Effeminate fifth grader Shuuichi Nitori is considered by most to be one of the prettiest girls in school, but much to her dismay, she is actually biologically male. Fortunately, Shuuichi has a childhood friend who has similar feelings of discomfort related to gender identity: the lanky tomboy Yoshino Takatsuki, who, though biologically female, does not identify as a girl. These two friends share a similar secret and find solace in one another; however, their lives become even more complicated when they must tread the unfamiliar waters of a new school, attempt to make new friends, and struggle to maintain old ones. Faced with nearly insurmountable odds, they must learn to deal with the harsh realities of growing up, transexuality, relationships, and acceptance.
Lauded as a decidedly serious take on gender identity and LGBT struggles, Takako Shimura's Hourou Musuko is about Shuuichi and Yoshino's attempts to discover their true selves as they enter puberty, make friends, fall in love, and face some very real and difficult choices.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that a poorly researched work on a touchy subject can frustrate people off. The anime medium is infamous for blatantly using offensive stereotypes; One Piece is one of the weirdest examples out there for attacking racism and then, using racial stereotypes.
Then, there’s the animes that deal with the LGBT community.
Stereotyped as flamboyant creatures, the LGBT community suffers through insulting stereotypes and invectives. One of the least prominent group of the LGBT body is transgender community; there is so little focus on them. As far as most ignorant people are concerned, they are crossdressers. Nothing more.
Hourou Musuko, or Wandering
Son, is a work, based on the bestselling manga, that focuses on crossdressers, puberty, and transgender issues. It serves to educate -- and entertain -- viewers about gender identity. What does it mean to be a boy or a girl? Why do people have so many problems with guys dressing up as girls? Are crossdressers “weird”?
The work tackles these questions through the eyes of Nitori Shuichi. He never like being a boy; he always feels he should have been a girl. Takatsuki Yoshino, a girl, wishes she is born as a boy. She hates wearing girly clothing. Both these main characters feel strangled over societal norms on gender issues and this anime adaptation does great justice in focusing their struggles.
Because this work starts in medias res, the drama immediately starts and that is one of its greatest strengths. It doesn’t waddle on setting the work; the work has an inviting introduction that explains most of the events explained in the manga in the first episode. Personally, the first episode is one of my favorite first episodes out there; it is so impressive that I said, “Wow.”
While it rests on the familiar tropes and archetypes, there is an engaging twist on everything. If you think love triangles are the most boring trope out there, Hourou Musuko will flabbergast you. Chiba Saori, a straight female character, falls in love with Nitori as a girl while Nitori has a crush on Takatsuki. The love triangle situation grows even more complex and captures the viewers’ imagination. Dramatic and slice-of-life situations are there for a reason: to characterize. There is nothing redundant about them and everything feels well-placed. Interestingly enough, the work climaxes on the silly anime cliche: a play in a cultural festival; however, it is one of the best endings out there in anime.
Everything about the characters feels realistic. Nitori and Takatsuki are definitely two of the best written LGBT characters out there; they act like people in real life facing actual dramatic situations. Except they have problems identifying themselves. Saori, while being a more unconventional -- and almost insane -- character, has a degree of believability. Ariga Makoto, Suehiro Anna, and Doi Shinpei -- despite their labels as supporting characters -- are strong characters that complement the drama in the work; it seems bizarre to call them supporting characters. While Sarashina Chizuru may vex viewers, her placement is a necessary evil.
The minimalist watercolor palette for its art is powerful. Bright colors and thin outlines almost feel like you are viewing a moving watercolor painting. Lush backgrounds have never been this interesting. The character designs look fantastic and dynamic. What can I say? Hourou Musuko’s art style is unbelievably incredible.
“Itsudatte” by Daisuke is a charming acoustic piece for an OP: clear vocals, catchy acoustic pieces, fantastic lyrics. While I find it hilarious that the OP focuses on furniture and symbols, its symbolism is worthy of praise. It introduces the serious yet enchanting elements of this work. The ED, “For You” by Rie Fu, is a soothing pop music, but loses its memorability quickly.
Fans argue that its noitaminA’s position creates problems with this work. Its 11 episode structure has condensed the work quite significantly. Despite that, it is an excellent way to introduce viewers to the manga; its easygoingness gives little problems.
So how does Hourou Musuko compare to the likes of other slice-of-life works? Excellent. Its pleasant nature does not scare off viewers; rather, it educates them about the issues. The animation staff did not back off from the issues, no matter the consequences. That, to me, is admirable.
It's strange to think about the roles that we fall into based on our inborn qualities and the societies in which we live. The very existence of the term “cross-dressing” seems to rely on the assumption that there's a “right” way to anoint ourselves with clothes to wear based on our sex, and to do otherwise is to risk social exile. But what if a boy doesn't want to look like or act like a boy, and what if a girl doesn't want to develop into a woman? Do we have any freedom in this regard, or are we slaves to birth and societal convention?
Wandering Son is a series which looks at the implications of these and other ideas by taking a peek into the life of a middle school student: The feminine boy, Nitori, who privately cross-dresses and begins to identify as a girl. Sometimes at odds with others, and always at odds with himself, he walks through some confusing years searching for the answers to countless complicated questions.
“Simple, but effective” is a phrase that could describe Wandering Son on a couple of levels, but it's most immediately noticeable in the artwork. The color scheme is warm, consisting mostly of pastel pinks and yellows. Backgrounds are reasonably detailed, and they fade into a sea of off-white around the edges, like a drawing on canvas. At the most basic level, you could call the character designs generic, but they're drawn with the same light, rounded watercolor touch that's applied to the backgrounds, and the result is a world that's appealing to the eyes, as inviting and agreeable as it is distinctive. Each scene looks like a moving painting, remarkably fluid, with no out-of-place elements or sharp contrasts to break the sense of consistency.
The music and sound share many of those same qualities. Short of some obligatory “light and cheerful” music for the more upbeat school scenes, the series mostly relies on a seemingly limitless series of piano melodies. Dramas can sometimes be guilty of leaning too heavily on the sound of the piano, but in this case there are a surprisingly large variety of tracks, and they run the tonal gamut from soft and somber to soaring and hopeful, so it didn't bother me in the least. What's more interesting is the show's willingness to use atmospheric noise in place of music. The soft ticking of a clock during a lull in conversation can become harsh and accusing, as can that normally-harmless loop of muzak playing in the karaoke place. In one heart-stopping scene, the shrill cry of cicadas and the beat of slow footsteps are all we can hear as an antagonistic classmate approaches the vulnerable main character behind a closed door, his motives unclear. In this regard, the series can produce an immense amount of tension and audience involvement from practically nothing.
The characters are both a blessing and a curse. Get ready to be completely and utterly lost as early as three minutes into the first episode: The cast is huge, and with the exception of two leads, Nitori and Takatsuki, none of the characters are explicitly introduced in any sort of depth. To make matters worse, in addition to their given name, every character is also referred to by several nicknames, so you can definitely expect to play a little who's-who early in the series. Many of the characters knew each other in past years, but this is touched on very briefly, and the series seems to take it for granted that we'll be able to grasp everyone's histories. To be fair, if you're paying close attention, you can do just that, but it's definitely a tasking introduction that might be a little more complicated than it needed to be.
The series also falters a little when it comes to making the lead roles feel believable. It's difficult to write children with true accuracy, but this is an extreme case; within this series, there are at least three middle schoolers who, by all indications, are more mature and intelligent than most adults. Nitori and Takatsuki are both unflinchingly honest and up-front about their motivations and desires, and Saori, the third lead, is a little girl who has the steely composure and resolve of a professional hitman. In one scene, Saori's mother asks her what she plans to do with her life, and Saori sullenly responds that, if all else fails, she could “just be somebody's mistress.” You'll pardon me for thinking that seems like an unlikely response from an eleven-year-old, and it's a drop in the bucket of unrealistic behavior exhibited by children throughout the course of the series.
That's not to say the characters are a flop, though. Nitori is a character in a state of internal turmoil, trying his best to make sense of himself and work through confusion that most people could only imagine. It all shows through in his tepid behavior, his shyness, his inability to truly feel comfortable amongst others. He's complex, and believable as a person, just not as a child. By and large, the supporting characters are put to good use—as mentioned, they're many in number, so I can't dig into everyone, but some standouts include: Sarashina, a brazen and upbeat girl whose positive attitude and strong sense of identity make her a good role model for Nitori; Ariga, Nitori's friend and confidant who also has the desire to cross-dress; and Maho, Nitori's sister who, like true family, can somehow manage to be simultaneously spiteful and kind. The sense of realism isn't quite up to par, but there's definitely a lot of good chemistry between the characters.
Even by slice-of-life/drama standards, there really isn't much in the way of a conventional story here. Each episode is just a day or two in the life of Nitori as he faces numerous problems. In many ways, Nitori is the story—numerous subplots raise meaningful inquiries about him and the way that he is going to live his life. He starts to undergo puberty, he finds himself attracted to his sister's friend, he is conflicted about whether or not he should cross-dress at school. These beg some questions; how will he handle it when he is too “boyish” to convincingly cross-dress? Will he be able to have a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex despite his own confused state? Will he live in secrecy, or be open about his desire to be a girl? The series is good at provoking these sorts of thoughts without ever being too explicit about them.
In that same vein, Wandering Son really does have something that's absent from most dramas, and that is a sense of emotional understatement. It generates tension the same way that tension is generated in real life. Awkward silences; sometimes words unspoken are worse than those that are. Simultaneous sidelong glances in which both parties drop their eyes; just returning the gaze of a person you no longer call “friend” can be disquieting. A white flag offered by someone who has wronged you in the past; you want to let bygones be bygones, but you never can tell who's genuine and who isn't. Over time, Wandering Son collects all of these realities and more, hones them to their most disconcerting and incisive forms, and then uses them to great effect. The scene that I would consider to be the show's climax is so soft and unassuming, yet so full of visceral impact, that it's tough to even describe. Bad dramas default to artificially emotional screaming and crying. The good dramas are the ones that are built on the understanding that sometimes life is just so damn cold, silent, and uncomfortable that screaming and crying become a welcome change of pace, the finish line of an emotional gauntlet rather than the start. To that end, this series passes with flying colors.
What ultimately ends up marring Wandering Son more than anything is its treatment of its themes. Don't think for a second that I won't commend the show for taking an idea that's often denigrated to the rank of a joke and bringing it up to center stage, because I will. It's daring, original, and respectful, and I respect that to no end. The series is great at presenting insightful questions. But it cheapens itself a little bit when attempting to provide the answers. For all of the inner toiling, the complexity of the problems faced by the characters, the series ultimately ends up being permeated and diluted by the same overly simplistic “just be yourself and everything is gonna be okey-dokey” message that seems to be omnipresent in all forms of media. My own cynicism notwithstanding, there's nothing terribly wrong with that message in and of itself, but in this context, it's little more than a cop-out, a juvenile thematic resolution crudely tacked onto an otherwise mature and involving experience. It turns Wandering Son into an inarticulate meditation on the topic at hand rather than a full-blown attempt to embrace it, and for lack of a better phrase, it's a crying shame.
Nonetheless, there's plenty to appreciate here, and if you lean at all towards the slice-of-life/drama genres, or if you're just intrigued by the idea but sitting on the fence about whether or not it's worth your time, this is an easy enough recommendation. It doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it might have, but it's still the kind of uniquely artistic and effective series that I wish was a little more prevalent in the entertainment landscape.
Let me get this straight, I usually don’t watch gender-bender series or anything that is related to the genre. Actually, I don’t recall one anime that I saw that the focus was with cross-dressing of any sort. That said, Wandering Son would actually be the first anime that I have seen that made usage of this trope. And to be honest, it came to be one of the best series of the winter 2011. Wandering Son is a short and calm anime that was enjoyable for its simple, but thoughtful story.
Wandering Son starts off with an interesting structure. Instead of starting from an extremity,
the beginning or the ending, the anime begins somewhere in the middle of the original story. Of course, it is assuming that either the viewer is familiar with the manga or is watching the series seriously. I’m saying this because it is easy to get lost in the anime as it refers a lot to pass events and it is mostly through dialogue than flashbacks. Actually, I applaud the director for using such a direction, simply because that the story works on already constructed and broken relations rather than focusing on making some. However, where the story keeps its real strength is in the problematic itself. Of course, our main characters have an idea of cross-dressing and wanting to be the opposite sex, but such dilemma is never blatantly exposed in the anime, nor does it make it over-dramatic. Instead, Wandering Son almost works as a slice of life. And by that I do not mean IT IS a slice of life, since it is absolutely not, but the story is found between the lines, between the dialogues and the actions of the characters. This way, the anime is helped by a correct blend between light moments and drama. While it is mostly a serious show, the happy moments are never actually forced and it sometimes it is not really sure if a scene was to be happy or sad. Ironically, the lack of focus in the story can also be a weak point for some, as it may get hard to get into a story that doesn’t really shows itself. From this point, it is really a matter of preference. Personally, I think the calm development is the best way to go, since a direct focus would make it too dramatic for nothing. Of course, the story wouldn’t matter without its cast, which exactly knows what it has to do.
Wandering Son has a relatively large cast. Only, it is clear that the anime only focus on the main characters rather than the supportive cast. This way, the small amount of 11 episodes is enough for the viewer to learn about the characters that are really important to the show. As for the others, they play their supportive role very well and that is a big plus point in the series. What is really fascinating about the cast is really the way they are used as whole rather than individually. More precisely, the representation of the classroom can almost be taken as one big character. The chemistry of the students is something I’ve rarely seen in the medium. Individually, the characters aren’t bad at all, but there is a tad annoyance. Looking at characters such as Nitori, Takatsuki and Chiba, they are certainly well written characters. However, especially for Chiba, their way of thinking can often look too far away from the physical age. It’s always hard to represent children or prepubescent teen correctly and realistically in anime and Wandering Son certainly doesn’t have the best one of them all. Of course, I might be wrong on this one, but the characters really were too mature for their age. Though, I wouldn’t say it’s a problem since it works greatly with the story and the feeling of the anime. Childish characters wouldn’t go well with subjects such as gender crisis and the fear of puberty.
The anime is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack. While the opening song might be debatable, (I for myself wasn’t a big fan of it) the series itself is helped by wonderful melodramatic piano compositions. A prime example is in the first episode where Claire de Lune is played at the end. Not only I respect them for the use of a very popular composition, but it was also completely fitting with the situation. The music is never poignant in Wandering Son. Instead, it is played gently and calmly in the background. You don’t really pay attention, but you know it is well there. As for the voice acting, glad to know that it wasn’t a typical high pitched voice you would often see with children. For most of them, they did a really good job, and while Nitori had mostly a monotone voice, it went very well with its personality.
Another point that is easy to notice in Wandering Son is the artwork which is very similar to book art. I don’t know the reason behind this, but I found it to be relieving. In contrast to the melancholy feeling of the series, the light pastel colors help the viewer to go through the whole series and take it as a lighter anime. The character design is meant to be normal in this show, and so it’s usual for them to look like typical children. However, the artwork is enough to make them look different from the mass. I just can’t say it enough; I simply fell in love with the artwork.
To fill it up completely, Wandering Son is simply a good anime that blends dramatics elements with lighter ones in the best way possible. Even though the style might not be your cup of tea, which is a valid point, I still recommend it to everyone who wants to try something serious once in a while. Really, it shows how the anime industry is still trying to give us original titles rather than the same formula over and over again.
“What are little boys made of? Frogs and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails. That’s what little boys are made of.”
The third movement of Debussy’s Bergasmasque Suite plays softly in the background as a strong gust blows hundreds of cherry blossoms in the night sky. It’s a fitting piece not only for setting such a tranquil mood, but also referencing Paul Verdaine’s poem, Clair de Lune, whose first stanza is a decently fitting representation of what may be one of the most beautifully written slice of life anime out there.
“Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and
Sad beneath their fanciful disguises.”
Story – 9/10
Hourou Musuko is a story about Shuiichi Nitori, a boy who wants to be a girl, Yoshino Takatsuki, a girl who wants to be a boy, and a cast consisting of their friends and acquaintances as they navigate through the issues of puberty, transsexuality, and gender identity.
I usually state in my reviews that the anime in question has a simple premise, but Hourou Musuko’s is anything but that. The issues that the show tackles are complex and filled with varying perspectives and challenges. The show doesn’t sugar coat the current state of people’s views of the transgender community. Yes, there are many who understand one’s plight and predicament, but often times, he or she may be almost entirely alone, forced to don a set of clothes that may not echo with their true identity, and changing clothes when nobody is looking to feel more like themselves. There are characters in this story that aren’t very accepting, or uncomfortable, or have strange fetishes that just make things worse, or are confused and externalize their confusion into near bullying. There are many people, even friends, family, and loved ones, who are certainly not ready to accept Nitori for the person he wants to be. Hourou Musuko doesn’t offer a perfect world for our protagonists to live in and be happy. It’s a confusing and trying time, with just the right amount of help from great role models to push our protagonists towards understanding themselves and the growth they’re experiencing.
In this sense, it was brilliant to tackle them from the perspectives of children, who are not only innocent, but easily influenced, confused, and prone to unpredictable outbreaks of emotion and anger. I felt like such an angle gave a lot more depth, with the perspectives of children and their older peers and adults on Nitori’s cross dressing a major motif in the story. The story’s most powerful message is of personal acceptance and coming to terms with one’s identity and physical changes that are taking place in one’s body. I truly believe that taking the perspective of kids empowered this message, as it removes any potential fluff in high school dramas while pinpointing the most confusing time for some of us all: the beginning of puberty.
Characters – 9/10
I would imagine it’s really hard to write children, and as we’ve seen from many movies revolving around children (most recently the disaster known as Ender’s Game), children can really suck if not done right.
Hourou Musuko has no such problems, and while I have to fault them for having some children (predominantly Chiba Saori, ironically one of my favorite characters) that act way older than they really appear, at the end of the day Hourou Musuko is powered by a really strong cast of characters that each fit their own role in their story, no matter how small it is. It’s really refreshing to see a cast that’s so varied and each serving a variety of important purposes and aren’t just lifeless plot devices.
Nitori’s best friend Mako is a fantastic foil character, bordering on the line of supporting his friend and envying him. The bombastic and tomboyish Sarashina serve as surprisingly good comic relief and sort of early role model for Tataksuki, who is interested in wearing more boyish clothes. The little girl Sasa is a mediator, trying to keep her friends together despite various conflicts, and she might be one of the characters a good portion of the audience might sympathize with. There are too many others for me to cover, but for such a short show, Hourou Musuko gives life to these characters and give them purpose, though it could be said that they needed to be a bit more fleshed out.
But it’s the three main characters, Nitori, Takatsuki, and Chiba Saori that get the most amount of development, and I think the three of them played such an interesting dynamic. I think Nitori and Takatsuki speak for themselves as the show’s two main protagonists, but Saori is definitely one of the more complex characters in the show, and she played kind of an antagonistic role, always causing problems for her own selfish needs. She’s blunt, and despite her brutal honesty to other people about her opinions she is least honest to herself. Her inability to externalize some of her deeper feelings and get along with people meshed her romantic feelings made her likable despite how mean she was to everyone else.
All in all, Hourou Musuko has great characters, and I think despite the fact that many may act over their age level, I think that’s a small and irrelevant point in the long run. While it’s true that children should be portrayed realistically, the end goal is the thematic elements that are what makes the show really powerful. To that extent, the children are portrayed realistically. They may have lines that hint at more deep thought, but it’s their quirks, confusion with feelings of love, innocence and inability to process between what is socially acceptable and what is not, and unpredictability that makes them children.
Art – 9/10
Hourou Musuko is a really good looking show, and it’s unique too. I must admit that the watercolor-ish look at the beginning seemed a bit too bright for me, but it really grew as the show went on. The character designs are also nice. I thought both Nitori and Takatsuki were drawn really well to demonstrate that they could look both like a boy or a girl. I think they changed Saori from her original appearance in the manga, but I think that only strengthened her presence in the show.
Other than that, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about the animation. The art is where the main compliments are had, and ultimately the show is less about animation as it is about the writing, but I do think their use of facial expressions were really spot on. You could really tell people’s attitude from how they were drawn, the look in their eyes, their smile or apathetic frown. I thought that attention to detail was really important.
Music – 8/10
I’m not particularly impressed by most of Hourou Musuko’s music, but I think that was intended since it was a kind of quiet piece that really didn’t have a need for any kind of outstanding score. The soundtrack was mostly very forgettable outside of three pieces, which was their rendition of Clair de Lune, the opening, and the ending songs.
The songs are composed mostly of a piano and a guitar, and I think that those make for quiet and peaceful tracks. They have melodies but are mostly unimpressive compared to the quality of everything else.
Enjoyment – 9/10
I had a great time watching Hourou Musuko. I haven’t watched too much school based slice of life/drama/comedy (more than most people though), but Hourou Musuko takes the cake for the best and most powerful school/drama anime I have ever watched. Its messages are powerful, thought provoking, and long lasting. This is an instant recommendation to a lot of my friends who are looking for good slice of life, and all of my transgender friends have cried and have sung only praises for such a realistic portrayal of the struggles of the TG community.
The characters in this show, while I may not directly relate to, are very interesting and multilayered. They all have their own qualities and I’m sure many will be bound to find at least one character to really like and look forward to seeing. The show has a great balance of comedy and drama too, without forcing melodramatic scenes down our throats at all. The writing and dialogue was great and demonstrated a mastery of narrative and storytelling. Sometimes Hourou Musuko even read almost like a poem, with beautiful passages short and expressive.
So, as the ending of this show came around, and the sound of applause began to echo in my ears, I could only clap along with everyone else. This seems like an overlooked gem in the anime community, and I sincerely hope you take my words and give this show a chance. I can only imagine which expression you may relate with when those final curtains rise on this magnificent performance.
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