In what is surely a common refrain of my generation, I don’t believe in a lot of things. One thing I do believe is that anime can be more than consumerist drivel or jail baiting deviance. That’s obviously a privileged position to take and separated both geographically and ideologically from the day-to-day reality of producing it (and the cyclical market forces that engender that production) but it takes a series like Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son) to remind me that “something more” does exist with anime.
And for once it’s not buried in the story where I usually go ferreting around for meaning and nuance, it’s right there in the topic. Shuichi Nitori who was born male but identifies as female is friends with Yoshino Takatsuki who, conversely, was born female but identifies as male; Hourou Musuko is the story of these two and their journey through junior high school.
As I discovered when researching my, retrospectively rather anodyne, review of Sakura Trick, LGBT topics within Japan are not given the kind of exposure that, from a Western point of view, one would expect. As with that review and coming from a cis male author, all of the obsequious limitations are still relevant here, which may go some way towards explaining why I feel that Hourou Musuko is not only a subjectively brilliant series but also an objectively important one.
The former isn’t surprising when you consider that its screenplay was written by Mari Okada (Sakurasou, Simoun, Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine), adapted from Takako Shimura’s original manga (Aoi Hana) and is directed by Ei Aoki (Fate/Zero, Ga Rei Zero). It’s a plethora of talent and with long-standing studio AIC Classic producing, the result is a series that has enormous potential, even before the beguiling pastel visuals wash across the screen.
For once that potential is borne out with the story of Shuichi, and to a lesser extent Yoshino, that touches upon a lot of different tribulations in being transgender; from the perception - and scorn - of your peers to the unfair disjoint of a biological male wearing female clothes versus the other way around. It does this through a combination of straightforward cause-and-effect storytelling - the fallout from Shuichi wearing a female uniform to school is the defining moment of the series and the meat of the last few episode’s plot - combined with more subtle visual framing.
No clearer is this than in the opening that fades the male / female toilet signage into the series’ title card, but runs throughout with like-for-like shots of gendered uniforms a common motif. All of this is helped by the series taking a longer view of the characters’ time within school, focusing not on a single term or even a single year but running from the opening ceremony through several years of junior high. This means the story isn’t so fixated on the minutiae of Shuichi and Yoshino’s lives and that characters can grow their hair out or change physically without it seeming like a convenience.
That idea of change is the roiling undercurrent of the story though: how does Shuichi develop from the first moment we see her until the last frame as she steps, quite literally, into the spotlight? I had my reservations about the story because it seem to utilise children - barely teenagers when the story starts - to deal with weighty topics such as gender identity. My trepidation evaporated though when it became clear that this is not an adult’s view of the topic imposed upon children but children’s own view on it. The concept of a turbulent puberty is the lens through which the story is told, precisely because things like breast development or voice changing adds weight to the character’s choices and highlights their struggle between what they feel is right and their biology dictating otherwise.
None of this kind of exploration is possible though without the cast to back it up, and it’s endlessly pleasing for it not to only be varied but different in its own right. There’s Saori Chiba for instance, one of the vertices of the central love triangle, who ostensibly accepts Shuichi but struggles with her own feelings, resulting in her often being taciturn, caustic or just downright nasty. Compare her with the free-spirited Chizuru Sarashina or the bashful and woefully underutilised Makoto Ariga, the latter of whom is best friends with Shuichi and likewise identifies as female but without Shuichi’s effeminate physique.
This is to say nothing of Shuichi himself who starts out a lot like a shy little sparrow, demure and reticent she seems to recoil from contact. To find out she is stubborn in peculiar ways and bolder than one would ever give her credit for is a joy to behold, demonstrating there is more going on with her than her actions imply, but also enabling the story to move past any misplaced “aww you poor dear” sympathy and straight to quietly cheering her on.
Quiet is definitely the operative word though because behind with the delicate, almost blindingly bright visuals is veteran sound designer Jin Aketagawa demonstrating the unerring talent to know when silence, or the ticking of a clock, the rustle of clothes or the patter of feet is more powerful than the lilting musical score. Those details and the confidence in which they are used is what makes the series amazing because they mean, for example, that Shuichi’s sister is perfectly encapsulated in the first few seconds of the series, or that the type of interpersonal carnage that Mari Okada demonstrated in Toradora and would again in Nagi no Asukara is in full force here: a karaoke session with Shuichi, her current girlfriend, someone she confessed her feelings to in the past and someone who still has feelings for her is a situation that plays out like a watercolour car crash.
Unlike those series though, the melodrama here never crowds out Shuichi’s personal journey and though, somewhat ironically, it drives the story forward it is not the driving force of it. In a sense Shuichi’s story could only happen in fiction because the coalescing of so many different types of people - for instance the married transexual lady who guides Shuichi and Yoshino through many of the more esoteric aspects of their lives - is in itself unbelievable. It works thematically though because without Yoshino’s story, Shuichi’s wouldn’t have as much impact, just as without Chizuru there would be no delineation between what one assumes is teenage rebellion against gendered social norms and what is intrinsic to these characters.
That is fundamentally what makes the series important then: not just for touching upon these topics but for doing so in a way that presents the issues that people face in a thematically and dramatically consistent way. It’s emotionally messy but never destructively overbearing (School Days et. al.) and means it can be sensitive without being saccharine, positing the “how” without trying to tackle the impossible question of “why”. It’s narrative doesn’t coddle, expecting instead for you to keep up and fill in the blanks, for instance, between Shuichi returning to school and the implications of her taking lessons in the nurse’s office.
I said at the start that I believe in something more with anime. Hourou Musuko is an example of that belief. It is “more” not because it is different, and not because it tackles difficult topics (though that is part of it) but because it uses the medium to do it so well. Without the art-style of the anime (and one assumes the manga, volumes of which are on back order) Shuichi’s androgyny or Yoshino’s boyishness or Saori’s aloofness wouldn’t be as precisely realised, just as the changes in their appearance as subtle or as meaningful. It’s important because it tells the story of someone who, despite knowing that it would ostracise her from her peers, from her friends, still comes to school dressed in the “wrong” uniform. It’s a series that means a lot, regardless of your orientation or knowledge of any of the subjects it touches upon but that also tells a compelling story. It is, quite simply, a rare and wonderful series.
It's been a while since I saw it, but I thought Makoto was a crossdresser rather than transgendered? I'm really not sure about that, but that's how I remember it.
Other than that I have little to add to your excellent review. It's good to see the topic treated with the sensitivity it deserves; a lot of credit goes to great use of body langue. I'll have to rewatch it sometime soon.