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.
Romeo and Juliet is not a play about love. Its stars are in their early teens, and Romeo begins the play by pining over an unknown “Rosaline” in the same way he’d eventually worship Juliet. That doesn’t make its characters’ feelings meaningless, but it does change the context of the tragedy – instead of being about a loss of the greatest love that ever was, it’s about two teenagers who fell in lust and senselessly died for it. Romeo and Juliet’s social circumstances left them no way to get to know each other, maybe see how they felt about each other after a few months, and go from there – it forced them to act in the greatest of secrecy upon the highest of passions, resulting in tragedy for all.
There is no one unifying point of Wandering Son’s fifth episode. As summer trudges towards its end, all of Wandering Son’s stars deal with the approaching cultural festival in their own way. Secrets are revealed, angry resolutions are made, and incompatible desires drift and collide in small ways. And through it all, Wandering Son’s consistent framing presents them as isolated in their world, tiny figures almost lost in a space beyond their control.
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.
Episode three starts off with that eternal cavern of gender-based insecurities, gym class. Well, morning exercises more specifically, but the drama is the same – singled out by the teacher, Takatsuki is informed that he will have to start wearing a bra tomorrow, and promptly collapses. Puberty is resulting in unwelcome changes for both Takatsuki and Nitori, and the question of how they will be able to define themselves becomes more pressing all the time.
Halfway through this episode, Nitori arrives at her sister’s classroom in order to drop off a lunchbox. Her sister’s classmates stare at Nitori, noting how she’s cute and “looks like a girl,” and Nitori actually blushes in happiness at this. But Nitori’s sister is not impressed – she pushes Nitori out and then stomps to her desk. “Don’t take it out on your lunch,” a male friend gently chides her, at which Nitori’s sister only scowls, and then slams her lunch repeatedly into the table.
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.