Carry on My Wandering Son

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.)

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15 Comments

  1. Crusader
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    I can see why some people would say this show is not that hard hitting but being a native in San Francisco I can sympathize to an extent with Shuuichi and Yoshino’s plight of wanting to be something they fundamentally can’t be (there are medical methods to achieve their goals but as with any surgery that path is fraught with peril and not without heavy consequences). I suppose for others it would be hard to sympathize as their goals are nearly impossible and it is an issue few will ever have to come to grips with. Now that they are hitting puberty their hormones will not be all too cooperative as Shuuichi will have to perfect more elaborate methods of being sugar and spice and all that is nice. Ditto with Yoshino as her Hopes and Dreams might betray her.

    Still after seeing the treatment that Shuuichi gets from his sister I feel bad for the dude. If nothing else at least they are going against the norm and not playing this one for laughs.

    Also LOL at how the love rivalry is being called a Cold War. I wonder if they will be having proxy wars too.

    • Chronolynx
      Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Hmm, proxy wars… sounds like fun.

      But, yes, that so few have to deal with this specific set of issues probably serves as the greatest barrier for people trying to get into this show. Which is why I think it’s great for it to be in such a prominent timeslot.

    • Manabi
      Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Don’t be too harsh on Shuu’s sister, they’ve skipped over most of the development of that relationship. Basically she’s having serious problems with the fact that her little brother is cuter/more feminine than she is. I can understand where that’d be hard on a girl of her age especially, most girls are having serious issues worrying about their appearance by that age, throwing in your little brother being cuter than you would NOT help any! To her credit, she does support him mostly, although even up to the current manga chapter she’s still struggling with the whole thing. The bit where she gave him one of her fried shrimp shows that she realizes she went too far, there’s lots of other things like that in the manga as well. ll in all she’s not a bad person. And Shuu certainly has done many things to embarrass the hell out of her (not on purpose, but still, it’s not easy for her), and there’s worse to come (from her standpoint on the embarrassment front).

      Actually, the way she has to deal with, and try to come to terms with, Shuu’s identity issues is part of the overall focus of the manga — how the various characters deal with various “non-standard” gender identities.

  2. Aikun2012
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Spot on… The artwork is stupendous because it hits the manga art perfectly by connecting the light colors of the anime to the beautiful watercolors of the manga. The general audience is going to be the problem though… I see comments below my Hourou Musuko video and I see stuff like “Gross”, “Disgusting”, “Gay” and other negative connotative words. It kinda infuriates me… however that is probably because I’ve been through some interestingly similar revelations. Being gay/homosexual simply means that you are attracted to the same gender, but if you are curious about how the other gender feels, then that is a completely different story. When I was young I was interested in knowing what it was like to be a girl. I was kinda jealous at their beauty, magnificence and overall elegance.

    This is my excuse that forces me to watch this series. It’s serious, it’s slice of life and it’s fairly heartwarming… Hourou Musuko is simply one of my faves…

  3. Posted January 19, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you were in the chat we had about this show the other day. I know we get crazy sidetracked a lot but I hope we touched on at least a few cool points.

    “DON’T YOU CRY NO MOOOORE!!!!!!”

    *guitar solo*

    • Chronolynx
      Posted January 19, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      Nothing wrong with getting sidetracked. I loves me a good tangent.

  4. Merq
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    I LOVE this story so much! I was surprised they decided to skip so many chapters of the manga. It didn’t bother me as much because I had the experience of reading the manga, already. However, I was worried that starting so far in might alienate some viewers who aren’t already fans. I was worried for no reason at all. In fact, I kind of wished I hadn’t read the manga so I could experience the anime with new eyes. I’m extremely happy with the anime. There is a beauty to it’s subtlety. I think the “fluffiness” adds to the experience of the story. Here we have kids, and you would think that their world is all rainbows and butterflies, but the reality doesn’t match the facade. Yea, in your face gender benders and traps played for laughs make for some great times, but it’s nice to see an anime explore the reality of what it means to be transgendered.

  5. Posted January 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Together, they fight crime.

    Haha, I wouldn’t mind a spin-off/one-shot of their crime-fighting adventures (maybe they’ll have another play? *BA DUM PSH*)

    Personally, the scene near the end where the sister says Shu is “sick” because he’s wearing her outfit strikes me very hard

    It’s wrong to call him sick, but I wouldn’t blame her in that situation. If you were in her shoes (female), and your male sibling wore your pretty, frilly dress, you’d be pretty mad (and possibly confused), right? What if he’s actually getting off wearing your clothing (WASHING MACHINE!!!)? It’s obviously not the case for Hourou Musuko (don’t worry, no incest in this one ;P), but if it were, it would definitely be classified as sick.

    With my brother and I, we don’t go around wearing each others shirts or boxer shorts, simply because that would be weird (the boxer shorts at least) and we respect each other enough to ask before borrowing. Shuu’s sister is the “has it her way” / “if it’s not her way, she’ll make it so” type of conceited character, so it’s understandable that she’d flip bricks. Plus, it was her modeling outfit, and I’d be pretty pissed too if my brother stretched it out or made it “stinky”.

    Anyways, yeah. Shuu’s not sick but I think he has to respect those clothes are for modeling perposes, a job that he already quit in previous chapters.

    teddy bear

    Ah, that poor, poor Bear… :<

    • Chronolynx
      Posted January 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I can see how the sister’s actions are justified, but that doesn’t really lessen the words’ impact.

      • Manabi
        Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        It doesn’t justify them, but it’s not like saying harsh things to a sibling is terribly unusual, even without the stress of gender identity issues thrown in. And she really, truly, is having problems dealing with the fact that her little brother’s cuter than her (or at least she feels that way, and in a lot of ways it’s actually the truth). Keep in mind she’s only about a year older than Shuu, so she’s at that age where girls normally have problems worrying about their appearance and body image (in large part thanks to the changes puberty bring). Having this additional worry added on isn’t helping her get through the process any easier, that’s for sure. And Shuu has indirectly embarrassed the hell out of her a few times already in the story with his cross-dressing.

  6. Posted January 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Not a bad series so far, usually I would pass something like this but actually not a bad show. Amazing artwork looks great and nice music added too

  7. Posted January 19, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to note that I read and enjoyed the post, although I currently don’t have anything to add. I really enjoyed your counter-criticism of the charge that HM isn’t “hard-hitting”, as I agree that it is a specious accusation.

  8. Posted January 19, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m transgendered and grew up in an Asian country, so I can relate to this anime a lot. It actually reminds me of a few of my experiences, especially when the sister said ‘sick’. I think it’s a good anime, though I usually prefer something that’s lighter because drama makes me flinch.

  9. ~xxx
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    this show is light but it was hard to understand first…
    but as I did understand from my point of view… the boy wants to be a girl, the girl wants to be a boy… and both of them have feelings for each other, but they can’t really fall because of their differences…

    In short, it’s crazy and I want to watch more.

  10. Posted January 22, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    …And I loved every minute of it.

    In short: so did I.

    In not as short: you mentioned that it’s not for everyone. However, despite not having really experienced any of the key issues it tackles, I must mention that was immediately sucked in by the beautiful and honest way it presented the these characters’ issues and relationships and found myself rivetted from start to finish, not least of all due to the fine storytelling and pacing. Amongst others, that scene where his older sister catches Shuu trying on her dress and that ‘Oh, shit!’ moment of silence that seemed to stretch forever was just one of the many examples that stayed with me of the suble yet powerful way the show is handling key character and thematic development so far, and I hope it continues to do so in this way.

    Thanks for recommending it, Chrono!

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