This was originally posted in February of 2011 here. It has been updated substantially here.

Spoiler Warning, and possible Trigger Warning for description of internalized transphobia

After watching the first two episodes of Hōrō Musuko (放浪息子, “Wandering Son”), I have decided to start a running review/commentary of the series here. This post will review the first episode. You can watch the episode online at crunchryroll, and I highly recommend watching the episodes before reading the review, because otherwise you're likely to be a bit lost. They're about 22 minutes each.

First, personal background - I’ve long been a fan of anime. However, my understanding of the nuances of Japanese culture is somewhat lacking. I am white. I am native to the US. So, while I will try to avoid ethnocentric creep, there may be some in these reviews. If anyone sees problematic spots and wants to point them out to me, I will be most appreciative.

I am also a trans woman, currently in the midst of transition (edit: I completed transitioning socially in April 2011). So, this story is very relevant to my interests, and I am particularly interested in the way that gender variance is presented.

A note on pronouns: I am defaulting to masculine pronouns for Shūichi and feminine pronouns for Yoshino. The characters themselves, as they are still struggling with their identities, probably still associate with these pronouns (it has not come up so far). At any rate, the characters in the show consistently give them these pronouns, so it is also a concession for ease of mapping the review to the story.

The title of the episode, "Onna no Kotte, Nande Dekiteru?", translates to "What are little girls made of?" So, right from the beginning, we're not pulling any punches. The title echoes the struggle with identity in the face of gender essentialist preconceptions that I (and, I am certain, many other trans people) have to deal with both internally and from others. What is gender? What does it mean to be a boy or a girl? The series jumps straight into these questions with very little build-up.

The episode opens with a voiceover from a character we will shortly know as Nitori Shūichi*, who delivers the title line. This line will be repeated several times throughout the episode at introspective moments. We then move on to a scene with a still camera pointed at Shūichi, while he shifts uncomfortably in his seat and describes the discomfort he feels in his new school uniform. He is clearly trying to look happy, even though he is out of sorts. This is all delivered over a haunting, melancholy piano piece.

At the beginning of the episode, we have powerful, evocative storytelling. Visually, this is very compelling, and the narration is characterization at its best; I am already getting a strong sense of who this person is, and I am starting to empathize deeply with him. The music is stirring, and precisely on-point for the emotions the show is trying to evoke. It underscores the fact that this character (and, subsequently, all of these characters) are less happy than they are trying to seem.

The next sequence felt a bit jumbled to me the first time I watched it. We are introduced to most of the characters as they head to their first day of school (6th grade for most of the characters). Even before we have enough exposure with the characters to identify them readily, we establish that most of these characters already have relationships with each other. The show gives us the feeling that we’ve been dropped right into the middle of their lives with no exposition. Which, of course, is exactly what has happened, both diegetically and in a production sense (more on that in a moment). Several past events are alluded to, including a close friendship between Shūichi, Takatsuki Yoshino, and Chiba Saori (Saorin), that ended abruptly after some sort of unspecified romantic drama occurred.

This sequence also alludes to the fact that Yoshino is also transgender. She is clearly uncomfortable when someone says she looks cute in her uniform, and envious of the fact that Chii (who we will come back to in a minute) is wearing a boy’s uniform. Now, these factors could easily be observational bias on my part, but the show validates my theories: as the episode progresses, a friend buys Yoshino a boy’s uniform, which makes her ecstatically happy.

So, the show begins with interpersonal tensions already in place, but it leaves it up to the viewer to infer more information about those tensions. This is unsurprising, since the manga actually begins with the characters in 5th grade; the anime has chosen to start later, but include all of the omitted story as part of its background (as far as I can tell - actually, after reading the manga I think it may just include some of the broad strokes, and rework some of that material into its own plot). This is an interesting choice from a storytelling standpoint, and has the opportunity to fail miserably. I certainly felt a bit lost during the first half of the episode or so. But this seems to be intentional; as a dramatic piece with a fairly serious tone, this sudden burst of information makes us feel like we are intruding on someone’s life, and left to pick up the context ourselves. By the end of the episode, it is clear who all of the characters are, and most of their relationships are established. As a slice of life piece, it works very well; we really get the impression that we’ve just come in at an arbitrary point in the characters’ lives.

As the episode progresses, we meet Sarashina Chizuru (Chii), an extroverted and impulsive girl who wears a boy’s uniform to school just 'because she feels like it'. In a story about gender identity, it is interesting to see that we also have a character clearly treating gender as presentation. Unlike Shūichi, Chii has the privilege to do this without the nervousness, shame, guilt, and embarrassment that often accompanies actually struggling with a transgender identity. Whether and how the series will treat with this privilege disparity remains to be seen.

The episode had a few stand-out moments for me. The first came during a scene where Shūichi dresses in a girl’s uniform after school, and spends some time wandering around town on his own. Narration by Shūichi establishes that he has never done this before, and usually only dresses up at home. During this outing, a girl in a shop suggests Shūichi buy a hairpin because, she says, “You’re cute, and this will flatter you”. This scene depicts such a small thing - having someone treat you as the gender that feels right to you. This is something that cisgender people experience every time they interact with someone - it is so commonplace that it goes completely unnoticed. But if you’re trans, this is often something you have gone large portions of your life without ever experiencing.

I clearly remember the first time that I was treated like a woman by a stranger, completely and without hesitation. It was a wonderful moment for me, validating and uplifting. I may have been projecting, but it seemed to me that Shūichi’s reaction was similar. It is important to note here that the writer of the original manga, Shimura Takako, is a cisgender woman (to the best of my knowledge). But (and this is assuming the anime follows the manga fairly closely) she has written an amazingly accurate and empathetic portrayal of what it feels like to live as a trans girl. She gets the little details right, and the animators and voice actors deliver here too - Shūichi’s character is imminently believable to me.

The other stand-out moment in this episode is at the end. Shūichi wakes up from sleep with a shock, to discover he has had a wet dream. He delivers in voiceover - "What are little boys made of? Snakes and snails...", a bitter refrain of the episode’s title. The story is set as the characters enter puberty, and this is a visceral example of how puberty, for many trans people, is a time when our bodies turn against us. I know that puberty, for me, felt like my very physiology was denying a truth that I already felt ashamed of. I was constantly disgusted by my body, and it was the only time in my life I thought seriously about suicide. I didn’t really understand all of that at the time; that is, I didn't connect the feelings that I should be a girl with the disgust I felt about my body. Mostly, I think, because I had buried the former as deeply as I could, and thought about it as little as possible.

This conflict of gender identity with puberty is a thematic trend I expect will be fundamental to the show as it progresses. I remain hopeful about this show - it is a narrative with a lot of potential to help cisgender people understand the perspective of trans people a little better.

* a hopefully correct extended footnote on Japanese names: Japanese names are written (and spoken) surname first, given name second. It is common for someone to be referred to by their surname by everyone except their closest friends and family. For the purpose of clarity here, especially since the show has multiple members of the Nitori family represented, I will introduce characters with their full name, and then only use their given name unless the show gives them a clearly more recognizable nickname. Confusingly, this conflicts with how the names are presented in the show. Anime subtitles are inconsistent from one show to the next about how they choose to translate names. Some shows get subtitled with the given name always used, others with the surname always used, and that's not even getting in to honorifics. I believe Wandering Son has been providing the name as spoken (sans honorific) instead of converting consistently to the given name. Also, the subtitling is inverting full names when they are spoken, so if someone says "Nitori Shŭichi-san", it gets subtitled as "Shūichi Nitori". Which is fair enough, but it forces me to make a decision about how to transliterate here. So, there it is.