Review: Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son)

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An effeminate boy who wants to be a girl, a masculine girl who wants to be a boy, and a student who comes to her first day at a new school dressed in a boy’s uniform just because. On its own it comes across a bit like the beginning of a joke that begins with three people walking into a bar and ends with a dirty punch-line. With the word ‘anime’ added to the mix, it probably sounds like a recipe for a series involving a lot of fanservice and/or pornography and not much else, since the number of anime titles dealing with gender identity and cross-dressing in a realistic and non-comedic way are extremely few and far between. Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son) does exactly that.

Like any slice-of-life title, the plot of Hourou Musuko consists largely of what anyone might expect – a group of young teens attempting to carve out a niche for themselves amongst their families and peers while discovering the joys of navigating through puberty and school life. What makes this series stand out from the countless other anime doing exactly the same thing are the characters themselves. Shuichi, a cute but unassuming male who begins to cross-dress with the encouragement of his friends is nonetheless still attracted to girls and worries about the physical changes his body will go through. Yoshino, a tall and more emotionally charged girl prefers to dress and act like a boy but doesn’t like to draw attention to herself, and refrains from cross-dressing unless she travels outside of her home city. Then there are personalities like the outgoing and impulsive Chizuru, who occasionally dresses as a boy as a gesture of independence but seems perfectly happy just the way she is.

In short, everyone in this show is unique in his or her own way, yet also comes across as far more down to earth than many, if not the majority, of those presented in other slice-of-life titles. While Hourou Musuko does have its humorous moments, it avoids straying into primarily comedic fare as with other anime involving cross-dressing as a main plot point such as I My Me! Strawberry Eggs, Princess Princess, and Ouran High School Host Club. At the same time, Hourou Musuko also miraculously steers clear of any real melodrama, which some of the more serious slice-of-life anime like Honey and Clover and AnoHana never quite manage to achieve.

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In terms of its technical merits there is little about Hourou Musuko for me to criticise. The artwork is reminiscent of watercolour; soft and almost fuzzy around the edges, which lends the series a very gentle tone despite the serious nature of its themes. You won’t find any unnatural hair colours or enormous eye size here, and in that sense it’s perhaps vaguely akin to the work we’ve seen come out from Studio Ghibli. The drawback of this is that character recognition based purely on design is more difficult than some may be used to. It certainly suits the tenor of the anime, but as the cast is relatively large it may take some viewers a while to pin everyone down.

Likewise, the voice acting is well above standard. For those who make a point of checking out the talent before they watch, there are some very accomplished names among the cast including Chiba Saeko (Kare Kano, Nana, Nodame Cantabile), Horie Yui (Fruits Basket, Loveless, Toradora), Fujiwara Keiji (Full Metal Alchemist, Eureka Seven, Ao no Exorcist), and of course Mizuki Nana (who should need no introduction unless you’ve been solely watching anime released prior to the late 90s).

Hourou Musuko is not for everyone. You’re out of luck if you have a specific penchant toward slice-of-life titles that rely mainly on comedy or moe as their main selling point (i.e. Azumanga Daioh, Lucky Star, K-On!), and if you’re expecting to see flawless bishounen or pseudo-lesbian fanservice then you’ll be quickly disappointed. However, for those anime fans after something touching and heartfelt but just a little off the beaten track, I strongly suggest giving Hourou Musuko a try. At the very least, you’ll finally be watching something that doesn’t stoop to using gender reversal as an oversexed plot device.


Question of the post:
Are there any other anime titles you can think of that present cross-dressing or transgender identity as a main theme in a serious light, or can you only think of comedy titles?

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25 thoughts on “Review: Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son)

  1. I really wanted to love this show, but I feel the pace was just a teensy bit on the slow side for me. It’s brave, thoughtful and very beautiful and I respect it hugely, I just feel that it could tell its story a bit better.

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    • I can’t argue with you there – the pacing was indeed on the slow side, even for a slice-of-life series. For me the positive aspects of the show balanced out things enough that I didn’t particularly mind the slow pacing, but I’d be lying if I said I thought the storytelling was absolutely perfect. The pacing also makes re-watching Hourou Musuko difficult, and that’s an important point to consider (especially when buying anime). I’ve re-watched many anime several times purely for my own enjoyment, but now that I think about it, I haven’t watched Hourou Musuko again since it finished its run back in early 2011. I’d like to think I would someday, but it’s not at the top of my priority list.

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  2. Well, not anime, but the manga Genshiken later on has a crossdresser whose gender identity issues are one of the main points focused on.

    Anyways, this looks pretty interesting. I haven’t seen a lot of titles dealing with transgender issues, so guess that’s something to put in my watchlist. Eventually.

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    • I don’t usually read manga at all as such, but Genshiken does sound quite interesting. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll get around to taking a look at it. 🙂 And you’re right, there aren’t many anime out there that deal with transgender issues – at least, not in a serious, down-to-earth manner. In that sense, Hourou Musuko feels very unique.

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      • Genshiken also has an anime, although it hasn’t reached far enough to introduce said character(Although a new Genshiken anime is coming out next season, and that does have the said crossdresser character, so you may just want to wait for it).

        Just like a lot of other media, transgender issues are usually used for comedy(Even Gargantia has a joke on that), mostly because its kind of hard to present it properly without getting criticism or appearing too edgy and all.

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      • Genshiken is definitely worth a watch – it’s an amazing series. You might want to check it out in anticipation of the new season, which will hopefully delve into the aforementioned character, though at this point, the details are sparse about what the new season will cover.

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  3. As I’m sure you know better than most people, “gender issues” is not a new or infrequent thing in anime at all–it’s just Hourou Musuko’s approach and seriousness that may be unique.

    Hmm… nope. I don’t have a “serious” title coming to me. While we did talk about spoiler-worthy gender issues that arise later on in the game-based Persona 4, it was not a perfect anime by any means and gender identity was merely one of the issues at hand. The reason I feel it counts, though, is that they did give it serious treatment until it was used for some lighter moments of humor throughout the rest of the series once the characters had a chance to sort themselves out a bit (sorting out one’s issues to a livable extent being a major theme in this one).

    A line you might want to draw is gender issues driven by circumstance or driven by nature. Hourou Musuko works as a story about issues by nature, but something like Rose of Versailles–chock full of gender identity issues, and only a forerunner to every suave-and-kick-ass-female-in-male-profession that would come later–might not count because assuming a more or less male identity was not Oscar’s choice. Furthermore, Hourou Musuko doesn’t have fantasy elements on which to blame circumstance, and it’s likely easier to relate to than pre-revolutionary France. Setting–and how much one can push believable social boundaries–may be just as important of a question as tone.

    Then there’s Kuranosuke in Princess Jellyfish, who I think you pointed out before as one of the only cross-dressing characters who does it for reasons other than gender identity issues or sexual orientation. In fact, these issues were pretty much absent for him, thereby separating him even from most of the more comedic crossdressers in the anime pantheon. Of course, given his attitudes on clothing and self-image (especially in regard to the unfeminine Amars), he’s worth a very different study on viewing women as sexual objects who cannot be taken seriously unless they are dressed in an appealingly feminine manner, though he may not view himself as a sexual object in the same way–seeing as he does not, in any form, consider himself a woman. This may be getting off topic now. ^^;

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    • I agree, it’s not the gender issues themselves in Hourou Musuko but rather the way in which they’re presented which makes the anime unique. Like you, other anime titles came to mind when I was writing this – specifically Rose of Versailles, Princess Jellyfish, and AnoHana. As you’ve pointed out though, Rose of Versailles does have a lot of fantasy elements to it, and Oscar doesn’t really have a choice in the matter of her assuming a female identity. I quite like the way Kuranosuke’s crossdressing is presented in Princess Jellyfish, because while it is quite comedic at times, his motives for crossdressing feel quite unique to anime in that he’s basically just doing it to annoy his politician father (and ensure he’ll never be a politician himself). AnoHana comes closest to Hourou Musuko in terms of general tone, and Yukiatsu not only willingly crossdresses but also seems to have some definite issues revolving around gender identity that stem primarily from the trauma of Menma’s death. It was only a relatively minor part of of the overall story though, whereas Hourou Musuko is a story revolving entirely around these kinds of issues.

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  4. Hourou Musuko is AMAZING. It’s one of my very favorite series – the gentleness at which it approaches all the issues and changes the characters are dealing with is definitely a strong point, and the animation style fits the series perfectly. LOVE this show.

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    • ‘Gentle’ is a good way of describing it – which is interesting for an anime dealing with these types of themes. You’d think a title revolving around gender issues would be quite intense, and in some respects I suppose Hourou Musuko is, but it also approaches it’s characters and their interactions with a lot of delicacy. At no point did I feel like it was trying to ram its messages down the audience’s throat, which I think is an extremely important point.

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  5. Sorry for the late reply but I thought I’d mention Tamako Market had a character that is either transgender or identifies as female (I’m told the rest of the cast refers to him as female in the original Japanese) and is treated as a completely normal member of the cast. It’s never really brought up as a joke or for any other reason, he’s just accepted as part of the community without question. While he is just supporting cast without much screentime and it’s possible that may be glossing over the issues a bit, I still thought it was impressive he wasn’t played for laughs or some kind of plot gimmick. The show does have a broader message that everyone is free to love who they want, including a girl in love with the main heroine that is also not played as a joke or for sex appeal, so I took it all as a net positive.

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    • No problem, late replies are as welcome as any other. 🙂
      That’s interesting, thank you for that info. I haven’t seen any of Tamako Market and hadn’t intended to – the show looks a bit too moe-centric for my tastes – but now that you’ve said that, I may have to check it out at some point.

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  6. The show itself has a positive message and a few nice moments but it’s mostly pretty boring and forgettable. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend watching it, I just thought they handled those particular characters well.

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  7. Aoi Hana would be another example of an anime that treats gender and sexual identity as serious issues. Like Hourou Musuko, the story takes its sweet time to gently develop. I’d rate Hourou Musuko as one of my all-time favourites.

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    • I agree – while I’m not particularly a fan of the girls love genre, Aoi Hana is one of those lovely titles that addresses some serious issues without becoming overly dramatic. I don’t know that I’d rate Hourou Musuko as one of my own all-time anime favourites, but it’s certainly one of the most intelligent and thoughtful shows I’ve seen.

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  9. Thanks for another wonderful suggestion with this article, after reading it I watched and thoroughly enjoyed Hourou Musuko. Regarding your post question, I haven’t seen any anime that treats cross-dressing or trans-gender seriously, which is one of the reasons I found this title so refreshing. My experience with it in anime has been, as you’ve mentioned, for comic value or as a kind of pastime some characters have that never gets explored. I see some nice suggestions from other readers here, which I’d like to check out at some time. 🙂

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    • And thank you for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed Hourou Musuko and the themes it explored – themes that I hope will still be approached somewhat seriously in other anime titles in the future. 🙂

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  11. Hourou Musuko really is an amazing anime, and I’m super glad I watched it

    About other anime, I don’t really know any that treats transsexuality respectfully, but if you want to watch/read something similar, I would like to recommend Koe no Katchi. It doesn’t deal with sexuality and gender, but is a story about bullying and deafness, and is probably more tragic (though the ending is happy!). But it really gives a similar feeling, and just like Hourou Musuko is about transsexuality, Koe no Katachi is about disabilities.
    … so, while not being what you asked for, I thought it was worth saying ^^

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    • Thank you for the suggestion! As far as I’m aware, I can’t watch Koe no Katachi as it has not been adapted into anime form (yet), but it looks like a very interesting and thought-provoking title. 🙂

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