Is your heart always faithful there? […]
If you knew the true me,
would you still smile like that?
[…] You can stay the way you are.
~from the OP, ‘Itsudatte’
Hourou Musuko, or Wandering Son as it’s known in the English-speaking world, is the only anime title so far that doesn’t fetishize transgender individuals and it’s almost entirely about their stories. Yoshino and Nitori aren’t ‘traps’ for the audience’s viewing pleasure, but individuals who face a deep and personal struggle with themselves and the others around them. They are the protagonists; not the queer sidekick.
It is based on the homonym manga, which is published in a very neat, hardback edition by Fantagraphics. But since anime have a wider audience, the fact that this title got an adaptation is of significance for trans people and their visibility.
I’ll try talking about Hourou Musuko in three segments in order to analyze its role in trans awareness and representation; the first two segments are concerned directly with the issue of transgenderism, while the last one with the series’ craft.
Note: For the protagonists I’ll use ‘she’ for Nitori but ‘they’ for Takatsuki, since their case doesn’t end up with them deciding to live as a man, but they were indeed through a questioning period.
1. Self image and what’s in the mirror
Hourou Musuko intentionally takes place during puberty. There are many coming out of age anime out there, some excellent ones, focused mainly on love relationships, the hardships of conveying emotions and the process of maturing. Yet, this time period rarely is seen as a period of not only emotional instability, but also as a period when huge physical changes occur- much more as a period of questioning one’s identity. Here, this one theme underlines and supports the main topic of gender issues. Crossdressing becomes more and more difficult when breasts grow and a penis gets an erection. Even if a person tries to hide from him/herself his/her preferences (be it sexual desire or self-image), it becomes gradually impossible to ignore completely. We observe this in Nitori’s and Makoto’s anxiety about their voices, when Nitori has a wet dream, and whenTakatsuki is pressured to buy and wear a bra.
In episode 9 there’s a dialogue between Nitori and Doi, which is of great importance. Doi looks around Nitori’s room and asks her what kind of music she likes and about her hobbies. Nitori replies she has none.
Doi: “So what, you just dress up like a girl?”
Nitori has no hobbies not because she’s a boring person or even a vain one, but because it is so vital to get your body identity clear, that everything spins around it. Most of us are assigned either male or female at birth and our brain follows for the most part. That means that we take our sex as granted and act accordingly to what society or our peer pressure during puberty dictates. We begin with something stable and try to figure it out later especially after puberty comes knocking at the door.
For people like Nitori and Takatsuki though there’s nothing stable [*]. From a very young age they are confronted with a displeasing situation and a constant struggle. If you cannot feel well or at least ok with your body, then how are you to move onwards searching other sides of your identity? Because our ‘soul’ or self, if you prefer, resides in a body -our body- it is essential that there is a good rapport between those two. If there isn’t harmony, then all other things can’t move on, are of minor importance and stay ‘frozen’ until the big problem is resolved. And of course, let’s not forget that a baby/a child depends greatly from its parents and their gaze. If parents disapprove the child’s real self, how is one to grow spiritually?
The series also explores practical matters like the search for clothes and shops that are lgbtq friendly. To match their self image with what is reflected on a mirror trans individuals put a lot of effort and may go to great extends, namely sex-reassignment surgery among other things; something that Chiba mentions in a discussion with Nitori. But not everyone is comfortable to let a scalpel on their body and youngsters have to be patient and try simpler things. This requires safe spaces targeted specifically to such individuals. Someone who’s recognized as a ‘man’ by others can’t possibly stride in a changing room intended for ‘women’ without being seen either as a pervert or a ‘freak’ -sadly. These shops are usually hidden from the public eye. Nowadays online purchases are possible, facilitating genderqueer folks both access-wise and privacy-wise.
The psychological aspect is emphasized over and over as we hear Takatsuki say they feel much more comfortable with the breast binder they bought despite the fact it restricts them physically. Nitori contemplates buying a bra, although she has a flat chest, because it will bring her closer to being the girl they feel she is. It’s not a whim, it’s a need. That’s why they attempt crossdressing whenever the chance is given. The need has to be met publicly for gender is a notion tightly bonded with the gaze of others.
Note [*]: Be aware that this isn’t the only sentiment trans individuals share. There are other people who have felt later in their life that changing sex would make them happier. This isn’t the only narrative anymore. Trans children do have hobbies, sometimes those associated more with the gender they identify. But there’s guilt and void if they aren’t allowed to act how they feel more comfortable.