Wandering Son – Episode 9

Wandering Son’s ninth episode opens with Takatsuki waking up and putting on a boy’s school uniform. The show spends significant time on this ritual, varying its shots and emphasizing his specific sequence of motions, like dressing in this uniform is some delicate and critical thing. This moment is delicate and critical – it is important to Takatsuki, and has significance far outside of its immediate, physical difficulty.

We are often told that the way we look or dress isn’t as important as who we are “inside” – but how we construct and parse our outer selves is still a critical part of our identity. Social conditioning, assumptions of “normalcy,” assumptions of “attractiveness” – these all impact our sense of self in ways we can’t consciously control. We can come to terms with being unhappy with our shapes, but we can’t escape them. And learning to find control, confidence, and maybe even joy in the ways we present ourselves is crucial to finding a full sense of happiness and self-worth. Takatsuki continuously mouths “it will be okay” throughout this sequence, the words becoming their own kind of self-assurance ritual. Our solutions are never as clear and all-encompassing as we’d like them to be.

Fortunately, having reconciled with Nitori and connected with Anna during the previous episode allows Takatsuki to once again lean on his most reliable emotional anchor. For Takatsuki’s first day dressed as a boy, he flanks himself with Sasa and Nitori, and even gets a charming assist by the unflappable Chiba. Different people react differently, but that’s to be expected. Takatsuki’s first day dressed as a boy is a general success.

Takatsuki’s victory leaves Nitori with some frustrating mixed feelings. Nitori wants to support her friend, but she’s also deeply jealous of Takatsuki’s progress. While Takatsuki has moved forward with his self-image, Nitori has dialed back her feelings, and now feels pressure to chase after her friend. And Nitori’s worries are only compounded when the previously antagonistic Doi forces himself back into her life, asking to be introduced Nitori’s friend Yuki. Chirping cicadas rise in volume to match Nitori’s anxieties, a shot of Doi’s back emphasizing her new sense of strange isolation.

Yuki actually does agree to meet with Doi, but isn’t exactly gentle with him – she opens the conversation by bluntly stating that she “used to be a man,” and then drags out her current boyfriend. Both Takatsuki and Yuki seem to see Doi as a danger to Nitori, and act fiercely to defend her, but Nitori actually seems more concerned for Doi’s own clear discomfort. And afterwards, Nitori can only feel more resentment towards Takatsuki. Chatting on a bridge just before their separation, she marvels at Takatsuki’s confidence, ending on a bitter “lucky her.”

Nitori’s protective friends mean well, but they can’t really help her with her current problem. Instead, it’s unlikely new challenger Doi who helps her push forward. While Takatsuki, Anna, and the others have become comfortable with Nitori’s crossdressing, they don’t really encourage it – they’re not invested in Nitori’s gender presentation, and their concerns are mostly about Nitori not getting hurt. In contrast, Doi both validates and encourages Nitori’s identity, straight-up asking her to “dress up like a girl for me.”

The scene of Nitori dressing as a girl for Doi is one of the most tense and effective of the episode. The scene opens with one of my favorite directorial tricks, as pillow shots focus on idle details of Nitori’s home while avoiding the actual focus characters. I feel sequences like this accomplish two key goals at once – not only do they quietly emphasize the discomfort of the leads, who are likely just as distracted as the camera, but they also help bolster the sense of the setting being a lived-in, tangible place. Focusing on random bits of everyday ephemera over the character’s own expressions paradoxically brings us that much closer to their physical and emotional space.

Doi has nothing but praise for Nitori’s appearance, immediately calling her “incredibly cute.” And beyond this, Doi actually encourages her to come to school this way – something even her closest friends haven’t suggested. It’s a suggestion Nitori was likely too uncertain to raise herself, but it’s exactly the step she’s wanted. After falling behind Takatsuki, Nitori feels finally ready to catch back up.

The episode’s first segment of noteworthy animation is well-placed, accompanying Nitori’s tightly held fantasies of daily life as a girl. Not playing dress up for friends, not occasionally going on dates with Takatsuki, but actually living as a girlgoing to school, laughing at lunch, being appreciated as just one more part of the gang. There was once a thrill of validation to simply dressing up in private, but none of us want our true, most comfortable selves to be a costume in a back closet, only brought out for special occasions. The cicadas once again rise with Nitori’s frustration, undercutting the pleasure of these happy visions. Nitori wants to be herself, whatever that may cost.

Nitori ultimately goes to Chi for more advice, a choice that likely reflects the fact that she’s already decided what she’ll do. Chi has always been the one who’s most carefree about gender presentation, and also someone who just doesn’t seem to see people’s appearances as a big deal. Nitori likely wants Chi to express exactly those sentiments to her – but instead, Chi actually urges caution. Chi acknowledges that it’s harder for boys – that while girls dressing like boys can be considered “cool,” boys acting feminine is treated with more assumed suspicion and ridicule. Nitori will get laughed at if she dresses this way, and as a friend who sees Nitori’s social comfort as more important than her “fondness” for crossdressing, Chi can’t recommend she follow her heart.

This isn’t the answer Nitori wants to hear. Standing on the same bridge where she previously parted from Takatasuki, Nitori once again reflects on her urge to not fall behind. After Takatsuki offers the same answer as Chi, Nitori appears at the bridge a third time, regretful but resolved. Her feelings have shifted from “wouldn’t it be nice if I could be this way” to hard, practical questions. What will my mother and father think? Will they be cruel to me like my sister? But even if her friends urge caution, Nitori can’t help wanting to be herself, and to not be ashamed of that self. The cicadas return once more for Nitori’s grand entrance, echoing her jitters as she stands on the school steps. Nervousness is inevitable, and bringing herself to that point still took incredible strength. I hope things turn out okay for this brave girl.

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