After a brief detour last month, Hourou Musuko’s focus returns squarely onto Nitorin in the new chapter – and any way you slice it, it’s a heartbreaking one.
I feel no closer to knowing how this series might end or even where it might be headed in the near-term, but I continue to get the sense that the stakes are being ratcheted up in a big way. There were some major developments this time, as Nitorin’s mind is sent down memory line by a “How I spent my summer” assignment for school. Given that much of his summer was spent working against school rules and cross-dressing, that’s a tall order for Nitorin.
There are several moments that stand out for me. First, Shuu’s trip to the jewelry store to buy earrings for Anna – notable because the cashier recognizes that he’s a boy (but at least has the kindness not to say so until Shuu has left). Shuu seems to recognize it anyway, though – he notices in the mirror just how much more muscular his neck is, and notes that he’s going to have to start shaving his face and legs soon if he’s going to keep cross-dressing. This has been the elephant in the room for most of Hourou Musuko, but this might be the most direct acknowledgment of it by Shuu himself.
Then there’s the matter of Anna, and cross-dressing. Given Japan’s ridiculous and toxic idol culture it actually makes sense for Nitorin to dress as a woman when he’s “dating” her, because she can’t be seen publicly with a boy. But it’s plain to see the way this twists Nitorin into a knot. He definitely likes Anna and probably loves her, and plaintively hopes that continuing to see her will make him realize he’s a man and stop wanting to dress as a woman. This is sad on so many levels, not least of which is that he’s hoping that dating Anna will “cure” him of the very cross-dressing he has to do to be with her – but also because it’s clear he still longs to keep doing so. “How long will I be like this?” is one of the most painful lines of dialogue in the series so far.
Things get no less wrenching when Takatsuki joins Anna and Shuu (dressed as a girl) on one of their dates, a surprise to both of them. The sad irony here is that Takatsuki envies Nitorin for how cool he is, having stuck to his guns while she’s effectively surrendered and taken on a traditional girl role, while he envies her for growing ever more beautiful while he slowly grows into the man he was never comfortable being. She feels she’s “lost her way”, but Shuu tells her “Most people would say I’m the one who’s lost his way”. Maybe that’s an even more painful line of dialogue.
As much as I’ve grown to love Anna, it’s undeniable that there’s a connection between Shuu and Takatsuki that exists between no other characters in the series. It’s fitting, I suppose, that a series about two kids as confused as they are should itself feel so confused and unsure at the moment – caught between possible futures that all seem impossible to accept in some way. The story is both a universal one about the struggle of adolescents to find their true selves and hold on to them against an overwhelming tide of societal pressure, but also a very specific one about two remarkable individuals quite unlike any other in manga (especially Nitorin). That it can be both is what, I think, makes Hourou Musuko such a superb and irreplaceable gem.