Wandering Son Reflections: Episode 3 - "Romio to Jurietto"

Wandering Son Media Hōrō Musuko transgender

This post was originally posted in February of 2011 here. It has been updated substantially.

You can watch the episode here.

Spoiler Warning

In this episode, it feels like the show is finally reaching its stride. It combines the strengths of the previous episodes; the pacing is as good as the second episode, and the overall emotional impact and thematic cohesion is on the same level as the first episode.

So, like the episode, let’s start by talking about bras. For a young and not-so-budding trans girl, bras occupied an odd position in my mental landscape. I was consciously envious of the cis girls around me that were developing breasts. At the same time, though, I had already developed a knee-jerk defense mechanism against anything with a feminine connotations (at least in public). We’ll come back to this in a bit.

In the episode, though, the character contemplating supportive undergarments is Yoshino, who expresses terror at the thought of having to wear one, and asks Shūichi if he has ever wanted to wear one. This leads to both of them admitting envy of each other’s bodies. This is a touching scene, and seems to me to be deeply insightful about a very particular part of trans experience. Here the characters deal with it awkwardly, but that makes sense - the characters are still very unsure of themselves and still discovering their identities.

Near the end of the episode is another scene where Yoshino tries on the bra she bought. It ends with her throwing it off in disgust, and hugging her boy’s uniform to her chest, sobbing. This is an utterly heartbreaking moment, and it is so well portrayed that I felt slightly embarrassed, as if I had accidentally walked in on someone at a private moment. It is also a very powerful scene, and it nearly made me cry. As a trans woman (as opposed to a trans man), I can’t pretend to understand exactly what that moment is like, but the show succeeds in evoking empathy, which is quickly becoming its basic mode of operation.

Continuing on the theme of approaching puberty, Mako (Ariga Makoto) points out to Shūichi that their voices are going to change soon, which is upsetting to both of them. He further suggests that they record their voices “before it is too late.” This is also used as a pretext for them to dress up as girls together. This solidifies the subtle hints in the last episode that Mako is also gender variant. He seems much more excited to dress up, and seems to view it as a social activity, a way to bond with Shuuichi over a shared experience.

Anyway, I am describing this scene because it gives me a chance to talk about Japanese language and gender. When Shūichi begins recording his voice, he begins “Boku no namae o…” (My name is…). Mako stops him, saying “be more feminine.” He starts over, this time saying “Watashi no namae o…” (My name is…). The difference here is in the first person pronoun used, and it is something English doesn’t have an equivalent construct for. ‘Boku’ is an example of a masculine word - not masculine in the sense that words in some languages have gender (the Romance languages being readily available examples), but in the sense that it is a word typically only used by men. ‘Watashi’ is considered gender-neutral, but my suspicion is that, since ‘boku’ is used so predominantly amongst boys, ‘watashi’ is probably viewed as feminine by comparison. Unfortunately, this distinction is not caught in the subtitling.

Everything I’ve discussed so far are the sub-plots of the episode, and the episode’s core is worth remarking on as well, which centers around a play that the characters’ class is planning for the school’s cultural festival. Saorin suggests that the class do a ‘genderbender play’, or a play in which the boys play the girls’ roles, and vice versa. This idea is enthusiastically accepted by the rest of the class.

Saorin submits a script idea that is a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, while Shūichi comes up with the idea of writing about boys who want to be girls, and girls who want to be boys. This seems to be a huge leap forward in Shūichi’s thought process - he is, in a way, openly admitting that he wants to be a girl, not just dress like one. Whether or not he will eventually consider the distinction between wanting to be a girl and the idea that he might already be a girl remains to be seen; so far, the show has kept to the potentially gender essentialist language of “a boy who wants to be a girl”**. Shūichi’s words here mirrors my feelings and understanding of myself at his age, actually; having never really encountered the idea of gender variance, that was the way I framed the thought, when I wasn’t running away from it at full speed.

After the play is announced, there is a scene where the girls from the class are talking excitedly about the idea. They see it as a simple way to break social rules, and talk animatedly about it. The three trans characters, however, are all visibly uncomfortable. Here we have yet another interesting insight into trans experience. When I was a teenager, whenever someone mentioned cross-dressing, or any kind of gender variance, I felt a mixture of embarrassment and shame. This even extended to topics that were stereotypically feminine but without the gender variance context - any conversation that mentioned makeup, nail polish, or women’s shoes was likely to make me blush. As a result, I spent a long time actively avoiding anything feminine, even to the point of harboring a deep aversion to the color pink.

At the time, I didn’t even know why I felt embarrassed. I recognize now that it was the same thing I see in the characters in this scene - they are afraid that if they show too much enthusiasm, someone will know. That they will see into your soul and find the truth you’ve tried to hide from both them and yourself.

Shūichi and Saorin’s teacher suggests they combine their scripts, and at Shūichi’s suggestion, the play becomes a version of Romeo and Juliet with the lead characters both being trans. What is more interesting, though, is Saorin’s behavior while they work on the script together. She invites Shūichi to come work on it at her house, and he agrees after she promises “not to do anything weird this time.” However, she immediately breaks her promise, and gets very excited about the idea of Shūichi wearing one of her dresses.

Saorin’s behavior here feels very creepy, and it certainly borders on chaser behavior. What’s more, it is clear that she has done this before. Shūichi is obviously uncomfortable with her taking such an enthusiastic interest in his gender identity, and yet she persists. Whether this behavior is an attempt to create a bond similar to the one Shūichi has with Yoshino, or whether the behavior drove Shūichi away from Saorin (and towards Yoshino) in the first place is uncertain.

Saorin also notes the parallel between their play’s Romeo and Juliet, and Shūichi and Yoshino. She suggests casting Shūichi as Juliet, and Yoshino as Romeo. Her suggestion is tinged with bitterness, but she seems to have a moment of genuinely wishing for Shūichi’s happiness. Interestingly, this casting upholds the original point of the play (which was to reverse the gender roles of the actors relative to their characters) in a surprising way: it casts Shūichi as a trans man, and Yoshino as a trans woman, so that they are still playing, functionally, the opposite gender.

The translation ‘genderbender play’ didn’t really sit well with me, so I did some checking. Luckily, Shūichi writes down the phrase during the episode, so I was able to find the kanji: 倒錯劇 (tousaku geki). The dictionary meaning of this phrase would be ‘inversion play’ or ‘perversion play’, which don’t really convey the subtitled meaning at all. My assumption was that this is a particular phenomenon in Japan, but the only results I can make any sense of on a google search for the phrase are related to Wandering Son. If anyone with more knowledge of Japanese culture can confirm whether this is a cultural thing I am missing, I would be grateful.

** I am aware that some trans people see themselves as having been their birth-assigned gender before transitioning, and this complicates the language I use when I talk about this element of the show’s dialogue choices. My personal experience is that I was always a girl. Society’s gender essentialist memes convinced me otherwise for a very long time, and this leaves me with an unfortunate reflex reaction that tries to categorize phrases such as ‘I am a boy who wants to be a girl’ as cissexist. However, giving in to this reflex would be erasing of trans people whose experiences do not match my own, so I am trying my best here to use language that doesn’t do that.