Not everyone will like Wandering Son (Hourou Musuko). It’s a certain combination of melodrama, slice-of-life, and Special Issues, which all come together in a very sincere, if “fluffy” package. This is a character study – not a parade of moe-moe indulgences, nor a slap-stick laugh-fest. It is slow, and it is gentle, with “tinkly” piano music backgrounds and a soft pastel palette. Also, it’s about gender-confused kids entering puberty. And I loved every minute of it.
Shuuichi Nitori has a secret: he likes dressing up in girls’ clothes. And he’s not alone in his gender-defying habits – Yoshino Takatsuki, a classmate, goes the opposite direction. Together, they fight crime.
Okay, no, they don’t. I couldn’t resist.
Apparently the show begins some thirty chapters into the manga, which means there are already some pretty complex relationships between the characters, and they all get thrown at you in pretty rapid succession. I still couldn’t tell you half their names (although here is a handy chart). This gives the show a very interesting feel for a first episode; where usually you get a sense that most of the characters are strangers when first we meet them, Wandering Son treats us to already formed groups of friends and enemies. Perhaps a bit overwhelming at first, but worth it in the end.
The show is presented much the same as the teddy bear above: fluffy and safe and warm, etc. The coloring and lighting create a sense of almost dreamlike calm. Some see this as patronizing, or as a fault to overcome. But when you’re dealing with a subject this sensitive and controversial, and when most every other show that even begins to touch on it does so with derision and laughter, there’s not really any other way you could go at it without alienating your primary audience. If you relate to the characters at all (and you need not be transgendered to empathize), then any sort of “lowbrow” approach comes off as demeaning and insulting. And this is not a group you want to insult off-handedly.
Likewise, any claim this show lacks “hard-hitting” content fails to stand up to scrutiny. First of all, what makes a show hard-hitting? This is among several descriptors which you see in countless reviews and criticisms but which lacks anything close to an objective definition; what I find hard-hitting may well hit you like styrofoam. Personally, the scene near the end where the sister says Shu is “sick” because he’s wearing her outfit strikes me very hard, and also I think illustrates where some of the show’s conflict will come from. Just because the show doesn’t hit you over the head with the drama stick doesn’t make it count any less. Drama is drama, and conflict is conflict.
And for the most part subtlety is Wandering Son‘s greatest asset. It took me my second viewing to figure out what that last scene was about, which is a far cry from how any other show would have done it (I imagine a startled protagonist jumping out of bed and screaming or something). Not only does it serve as a cue for Shu’s incoming puberty, but also introduces what I figure to be the other major source of conflict in the show (their own bodies). Likewise, the character’s interactions with each other are all subtle, and do multiple things like provide exposition while revealing aspects of their own character at the same time in a way I love so very much but which is so rare to behold.
So. Yeah. The elephant in the room. This is a show about two kids who disagree with their x-chromosome count. There’s no dancing around that. Some people find this uncomfortable, especially when dealing with such young characters. But life is life, and this is when kids start to figure this sort of stuff out. The characters’ vocabulary for dealing with it might be a bit stunted, but that’s hardly their fault. Nobody talks about this sort of stuff in the first place. So maybe this’ll break the ice and open up a nice dialog. (A man can dream.)