Series like Hourou Musuko don’t really come around all that often. They’re not going to make any money, for starters – honestly, I don’t know who it was that green-lighted this show but I’d love to personally thank them. That’s what’s so great about NoitaminA – it gives shows that wouldn’t have a chance anywhere else, well – a chance. I’ve seen this one criticized because it didn’t meet the “NotimaminA profile” – i.e. it wasn’t a show about adults. Or at least, people who aren’t normally the subject of animes. For me, it’s enough that it’s good and not commercial – that’s the real NoitaminA mandate in my opinion.
There are so many things I love about this series that I could wax rhapsodic all day, but that would be cruel. In sum – it’s a show that does a wonderful job creating believable, complex characters and putting them in situations that stress the hell out of both them and us. In other words: adolesence, more or less. It’s amazing how this show could make me sweat without putting any of the characters in physical harm. The first gender-bender play being a great example – it was a top-notch episode all around, but the tension was unbelievable.
Some have criticized this series for depicting the kids as too mature, and not placing Shu and Yoshino in the crossfire for more abuse. Not surprisingly I don’t see it that way. These kids are pretty messed-up people, as most middle-schoolers are – they just don’t happen, for the most part, to be especially malovelant and cruel above the norms of the demographic. Chiba, many fans’ favorite, is certainly as troubled as you could want – she’s in love with a gender-confused boy who’s in love with another girl. As if that weren’t enough, she’s built Shu up into an elaborate fantasay construction, a cross-dressing Peter Pan. Her love for him seems possesive and selfish, as she rarely seems to consider how her actions make Shu feel. But then Chiba generally sees the world through an excessively self-focused view, and has expectations for everyone else’s behavior that can’t possibly be met. This seems to be setting her up for a lifetime of disappointment – I hope not.
The major characters are pretty much all great – none of the them are throw-away constructions, even the baffling bully Doi. Each of them is given a fully-formed personality, complex and unique. Mako-chan lacks the courage and cuteness of Shu and hates him for it, though he probably loves him too. Chi is a beacon of positivity who talks her way through everything, no doubt covering a lot of insecurity. Her BFF Momo seems nice enough, but shows her true colors once Shu shows his. Maho is a troubling one – not the best sister, certainly jealous of her brother being cuter than she is, she can be cruel and demeaning. But there’s seomthing there – an essence of protective love that only rarely shines through. And then there’s Anna, who looked at first like a minor supporting character but revealed herself to be an odd but kind-hearted soul, and the object of Shu’s second crush. Even the adults aren’t left out, especially in the form of Yuuki – there’s never been anyone quite like her in anime, and she’s quite the role model.
Of course this is really a series about Shu and Yoshino. I adore both, though I’d argue that she didn’t get as much opportunity in the spotlight in the anime as she did in the manga. These two really do operate as a sort of unit. They share something vital but socially unacceptable, and who knows where they (especally Shu) would have ended up without the other for support? In the end I really believe they’re soul mates suffering from bad timing. When he was ready, she wasn’t – and when she caught up, Shu had moved on. As much as I love Anna no one can understand Shu like Yoshino, and vice-versa – and that counts for a lot.
Shu is undeniably an odd hero. He’s a study in contrasts – a boy who wants to be a girl but loves girls, too. He sems timid but is actually quite bold in word and deed – he speaks his mind, and corageously (and unwisely) follows his heart even when it leads him to trouble. The show is unsparing in showing the agonies he and Yoshino have to go through entering puberty, but it never feels exploitative. In the end, though he does have Yoshino, Shu really has things much worse than she does – as witness his experience coming to school as a girl. That’s the hard reality – Shu ultimately is going to have to deal with all of this alone. Yoshino doesn’t have the social taboos to deal with at anywhere near the same level, and Mako-chan simply lacks the will to follow Shu’s path.
In terms of structure, this adapatation had a tall order – take a manga that’s going on 100 chapters and tell it in 11 episodes. Clearly, this is impossible – so they did the right thing and didn’t try. They skipped elementary school altogether and ended in the middle of middle school – but somehow, it worked. Through very judicious flashback but mostly just good writing, the anime always made you feel as if you understood what had happened with these kids even if you hadn’t actually seen it. It was a graceful, elegant ballet of writing – like showing more of a person’s life in a snapshot than in a movie.
I knew as soon as the bridge scene played in episode one, to the strains of “Claire de Lune”, that we had something special on our hands. This was a class production all around – both original and adapted music, animation, pacing. AIC Classic is not a legendary studio and this was a director with no track record to speak of, but it all came together – I could easily have seen this coming from Production I.G.. I would also commend the staff for choosing a real boy to play Shu. While there were complaints that his voice was breaking in the first episode, those who stuck with it came to see that this was the perfect choice. There’s a degree of realism in casting a talented child actor (see Naoto Adachi from Seirei no Moribito
or Aoi Yuuki from Kurenai
) that an adult just can’t match, especially when the character is male. The whole cast is terrific – a mix of kids and newcomers with some solid veterans, but not an all-star cast by any means.
In the final analysis this was the best series of the Winter season for me, by quite a margin. It was a beautifully told story of wonderful characters that looked and sounded terrific. If anyone is turned off by the subject material, don’t be – this is a totally relateable story about real kids and real emotions. And I encourage any anime fans to read the manga – it’s not better or worse, but equally great.