Wandering Son (Hourou Musuko)

[This review was written during the Winter 2011 season as a review of the first 6 episodes. I have revised it to refer to the entire series, but have left some of the terminology the same. If you find something confusing, it might be due to this.]

Availability: Streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rating: 10 of 10

Synopsis: Shūichi Nitori is an effeminate young boy who wants to be a girl. His friend Yoshino Takatsuki is a masculine young girl who would prefer to be a boy. The two became fast friends in elementary school, but that relationship hit a snag due to an ill-timed love confession prior to middle school. However, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that, in navigating the treacherous waters of middle school and puberty, there is nothing that can replace the friendship of someone that truly understands you and accepts you, not only as you are, but as you would like to be.

Story/Characters: 7/10 of 10

If you are in the market for a touching story with a lot of emotion and drama, this could be the show for you. If you are looking for action, fan service, or comedy, look elsewhere. (There are plenty of options!) For those of you familiar with the manga, you might want to know that the story appears to pick up in the middle. The manga starts when they are in 5th grade, but the anime starts on the first day of middle school. A lot of the history that is under the bridge for our two protagonists is presented via flashback sequences that bring us up to speed on where the characters have been and how they got where they are today.

The biggest knock on the show is that it doesn’t really have any plot. It is completely slice-of-life drama. There is not anything to drive the story. It just brings you along to watch as these youngsters learn about themselves and the world around them. In my opinion, that is a minor flaw at best, as the writing and the pacing of the show is such that you really get a good emotional feel for the characters, and that is the real payoff in this show

Another possible complaint is that it is hard to follow. The show does not stop to explain anything to you about any of the characters, and there are a whole lot of them! (This can also be viewed as a strength, as it shows that the creators have enough respect for the viewer to let them figure out the story on their own without spoon-feeding it to them. Frankly, too much expository material can ruin slice-of-life stories, as they then turn into lectures and lose the natural feel that makes them enjoyable in the first place.) Frequently, I find myself uncertain of who is who early in an episode, but as the show has gone on, that happens less often. And that is a good thing, because the characters are one of the real strengths of the show! They are well-rounded, fully vibrant characters with quirks and nuances that make them come to life in your mind. The one thing that might strike some as false is the unnatural maturity of some of these middle school age kids, but being the father of a middle school boy who is active in things like scholastic bowl and orchestra, I can say that I don’t find them that unnaturally mature. (In the event that he reads this review, I have to add that I am, of course, referring to his wonderfully mature friends, not him! LOL! 😉 )

To assist the view in knowing who’s who, here is a list of the most important characters and some background I have gleaned from the show and other sources

Shūichi Nitori: A first year middle school boy who is transgendered. He prefers to dress as a girl and feels that he is really a girl in a boy’s body. (Though he appears to be a lesbian trapped in a boy’s body, as he seems to like girls, too.)

Yoshino Takatsuki: A first year middle school girl who is transgendered. She would prefer to wear a boys uniform to school and feels she really is a boy in a girls body. She rejected Shūichi love confession before they started middle school, saying that she really doesn’t know what love is yet and is not ready for that kind of relationship.

Saori Chiba: A friend of Shūichi and Yoshino from elementary school that is in their class in middle school. The three of them used to hang out together, with the other two cross-dressing frequently. [spoiler]She confessed her love to Shūichi around the same time that he confessed his love to Yoshino.[highlight to read spoiler] She has a very negative attitude and tends to alienate her classmates. She is very interested in drama and writing.

Maho Nitori: Shūichi’s sister who is one year older. She does not like Shūichi’s cross-dressing and is frequently mean to him regarding it. She is also a successful model. They share a room. She recently started dating a boy in her class and appears worried about what he will think of her brother’s strange habits.

Chizuru Sarashina (Chi): A girl in Shūichi’s class. She is very athletic and show up dressed in a boy’s uniform the first day of school. She appears to be primarily there to cut through the angst and drive the story forward. She is eccentric, athletic, and a force of nature. [spoiler]She is fascinated when she finds out about Shūichi’s cross-dressing.[highlight to read spoiler]

Makoto Ariga: Another classmate of Shūichi and Yoshino that went to elementary school with them, but was in a different class. He knows about Shūichi’s cross dressing [spoiler]and shares the interest. He also believes that he is probably gay.[highlight to read spoiler]

Momoko Shirai: A girl in Shūichi’s class who is a friend of Chi’s from elementary school. She is very possessive of Chi and gets angry with anyone who doesn’t show Chi respect or gets too close to
Chi. She particularly doesn’t like Saori.

Riku Seya: Maho’s boyfriend. He thinks Shūichi is a girl when he first meets him.

Anna Suehiro: One of Maho’s modeling friends. She visits their house occasionally and has seen Shūichi cross-dressing. It is unclear what she thinks of it, but she has shown some interest in him and is generally friendly to him.

Fumiya Ninomiya: A friend of Saori from her church. He has a crush on Saori and is jealous of Shūichi because of how Saori feels about him. He can be insensitive, but is also treated very badly by Saori.

Hiroyuki Yoshida (Yuki) and Shiina (Shii): Adult friends of Shūichi and Yoshino. Yuki is a transsexual. I believe Yuki is technically still male, but lives life as a woman and may be in the process of having sex reassignment surgery. She lives with her boyfriend, Shiina, who was the only friend she had growing up that did not pick on her because of the way she is. (This is mightily confusing, because many of the “she”s and “her”s in this are referring to when she was a boy!) Yuki runs a gay bar.

The biggest issue with the story is the rushed feeling of the ending. This is not imagined, but real! The DVD/BluRay release in Japan has an extra episode, and the tenth episode broadcast is actually a combination of episodes 10 and 11 from the DVD release. Unfortunately, no US licensor has picked up this show for home video release. It is currently only available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Art: 10 of 10

Another strength of the series is the art. Looking like moving watercolor paintings, every detail is lovingly drawn to elicit the mood the story requires. The backgrounds and characters are exquisitely done. The only criticism I have is that some of the characters are a bit too similar to each other, but I think that is more of a problem with the lack of explanation of who is who than with the art. After a few episodes, I was able to distinguish the characters well enough, except when you aren’t supposed to be able to! (There is a character that appears very differently than they had earlier in one of the episodes, and I think you are supposed to be a bit confused until their name is said.)

From what I understand, the soft watercolors and washed-out backgrounds emulate the style of the manga, which has been referred to as “minimalist” in its artistic style. That carries through to the anime, with the art having wonderful detail, but no more or less than is absolutely needed. It never feels like there is too much to see to truly appreciate a scene, but at the same time, each scene is rich enough to convey its message without the viewer feeling there is anything missing. The emotional impact of the images themselves is considerable. The art is impressive!

Music and Sound Effects: 10 of 10

The OP for the show (“Itsudatte.” by Daisuke) is strong, bringing the character into the story with just the right mood, but where the music really shines is the excellent ED (“For You” by Rie Fu). The song has the ability to elicit tears all on its own, with a keen sense of longing and devotion, yet an uplifting and optimistic feeling as the song progresses. The ED has spartan animation, consisting of Shūichi walking along stoically on a blank background, then having his movement become more animated and girlish when the music returns to the chorus and the air is filled with cherry blossoms.

The music inside the episodes is very understated and well done. It knows when to emphasize the mood and when to remain in the background for support, but it also knows when to go away entirely and let the awkward silence or the natural background sounds fill the space, cementing the mood in that situation as well.

Overall Enjoyment: 10 of 10

This is a fantastic show. It is heartfelt and warm, with great respect for its characters and the viewer’s ability to understand the story with minimal expository material. It may not be my favorite of the Winter 2011 season, as there were shows that were more “fun” in the moment and more stimulating. However, in the long run I expect that it will eventually rank among my favorite shows of all time and I will probably buy the BluRay and watch it time and again when I am in the mood for some deep character drama. There are many places to go to get a good romantic comedy or a nice suspenseful action show or even a raunchy, fan service laden ecchi fest. There are very few sources for exquisite art combined with rich character drama and deep emotion, and Wandering Son is one.