swimming class. The light-filtered outlines that give Wandering Son such a storybook feel are here perfectly suited to evoking the summer heat, as Nitori watches Takatsuki fretting over his very visible body. But more than emphasizing the unhappiness we already know, this scene mostly serves to demonstrate that all of these students are struggling with the disappointments of their uncovered selves. Chi’s friend Momoko articulates this directly, as she bemoans her lack of “womanly” features while stuck between Chi and Takatsuki. And Takatsuki is isolated in the frame, positioned first as stuck in the spotlight above his laughing peers before he retreats to the only place he can, deep beneath the eyes of his classmates.
Both of these threads continue throughout this episode – the isolation of Nitori and Takatsuki represented by the camera’s gaze, and the reality that everyone around them is also dealing with troubles of their own. Even the ostensibly confident Chi isn’t safe from the perils of middle school, as she glumly admits midway through the episode that it’s difficult to make friends. And when Takatsuki goes to visit his adult friend, he learns that his friend has dealt with plenty of bullying of her own, and that her advice to Takatsuki carries the weight of painful experience.
Chiba bears a lot of the weight this episode, as Chiba tends to. Chiba is in a deeply unfortunate position in this story – she wants to support Nitori, and feels she is doing her best in that, but her own desires often conflict with the specific ways Nitori wants to express herself. Chiba’s problems are far less stark than her friend’s, of course, but that doesn’t make her feelings any less real. Chiba may not be trying to change her entire public identity, but the life she has created and the people she shares it with are still threatened by her fundamental desire to act on her feelings.
Chiba’s strength is expressed both in what she’s willing to say and what she’s able to hold back. On the one hand, Chiba is the only person who’s able to outright ask Nitori the big hanging question: “how do your feelings on your gender interact with your feelings towards Takatsuki?” Chiba is by far the most driven of the three, and she pushes Nitori towards new resolutions by being frank without being cruel. She outright questions where Nitori sees herself in the future, and frankly admits that her own preferences are rooted in her feelings for Nitori. Chiba’s forthright behavior acts as something of a sounding board for Nitori, helping Nitori come to a firmer understanding of herself.
And on the other hand, Chiba is also capable of holding back her own feelings. Chiba is interesting in that she’s a person full of negative emotions, but she understands that, and works as hard as she can to manage them. When the teacher provokes her regarding her progress writing the play, she tells Nitori that “she’s not mad anymore, but she’s just having trouble controlling her emotions.” Ariga rightly points out that that framing means she still is mad, but Chiba likely doesn’t see it that way. If she counts her unspoken emotions, Chiba is mad at almost everyone – mad at her teacher, mad at Takatsuki, mad at Nitori, mad at herself. She can’t help that underlying anger, because she’s a person with a lot of anger inside her. We can’t avoid feeling the things we feel, but Chiba works hard to engage with her peers in an honest way in spite of her significant negative feelings. Anger is a given, but Chiba is working to do her best in spite of it.
In contrast with Chiba’s aggressive self-expression, Nitori’s feelings tend to result in her retreating in on herself. Nitori is twice framed as visually trapped in this episode. The first occurs right after swimming class, when she’s working with Chiba on the play after school. As Chiba tries to engage Nitori, Nitori’s thoughts are drawn outwards, where Takatsuki is practicing – but the window’s girders form a strong wall against her acting on her thoughts. Later, when Nitori-sis’s friend Anna grabs at her script, Nitori retreats entirely, huddling up within the bars of her bed in a shot that evokes Takatsuki’s earlier retreat. Nitori rarely has the confidence to act on, much less defend her desires.
Fortunately, Nitori has friends to help her. Chiba pushes Nitori forward in her own way, but it’s once again Takatsuki who really gives Nitori the strength to pursue her dreams. Late in the episode, Takatsuki asks Nitori to accompany him shopping, a journey which demonstrates how much each of them support the other. Takatsuki wants to investigate a kind of bra that might minimize his physical features; Nitori wants to dress in the way she wishes, and pursue a vision of the play that sees her and Takatsuki each assuming their preferred selves. Each of them give the other the strength to carry through on these wishes, a fact represented both visually (like here, where their closeness in an imposing landscape mirrors the closeness evoked between Takatsuki and his friend earlier on) and through their final conversation.
Chiba and Takatsuki each get one important declaration from Nitori in this episode. To Chiba, Nitori finally states that she wants to be a girl for her own sake, regardless of her feelings for Takatsuki. And to Takatsuki, Nitori announces how much this play means to her, and how she wishes that both herself and Takatsuki might perform the lead roles.
It’s obviously a major step for Nitori to make these declarations. It’s one thing to prefer dressing as a woman secretly; it’s quite another to declare you want others to see you as a woman in a formal sense. Nitori is not an aggressive person, and this episode’s slow progression makes it clear that she could not take these steps alone. It is the gifts her friends have brought her that made these moments possible; gifts of time and concern, gifts of their very names. Stranded in a corner or bubbling silently in the water, we hold close to ourselves and struggle to not let go. Surrounded by those who believe in our feelings and our truth, we might hope to be free.
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