Wandering Son’s seventh episode opens with the turning leaves, as the late summer warmth of the school festival fades into the bundled coats of fall. Those leaves don’t just give us an indication of the time passing, though – they also directly echo this episode’s focus. Alternately titled “Rosy Cheeks” or “Growing Pains,” this episode hones in on the unwelcome shifts of adolescence, as Nitori finds her body changing in new and unwelcome ways. As the rich summer leaves shift into crinkly reddish paper, Nitori’s own rosy cheeks are turning red not with passion or beauty, but with the pimples of puberty.
The first scene recalls a variety of this show’s priorities, from the passage of time as reflected in the seasons to the perils of self-image and social standing. Nitori is forced to recite a very on-the-nose passage regarding a changing face, but that passage doesn’t just establish theme – it also provides an opportunity for the other classmates to giggle and gossip. Nitori’s relationship with her friends may be stabilizing to some extent, but figuring out her identity always has larger social repercussions. Of course, not all of these repercussions will be bad – in fact, later in the episode, Nitori ends up getting recruited for the school’s drama club, validating the work she did for the school play.
But before that, the pimple issue reigns supreme. Nitori’s sister is about as helpful as usual, but she ends up finding real support in her sister’s friend Anna, who helps her discover skin care products and effective beauty regimes. In some ways, Wandering Son’s designs actually work against the impact of this conflict. The show’s characters are all similarly androgynous and youthful, which naturally reflects the fluidity and vagueness of gender identity, but also means it’s a little harder to parse exactly what Nitori is worried about. The show is somewhat gentle in how easy it is for its characters to “pass” as their true genders, softening the lived experience of their problems in a way that makes it slightly harder to relate to.
That said, the fundamental nature of their actions still rings entirely true. Nitori relying on Anna speaks to a general truth this show has emphasized again and again: in order to become our most happy and true selves, it is very often necessary to seek out our own reliable support groups. The natural person to ask would be Nitori’s sister, but not all of us can rely on our families to support us, and Nitori at least certainly can’t. There’s no shame in seeking the people who can be good to us elsewhere, and it’s smart of Wandering Son to directly acknowledge the fact that sometimes the people who are naturally closest to us will not be the people we can ultimately trust.
Later on, Takatsuki and Chiba have a confrontation in the school bathroom that results in one of the most perfectly Chiba lines of the show so far. Hearing that Chiba’s been recruited for the drama club along with Nitori, Takatsuki responds with a genuine “that’s awesome!” Chiba can’t take that. The drama club likely means little enough to her already, but being praised by the person who’s kept Nitori from her is a step too far. Never looking at Takatsuki, she asks why Takatsuki keeps using that word, “amazing.” Takatsuki responds that he honestly thinks it’s amazing, and Chiba fires back with “if you’re actually able to admire the people who can easily do the things you wish you could, that’s truly amazing. I can’t do it.”
Chiba’s words speak to the heart of her character, a relatable anger and jealousy and pettiness that she ultimately can’t control. None of us are our best possible selves, and in Chiba’s case, she’s constantly struggling with negative emotions that well up regardless of her intentions. To her, the idea that someone could honestly feel nothing but positive feelings toward someone who possesses the qualities she desires and lacks is inconceivable. She doesn’t doubt Takatsuki’s sincerity, but she can’t relate to it. Takatsuki’s words towards her represent exactly the grace she can’t extend to Takatsuki: honestly feeling charitable towards the people who embody the things you can never have.
As usual, it’s Chiba’s anger that most speaks to me in this show. I can utterly relate to Chiba’s feelings – I try to be supportive of my friends as best I can, but I’m not a person who naturally feels good when others achieve the things I wish I could achieve, or express the skills I wish I could possess. I feel bitter and jealous, thinking more about myself than the hard-earned successes of those around me. It’s a struggle simply to be kind; not everyone was born with a generous heart, and many of us simply have to perform kindness as best we can if we want to be a positive force in the world. Chiba’s frustration is a frustration I know well, and at times it almost feels like I’d be better off embracing her harsh honesty than performing a grace I don’t truly feel. It is painful to feel like you’re a fundamentally unkind person, in spite of your efforts to be good to the people around you. It feels like you’re broken; like there’s a script you’re supposed to follow in order to be a good person, but for some reason your feelings won’t play along.
Of course, I don’t generally end up actually telling people I hate them, and this episode’s second half offers one good reason why. Nitori and Anna end up growing closer over time, and eventually dating – something Takatsuki learns through an offhand comment during a visit to Yuri. Walking back, Takatsuki tells Nitori the two of them probably shouldn’t go on these dates anymore, acknowledging that they more or less were dates in the first place. The shift in their relationship is sharply reflected through the show’s color design: from the warm reds of autumn, this sequence is bathed in twilight colors, and the cutoff of their relationship is clear in the next day’s icy winter blues.
Nitori’s relationship burns at Takatsuki, and so he does something that’s fairly out of character: he takes revenge on Chiba by telling her about it. As a viewer who empathizes with Chiba, it’s almost a relief to see this behavior from Takatsuki, who’s generally so kind and accommodating. All of us have at least some petty and vengeful feelings, and when we lash out in service of those feelings, we set fires in others who may then do the same. Chiba’s bluntness is core to her nature, but until she can at least harness her anger and find people who can accept the fullness of her ambiguous feelings, she’ll continue to hurt herself through the ways she hurts others.
In the end, the warmth of both these characters is clear in the ways they regret their actions. Chiba frames herself as a bully, and hates herself for it, while Takatsuki pays penance by bringing schoolwork to Chiba’s home. It’s hard enough simply to be your own honest self, much less avoid hurting others through your expression of that self. We all have anger and violence inside us, and we must always be willing to forgive others for the anger they carry as well.
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