In two days, Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers) will end. In less than two weeks, Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son) will also end. Both have been running for a long time now, Hourou Musuko has been running since 2002, and Aoi Hana has been running since 2004. However, they did not gain national or international attention until Aoi Hana was made into an 11 episode anime in 2009, and Hourou Musuko followed with an anime adaption in 2011. This review will likely have some minor spoilers, but shouldn't actually spoil anything for future viewers who may (hint, hint) wish to read/watch these series after reading this review.
Shimura's work is rather unique in Japan for its treatment of LGBT issues with both realism and compassion. The artist herself is cisgender and straight, at least publicly, and while I have occasionally been known to quibble with her word choices (in Japanese, of course, in English her translator is constrained by her original Japanese), she does a rather amazing job of telling narratives in which LGBT folks are capable of seeing themselves. Not just Japanese LGBT folks, either. Although our narratives are individual and unique, they certainly have commonalities, and it is these commonalities which transcend the differences between Japanese and Western cultures. I can forgive Shimura's choice of phrasing largely because while I think that LGBT folks see themselves in a realistic portrayal of their experiences, the primary impact of the two series are on straight, cisgender readers. For the first time, many readers can turn to an LGBT person and say, "Wow. So this is what it's like? This is what you're going through?" There is no way to measure the positive impact of works like Shimura's, but the 89% approval rating for LGBT rights in Japan among 18-25 year olds is probably a very good indication.
Hourou Musuko is the story of two trans children, Nitori Shuichi and Takatsuki Yoshino. There are also characters of ambiguous gender identity and sexuality, both children and adults, who act as supporting characters. The manga opens when Nitori (known as Nitorin) and Takatsuki are in fifth grade. Through a series of encounters, Nitorin and Takatsuki learn each others' secrets. Nitorin "wants" to be a girl, and Takatsuki "wants" to be a boy (problematic language, but it's a minor quibble given the raw truth of the story). Now graduating from high school, the story has followed the pair's attempts to transition at least partly, socially outside of school, with significant others, and even attempts to wear gender appropriate uniforms to school, and the unequal reactions Takatsuki gets for a being a "boyish girl" vs. Nitorin being a "girlish boy." Note: read right to left.
The current big questions about each's possible adult transition are unlikely to be covered; there's not enough time. It is my own contention that Nitorin will have to transition or face the same type of misery of the subtle maturation between age of majority and actual functional adulthood which I have faced. There is no doubt in my mind that Nitorin is a trans woman and always has been; her gender has never been in question, even though she has had her share of doubts, and both Shimura and the supporting characters often refer to her as a "boy." Takatsuki has a much less clear cut gender identity now, although initially, Takatsuki's gender identity seemed far more binary:
I think my major regret about not being able to see how Nitorin and Takatsuki choose to live their adult lives is not being able to see my own issues with Japanese bureaucracy represented in the series. Although I work in Japanese elementary schools and junior high schools and have consistent contact with Japanese high schools, much of the Japanese school-specific issues are not ones I have personally experienced, although they are ones I have observed first hand in some cases. Since I am socially, professionally, and legally transitioning in Japan, I happen to know a thing or two about what it takes, and what I have to do to make it happen. I think it would have been valuable for cisgender, straight readers to understand the absolute hassle of changing one's gender marker and associated documents, achievements, awards, transcripts, bank accounts, credit cards, etc, etc by reading about it in Shimura's simplistic but visceral visual style.
But alas, it seems not to be.
Aoi Hana is actually the younger of the two series, but because its anime came before Hourou Musuko's, it is usually treated as the "senior" series by fans. This story centers around Manjoume Fumi and Okudaira Akira (Fumi-chan, in green above, and A-chan, in red above, respectively). At first the main character appears to be Fumi, with A-chan a strong supporting character, as Fumi goes from one disastrous lesbian relationship to another, but it quickly becomes apparent that the one stability in Fumi's life is A-chan. The anime only goes up to this realisation, but the manga series (of which the anime comprises maybe a third or a fourth) has been focused on the development of the romantic relationship between the two.
Shimura intentionally plays with the tropes of the yuri genre. Yuri is generally made for women/girls by women and focuses on strong homosocial, homoerotic, or even blatantly homosexual relationships between women/girls. It would be a mistake to consider the most explicit examples to be pornography; if explicit sex occurs it is because of story progress and is certainly not done for the male gaze. There are elements of male gaze in some anime interpretations of yuri manga, but it generally remains today a primarily girl and woman-oriented genre. There's absolutely no attempt to withdraw from the yuri landscape, however. Aoi Hana may be the most realistic depiction of lesbian relationships amongst adolescents in Japan, but both the manga and the anime series include overt references to yuri history and symbology (including the yuri, itself, the lily, which is the flower from which the genre gets its name).
The tropes Shimura tries to tackle (and in doing so draw a line between what is real in yuri and what is romantic fantasy) include the idea that girls' high schools are overrun with lesbians (they're not), that lesbian or lesbian-like relationships commonly exist prior to marriage in these schools (partly true, but also partly true amongst adolescents in general, but not nearly as much as yuri often seems to suggest), that student/teacher relationships are common, resulting even in marriages (again, partly true, but not quite to this extent), and that such relationships are accepted or even encouraged by the wider school society (seniors, student government, popular kids, teachers, administrators—not even close!).
She certainly finds examples of each in the series, but the reader comes away with the distinct idea that these examples are rarities. And those rarities are not left unexplored. Rather, Shimura follows them to their real, practical conclusions, and readers are left staring at a world very unlike the one typically found in the closed off campuses of yuri girls' high schools and academies. What we find is ugly. Politely bigoted, but bigoted none-the-less. The world that is hostile to Fumi's sexuality, uncomfortable with A-chan's sexual ambiguity, and one that works against the few adult lesbian allies they find.
Many would assume that Hourou Musuko would be my favorite of the two series. After all, it most closely represents my narrative. Nitorin is, as far as most can tell, a strictly binary trans woman who is attracted primarily, although, not exclusively to women-identified individuals (hey, that sounds like me!), but I think, in fact, Hourou Musuko hits too close to home. I see Nitorin and Takatsuki as representations of my own experiences, sure, but while I like them both as characters, I do not love them.
I love Fumi and Akira. While I am disappointed to see the end to Hourou Musuko, and I like Nitorin and Takatsuki, whose transitions I am eager to follow, I am distraught to see the end of Aoi Hana. I think this is because there is one fantastical romantic aspect to Aoi Hana, but one that does, from time to time, actually happen: Fumi and Akira were best friends in childhood, and for Fumi, A-chan has always be her first and true love. I desperately want to see them "beat the odds" in a Japan which is rapidly becoming more accepting of homosexual relationships. The odds are against them even staying together through college and beyond, but one can hope.
I really, really want to be "invited" to their wedding.
If you are in the United States, you can buy the Aoi Hana anime series from The Right Stuf or watch it here:
Hourou Musuko used to be on Crunchyroll. The manga can be ordered in English here.
Now excuse me while I...