It’s no secret that I find this to be the best show of the season, and it won’t shock me if it’s the best of the year. But it’s certainly interesting to see the reaction of the fan community. In this case, it seems that the non-manga readers are considerably more positive than the manga readers – which makes me glad that in this case I started the manga after I started the anime. Even the choice of voices seems to have sparked a divide. I think part of the issue may be that the manga readers starting reading about these kids when they were fifth graders, and on some level perhaps they still do see them that way, even as they intellectually watch them grow up.
What really appeals to me about Hourou Musuko is how authentic the emotions are, and how vibrant all the characters are. In most animes it takes several eps to get to the point where all the faces connect with the names, especially when there’s a large cast. Not so here – from the relatively minor supporting characters like Momo on up, these kids are alive – they’re complex, interesting and fully-formed (if still developing) personalities. Of course this is a series about gender confusion and that plays a large part in the story, but much more so it’s just a story about growing up.
This week it’s the boys – especially Mako-chan’s – angst about their voices changing. And it’s Yoshino’s horror at the notion that she needs to start wearing a bra. It’s Chi-chan who mischievously bur quite innocently points it out after a basketball practice. Yoshino is shocked about all this for numerous reasons – she even tells Nitori that she wishes she were flat like him, a rarity for anime. But time is a relentless enemy whether you’re 12 years old or 50, and the only constant in life is change. But when you’re 12 and used to things staying more or less the same, waking up one morning and finding out that life now seems to be nothing but change is hard to deal with.
Against this backdrop is Chiba’s suggestion that the class do a “genderbender play” for the culture festival. Her ulterior motive of course it to see Nitori in girls’ clothes, which we learn she has quite a fetish for when she invites him to her house. Nitori takes the notion of writing a play for the class quite seriously – an original story where the men and women in the world suddenly change places. But so does Chiba – she writes an update on Romeo & Juliet where each wishes they were the other – and the teacher (who Mako appears to be developing a crush on) decides both stories are good and that the two should write the play together. The tension between them is palpable,, driven by Chiba’s jealousy of Nitori’s feelings for Yoshino. But there’s also plenty of tension between Notiro and Maho – who walks in on he and Mako cross-dressing in the living room and worse, so does her boyfriend. He seems an understanding chap and doesn’t ridicule the boys, but he does blush when he sees Nirorin being forcibly undressed by his sister.
It’s hard to root for Maho at this point – she seems a very typically self-obsessed and cruel 14 year-old. But everyone else is already a sympathetic character and all are being fleshed out. Mako is still in the shadows to some extent, but we’re beginning to see his nature – he’s thoughtful, considerate, more self-aware than Nitori in some ways. But he’s also acutely aware that he’s not pretty like Nitori, and this hurts him – fueling his desire to catch himself on tape as a girl while he’s still at least a child physically. Chiba is an enormously complex figure – pushy, combative, opinionated – and her feelings for Nitori are still hard to figure out. She’s a fetishist when it comes to dressing him up like a toy poodle – but does she really care for him, romantically anyway? She’s certainly jealous of Yoshino, for what that’s worth.
I’m sad that the manga readers don’t seem to be able to enjoy this show as much as I’m enjoying it, thought it’s certainly understandable – it’s a much-loved property and once you’ve formed an idea of what a series should be, it’s hard to accept it any other way. For me, this seems like a perfect distillation of a complex and lengthy series for an 11-episode format – the events playing out on screen never feel rushed and never strike a false note. This is certainly the best series about kids this age since Dennou Coil. While superficially very different – that a sci-fi series with an intricate plot and only very innocent focus on romantic feelings, this an emotionally intense slice-of-life with no boundaries of subject matter – they both manage to capture the interior world of the adolescent mind beautifully. Some have commented that these kids seems preternaturally mature and their emotions too intense for their age group, but I don’t see it that way – I think their reactions and dialogue are quite believable. The writing is both fearless and compassionate and there’s no trace of a trope anywhere. That’s really something to be cherished.