Gamers!

Keita is a teenage boy with a one track mind – games, games and more games! He overlooks socialising and hobbies in favour of pursuing his hobby so is taken aback when pretty, popular academic Karen Tendou asks him to join her Gaming Club. To her shock he turns down her offer as he prefers to play games for fun and not in a competitive way.

“I’m just a girl…standing in front of a boy…asking him to play video games with her.”

I had expected Gamers! to play out with Keita joining the club, getting to know the other members and attempting to win Karen’s affection, so I was happy when everything was turned on its head so spectacularly. Keita is nonplussed by turning down Karen’s invitation and is socially inept enough that he doesn’t realise he’s done something radically against social norms by rejecting a girl much higher than him in the school social hierarchy. He also doesn’t realise how much he has embarrassed Karen with the rejection. Things get hilarious pretty quickly when another popular kid, Tasuku confronts him about his behaviour in what turns into an over the top melodramatic slanging match on a bridge.

Gamers! continues to play with expectations as we see Karen completely fall apart over Keita. She falls for him hard, and is completely reduced to cartoon ashes, a sparkly eyed gooey mess or a jealous monster over Keita’s interactions with other girls and his utter obliviousness to her feelings. In fact, the show sets up such clear roles and types for each character with the sole purpose of destroying these setups. I really enjoyed this ‘in your face’ method of letting the audience know that comedic chaos is about to unfold in the very first episode.

All’s fair in love and games

Although gaming is continually mentioned and referenced throughout the anime as you’d expect, there’s a smaller focus on it than I had thought, and really I’d define Gamers! as a romantic comedy. The show sets up increasingly more elaborate and wacky misunderstandings between characters, who think X is dating Y when actually Z is dating Y and X wants someone else altogether. Although it seems over the top, it works really well a lot of the time as each character has their own foibles – Karen’s pride, Keita’s inferiority complex – and these form the heart of misunderstandings and miscommunications just as you’d see in real life.

Gamers! is a sweet anime packed full of laugh out loud moments, and romances you’ll want to root for, even if only for more humourous moments.

Gamers! is now streaming on Crunchyroll.

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Your Name (Kimi No Na Wa)

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Mitsuha is sick of her life out in the sticks, and not even having a cafe or bookstore in her little town. She passionately declares one night “Make me a Tokyo boy in my next life!” And then she wakes up the next morning…in a Tokyo boy’s body. Taki, the boy in question, is an average teen making the most of city life, enjoying fancy treats after school with his friends which he pays for via a waiter job at a nice restaurant.

Your Name immediately takes advantage of all of the comedic value of an unexpected body swap. Mitsuha and Taki are both in the throes of puberty and still discovering their own bodies, so waking up inside the opposite sex’s has an extra layer of hilarity. One of the film’s running gags features Mitsuha (sometimes herself, sometimes Taki) waking up each morning and fondling her own breasts.

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Body swapping ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Mitsuha and Taki’s friends tell them that they’ve noticed a change in their personalities, and once the pair discover that what they thought were incredibly realistic dreams is actually the two of them swopping bodies, they try to ensure their lives don’t become messier than needed, leaving notes for each other to read on their bodies, and sometimes on their phones. Unfortunately, the two of them never remember each other’s names when they wake up back in their own bodies, prolonging the suspense as they don’t know whose life it is that they keep finding themselves in the middle of.

The film doesn’t focus too deeply on the effects their swapping has on each other’s lives, but it does show the obvious awkwardness of them having to ask their friends questions like “Where do I work?”and having to juggle things that are completely foreign to them – Taki attempting a traditional weaving technique is contrasted against Mitsuha running around like a headless chicken in Taki’s job. In spite of their superficial differences, the universality of their adolescent feelings shines through – Mitsuha manages to get Taki a date with his long-time crush while inhabiting his body, but realises once she’s back in her own body that she’s actually quite jealous.

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“Dear Taki, stop feeling up my boobs, Yours, Mitsuha”

The second half of Your Name takes a more serious turn than I had expected, dealing with a thread about a comet set up from the beginning. The film uses this to further expand on its themes of family, duty, and love and open out the film to a grander scale, and build much higher stakes. There are a lot of very Japanese themes thrown into the second half (I won’t spoil them here) which is one of the things bound to help this film stand the test of time as a Makoto Shinkai classic.

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This is just one example of the astounding landscapes Your Name features

Your Name is visually spectacular. The contrast of city life to country life is stunningly illustrated. Taki’s hectic urban jungle is brilliantly showcased, each sharp angular line of the skyscrapers and twinkling city lights popping off the screen. Mitsuha’s verdant town is a lush delight, and I also really loved seeing the details of her traditional life, such as when she performs a traditional Japanese ritual in her family’s shrine. I also love that the film makes multiple references to the red string of fate, inserting the symbolism in a beautifully simple but striking way throughout the film.

A gorgeous anime needs a great soundtrack and this one does not disappoint! As well as some beautiful strings pieces that really evoke the nature scenes of Mitsuha’s beautiful rural town, RADWIMPS, a Japanese rock band, offer some furiously energetic pop tracks for the chaotic life-swapping scenes of Mitsuha and Taki’s teenage lives. I’ve included the trailer below which features one of the brilliant RADWIMPS tracks.

From Garden of Words and 5 Centimetres Per Second, to Your Name, Makoto Shinkai seems to be continually building on his work, with each anime offering a greater and greater emotional scope that extends into impressive far-reaching themes of the traditional against the modern, long distance love, and figuring out our place in the world.

I love everything about Your Name: its staggeringly beautiful animation, its expressive characters with deep hearts and its moving soundtrack. It’s Japan’s highest grossing movie of 2016, if you haven’t already watched it, what are you waiting for?

My Top Five Best Anime Ever

I have spent the last fifteen or so years of my life watching anime, so it felt like a good time to put together a short list of what I feel are the best (of what I’ve seen so far). The five I am about to discuss are not rated in any particular order of what I feel are the best, mainly because they are all quite different in style and genre, and I love them in different ways. I also decided not to include any Studio Ghibli films as I feel it goes without saying that they make up some of the very finest of Japanese animation. Here we go!

Code Geass

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What it’s about: Prince Lelouch Lamperouge has had to sit and watch as his empire Britannia has brutally conquered most of the world, including Japan, where he has been exiled. Japan has been renamed “Area 11”, and its citizens treated as second class, subject to poverty and abuse under the new regime. Lelouch sets out to seek justice and freedom for Japan and his sister Nunnally, adopting a secret disguise as “Zero” and using a strange magical power bestowed on him by a green haired witch to command anyone to do whatever he wants once. Unfortunately he has to do battle with his childhood friend Suzaku who is also seeking justice for Japan, but through legitimate means as he tries to rise through the ranks as a Britannian Knight to change the system from within.

Why it’s one of the best: Code Geass serves up a healthy portion of every core anime genre going – mecha robots, supernatural powers, politics, high school drama and romance – and most of the time it balances them all excellently. The ethics are compelling as Lelouch treads a morally grey area with his consequential approach against Suzaku’s deontology, the action is gritty and the politics are convoluted. The romances and lighter high school moments provide a nice offset to the emotional weight of the rebellion being staged as the stakes get higher and higher.

 

Ouran High School Host Club

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What it’s about: Haruhi is an honest, hardworking girl who has managed to get a scholarship to a wealthy, elite school. Her plans to keep her head down and away from the shallow, rich types are derailed when she accidentally breaks a priceless vase. The vase belongs to a host club, a group of pretty boys of all types who spend their extracurricular hours charming and entertaining the female students. They agree to let Haruhi work off her debt as a host, dressing as a boy. Of course their crazy hijinks often interfere with her studious sensibilities…

Why it’s one of the best: Ouran High School Host Club really pulls off ridiculous humour, often as a segueway into the serious, heart tugging moments. Tamaki’s brash, vain superficial charm and Haruhi’s blunt, serious nature both disguise heart-rending back stories and together they help each other learn and grow in a touching way. The show also parodies the shoujo genre as often as it embraces it which prevents things from sinking too deeply into fluffiness, and it has a lot of fun playing with gender roles and stereotypes.

 

Parasyte the Maxim

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What it’s about: Shinichi is a quiet boy living a normal life until a parasite burrows into his hand, gaining sentience and naming itself Migi. With no way out of his new situation, Shinichi finds himself agreeing to work with Migi and do battle when other parasites begin possessing humans and brutally murdering those around him.

Why it’s one of the best: Although a slow starter, Parasyte the Maxim becomes a gripping anime as Shinichi slowly physically and emotionally transforms following his fusion with Migi. Alongside compelling battle scenes in which Shinichi has to outwit monstrosities much stronger than himself, the show offers up some fascinating commentary on evolution, self preservation, and whether parasite-infected humans living peacefully in society should still be considered a threat. If you’re looking for an anime that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat and make you think as well, this is an excellent choice.

 

Space Brothers

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What it’s about: Brothers Mutta and Hibito Nanba dreamed about becoming astronauts as kids. When younger brother Hibito is about to achieve his ultimate goal of being the first Japanese astronaut on the moon, Mutta is reminded of how much he still wants to go to space and begins the long journey towards becoming an astronaut himself.

Why it’s one of the best: Currently standing at 99 episodes, Space Brothers takes its time to take the viewer on an emotional journey, with Mutta and Hibito as wonderfully nuanced central characters that feel more like real people than any other anime characters I’ve seen. The space details are accurate and true to life of what a real astronaut application and training process would be like (with NASA and JAXA both referenced), the soundtrack is wonderful, and it will probably always stand in my top five list.

 

Your Lie in April 

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What it’s about: Arima Kousei was a child prodigy on the piano until his mother died. Tormented by her death and abusive teaching strategies, Kousei became unable to hear his own playing and gave up the piano. He lived quietly in his grief, until in his teens he meets the vibrant and beautiful violinist Kaori. Kaori’s zest for life and unorthodox playing style slowly bring Kousei back into the joy of music.

Why it’s one of the best: With big shining eyes and picturesque cherry blossoms floating on the breeze, Your Lie in April is as visually as it is emotionally beautiful. The scenes in which Kousei, Kaori, and other peers compete feature the likes of Chopin, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (although the standout for me is Kaori and Kousei’s performance of Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso which I’ll leave a link to below) and each performance is beautifully animated, really capturing the urgency, anxiety and pure in-the-moment joy of live performance. Your Lie in April wonderfully parallels the feelings Kaori and Kousei have for music to their own anxieties, hopes and dreams for life and love, and their deepening intimacy as they grow ever closer.

The Princess and the Pilot

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Lady Fana Del Moral has been promised to Prince Carlos, and on meeting her he is so struck by her beauty he cannot wait to wed. Nonetheless, he asks that she wait a year for their marriage so that he can fight in the ongoing war against their rival nation. When a year has passed and the war has shown no signs of abating, top pilot Charles is recruited to ensure Fana’s safe passage to Carlos through a sky full of danger.

Charles is a good man who has been treated badly all his life for his lower class “sewer rat” status. Upon meeting Fana, he instantly recognises her from a time when he worked in the gardens of her estate as a child and she sweetly consoled him after he was bullied and beaten yet again for his lower position in society. Fana to begin with is a quiet and obedient lady, and Charles is professional and honourable, so at first all their interactions are polite and restrained, which means it takes longer for the emotional investment to build. The real turning point of the film occurs when Charles and Fana are put increasingly in danger from enemy planes and have to land on a nearby island, and Fana transforms from a demure lady to a more extroverted and active character.

The narrative smoothly balances the tense action moments in the sky with quieter, more intimate interactions between the two when the plane has to land. Although the animation can be on the more static two dimensional side, the plane scenes are impressive with giant looming bodies ominously appearing from the sky. Charles is often forced to make daring and risky manoeuvres while Fana tries to help, and her innocence and his honour and heroism combined with the appearance of the planes created a very Studio Ghibli vibe at times.

"What do you mean we can't be together? I cut my hair for you!"
“What do you mean we can’t be together? I cut my hair for you!”

The Princess and the Pilot takes a little time to really get into the swing of things, but I enjoyed this movie and would definitely recommend it if you’re a Studio Ghibli fan and enjoy sweet, chaste love stories. It would have been an even more satisfying ending if more had been made of Fana and Charles’ respective characters and emotions – Fana in particular feels quite two dimensional for too much of the movie. I was also disappointed that the elements of racism against Charles, and the overarching war narrative were not resolved – it is possible that these were addressed in greater detail by the original novel by Koroku Inumura. However, what Charles and Fana mean to each other and what they give each other is still communicated well enough to make the ending a beautiful tribute to two young people torn between obligation or following their heart.

 

Kids on the Slope

wpid-kidsontheslope_311212_205104Kaoru is constantly shifting from town to town to accommodate his father’s career working on ships, and a childhood spent with relatives indifferent to everything about him except his musical talent has left him with a reserved, standoffish personality, serious trust issues, and an anxiety problem.

Things look set to be different at his new school as he collides with the tall and tough Sentaro -a kid who has a reputation for being able to beat up anyone who crosses him. Kaoru soon discovers that Sentaro is actually a softy with a passion for drumming – jazz music in particular. Once Sentaro learns of Kaoru’s piano playing talents, the two begin to form a friendship. Kaoru challenges himself to step outside of his musical comfort zone so he can impress Sentaro and prove his worth, and gradually emerges from his introverted shell.

This anime features music, but the core of show is really about family, friendship and love. The anime opens with a classic unrequited love line. Sentaro has a childhood friend called Ritsuko who instantly captures Kaoru’s heart. But unfortunately Ritsuko only has eyes for Sentaro…who only has eyes for Yurika, and so it goes on. Yes, there’s plenty of love angsting going on, but melodrama is mostly avoided. This anime often serves up gentle humour alongside any angsting, such as one scene in which Sentaro starts venting all his frustration about his unrequited feelings on his drumming, and Kaoru doesn’t know what to do so he starts playing the piano noisily alongside him. The elements of friendship, music and family life help this anime feel like a much more balanced portrayal of adolescence, keeping it from slipping into romance melodrama territory (no glistening tears falling into the wind here).

Kaoru finds himself in a love triangle
Kaoru finds himself in a love triangle

Although the music doesn’t always take centre stage (pardon the pun), even when Kaoru and Sentaro aren’t playing, the anime often has a stylish jazzy piano soundtrack playing in the background. During the scenes in which Kaoru and Sentaro are practising or performing, their playing is often accurately animated right down to Sentaro’s speedy drumming and Kaoru’s hand and finger movements across the piano keys. This really adds realism to each musical scene and I felt like I could have been watching someone playing in real time because the replication was so accurate. This touch makes it feel as though the animators really cared about capturing the musical details, and the music doesn’t feel showy or gimmicky at any point, but an important part of each character’s lives.

This jamming session is sponsored by Yamaha...
This jamming session is sponsored by Yamaha…

The blossoming friendship and partnership between Kaoru and Sentaro is the real highlight of Kids on the Slope. Although both are quite different personalities, their love of music and difficult family backgrounds really bring them together and create a bond that can’t be broken. In one stand out scene, Kaoru plays a jazzy version of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, and when Sentaro begins to accompany him it turns into an all out jam session. Ritsuko observes emotionally that it is “like two princes arguing good-naturedly as they come back home”.

While Kaoru and Sentaro are engaging both individually and as a pair, Ritsuko seems to exist only to further the unrequited love line and create romantic tension, and is only brought in as a singer for a performance in the penultimate episode of the show. She’s likeable, but fits very much into the archetype of the homely and demure Japanese woman, with not a lot else to her character. This prevents a good anime from becoming a truly great one, as she gets a lot of screentime so some fleshing out of her character would have made the romantic moments more interesting too.

If you’re looking for a more realistically styled anime this is a good choice. I have mixed feelings about the static simplistic nature of the animation, on the one hand it matches the realistic setting and story of the show, but some of the more emotional moments don’t have quite as much power as they could and feel a little flatter than they could be. Your Lie in April was a music anime that really utilised visuals to evoke the emotional power of both music and love. Whilst this anime was clearly aiming for a more practical approach, it could have occasionally done to have used some similar visual pizzazz now and then for that extra “wow” factor. Even so, this is a brilliant anime, and Kaoru and Sentaro are up there with the most well realised anime characters, their dynamic really makes the show, right up to the perfect, poignant ending.

 

Psychic School Wars (Nerawareta Gakuen)

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You’d be forgiven for seeing the title Psychic School Wars and picturing a no-holds-barred action anime. But that’s really not what it is at all. A more accurate title might be Psychic Romance, as this anime is really about love, feelings and romance, with a bit of science fiction thrown in for good measure.

Seki is a simple, messy haired boy with a crush on class rep Kahori. Unfortunately for him, she’s rather taken a shine to the attractive, mysterious new student to their class, Ryoichi. Ryoichi has a real talent for playing Debussy on the piano…and for manipulating people psychically, which he plans to use to gradually bring the entire school under his control.

Other than his using this to make one of the female classmates his psychic servant, we don’t see much of him using his psychic powers to begin with. Instead we see the story focus on the love triangle between Seki, Kahori, and Natsu – Seki’s childhood friend. When Seki embarrasses himself in front of Kahori by leaving his fly open during a conversation with her, Natsu jokingly nicknames him “Mr. Open Fly”. She later reveals in an inner monologue that she’s been alongside Seki her whole life, and is not only literally the girl next door to him, but also figuratively as he remains oblivious to her deep love for him. We see a beautiful flashback of her memories of their time together as kids watching the fireworks together at a festival. The abstract nature of the memory and her romantic feelings are beautifully evoked with a plethora of watercolour effects.

Natsu recalls her precious childhood memories with Seki
Natsu recalls her precious childhood memories with Seki

Yes, as you might have guessed by now, the the shining strength of Psychic School Wars is the breathtaking visuals. Alongside the constant picturesque stream of cherry blossoms, dappled light effects and starry night skies, even the minutiae of day to day life is rendered with exquisite attention to detail such as the fluttering of a paper plane, or the flicking of pages in a notebook.

Personally, we think this anime could have done with more cherry blossoms
Fateful meeting? Check. Outrageous amount of cherry blossoms? Check.

This anime often goes out of its way to create a feast for the eyes, with characters needlessly blowing bubbles outside a rural shrine or riding a glass elevator overlooking a sunset over the ocean (yes, really) just to create dazzling scenes for the viewer. It’s hard not to want to screen grab every moment for posterity, the only downside being that sometimes the scenery porn moments can overwhelm and distract from what’s actually going on. Every moment is a spectacle, which is glorious but also means that the moments that are meant to really be a spectacle have slightly less impact.

How to look pretty while you pine after your crush: an anime 101
How to look pretty while you pine after your crush: an anime 101

Alongside the romance, the anime opens with and repeatedly refers to an ongoing storyline about a debate within the school regarding banning mobile phones. Whilst this seems to be completely irrelevant at first it does eventually play into the larger picture of Ryoichi’s manipulation to a degree, and echoes the ongoing theme of the anime about forms of communication in relationships. The discussion of modern technology as an alienating device is nicely contrasted with Natsu’s memories of communicating with Seki through tin cans and string as a child, and the repeated emphasis on love as being the reaching for a connection is honestly moving. That said and done, the mobile phone discussion quotient is still much, much higher than it really needed to be.

Psychic School Wars takes its time to really get to the heart of the characters, and their connection with each other. When it does, the portrayals of teen love and friendship are genuine and touching in an understated way. The constant presence of dreamy colour palettes and sweet music often reduce the effect of the otherworldly elements of the story, and even goofy comedy can occasionally interrupt any building romantic or supernatural tension. This isn’t a problem if you enjoy the romantic and emotional elements of anime, but when the psychic elements come into play it isn’t always clear who has been manipulated and whether we’re supposed to consider Ryoichi a friend or foe.

Don't hate the psychic player, hate the psychic game
Don’t hate the psychic player, hate the psychic game

The main downside to this anime is that a lot of the psychic elements feel vague and confusing. Just when the story picks things up, it sets them aside to move back to the romance, and sometimes the movement between serious and silly, or sci fi and sappy is strange and jarring and doesn’t quite gel. There are a lot of elements that just aren’t developed in the right way, which is frustrating and confusing.

Psychic powers and romantic angst...but they still managed to fit a beach scene in
Psychic powers and romantic angst…but they still managed to fit a beach scene in

Even if Psychic School Wars isn’t your cup of tea story-wise, if you’re looking for a pretty anime this one is a visual feast. Sometimes it feels sappy and saccharine, but there are enough touching and powerful moments to pack an emotional punch and make this worth your time. Just…don’t expect it to fully make sense.

Hourou Musuko Wandering Son

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Nitori is a feminine, assigned male at birth teen who likes to secretly dress up as a girl and thinks they might actually want to be one. Upon starting a new school they meet and develop feelings for Takatsuki, assigned female at birth, who prefers to dress in a masculine way and is also unsure of their gender identity.

Nitori is happiest with long hair and a skirt
Nitori is happiest with long hair and a skirt

Nitori and Takatsuki’s struggle with themselves is amplified when their class puts on a genderbent version of Romeo and Juliet, in which the star crossed lovers meet, and Romeo confesses he wants to be a girl, Juliet confesses she wants to be a boy. Nitori admits that they wants Takatsuki to be Romeo to their Juliet.

The anime also explores gender and sexuality beyond the trans identities of Nitori and Takatsuki. We also see Nitori’s male friend happily try on a clover hair clip, a female classmate wear the male uniform on more than one occasion and Nitori experience attraction to a cisgender girl as well as to Takatsuki.

Nitori opens up to friends about her wishes
Nitori opens up to friends about their wishes

The anime presents itself in a simple way, with a non intrusive piano soundtrack and a soft watercolour animation style. This allows the focus to remain on the developments unfolding between the characters, and Nitori and Takasuki’s own journeys as they slowly embrace their true selves, dealing with the fall out along the way.

Love triangles get more complex with various gender presentations thrown into the mix
Love triangles get more complex with various gender presentations thrown into the mix

Don’t be fooled by Hourou Musuko’s gentle appearance, it raises many strong points about the policing of gender, and how any deviation from this norm is either dismissed as a wacky hobby, or labelled as sick and perverted. The acceptance or rejection of Nitori and Takatsuki’s gender “deviant” behaviours come in surprising forms, with Nitori’s own sister repeatedly labelling them as sick and ‘a freak’ for dressing as a girl. On the flip side when the cis girl Nitori starts to date finds out they cross dress, she doesn’t have a problem with it. Similarly, Doi, a cis boy at Nitori’s school, encourages Nitori’s crossdressing and even calls them cute when he sees them in a dress.

The show emphasises the confusion the two feel about receiving such mixed messages from everyone around them about their behaviour. Nitori is distressed to find that their choosing to attend  school in a girl’s uniform is seen as more shocking by the adults than Takatsuki and another female classmate attending in the boy’s uniform, particularly as with the exception of Nitori’s sister, all of Nitori’s peers treat their crossdressing as normal, and their cis female friend Chiba even encourages it.

Nitori and Takatsuki have to express their genders in secret
Nitori and Takatsuki have to express their gender in secret

One of the standout scenes for me takes place between Nitori and Takatsuki discussing wearing a bra. Nitori says that they want to wear one even though they have no breasts, and Takatsuki responds that Nitori should if they want to. This simple exchange places the emphasis on gender as being a personal expression and not simply a person’s anatomy as well as prioritising personal happiness and comfort over adhering to social norms.

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Takatsuki doesn’t want to wear a bra

Many of the moments of internal struggle or external drama are quite understated following the first few episodes, meaning that some might find Hourou Musuko to be a slow anime. However, anime addressing trans people and attitudes to transsexuality in a serious and sensitive way are incredibly rare, and this one quietly presents the reality of how difficult it can be to go against the grain of how your sex is expected to behave and dress when there are so many double standards and judgements surrounding gender. My only complaint about Horou Musuko would be that some dramatic moments are set up – such as Nitori’s parents finding out they went to school in a girl’s uniform – and then not followed up on, which felt like a letdown. Similarly, we are also more often than not told of Nitori’s classmates teasing or laughing at them for wearing a girl’s uniform than shown it, which prevents the anime from becoming too distressing, but also robs it of some of the dramatic impact.

If you’re looking for a high school love anime with added social commentary and respectful LGBT representation, give this one a go. I personally hope to see more anime like Hourou Musuko shedding important light on gender issues such as these. I only wish the show had been longer to provide even more character development.

N.B. As this anime features characters who present as both male and female and experience confusion over their gender identity I decided to use they/their/them pronouns for ease of reading.