The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
Wonder Egg Priority
How would you rate episode 1 of
Wonder Egg Priority ?
What is this?
Ai scores a “Wonder Egg” from a gachapon machine at a deserted arcade. But now when Ai falls asleep a girl emerges from her Wonder Egg, the worlds of dreams and reality begin to collide. And it's all connected.
Content warning for prominent discussion of bullying and suicide.
How was the first episode?
Sorry, it's egg time!
The best way I can think to describe the experience of watching Wonder Egg Priority is with a story from today. I watched it, like many anime, with my husband. When we watch things together, we usually riff, make jokes, and discuss things in real time. It's just how we engage with media and experience things together. This time, we didn't say a word for the entirety of the episode. We were just that engrossed.
This episode was like if a Kunihiko Ikuhara anime and a Naoko Yamada anime had a baby. Or laid an egg together, as the case may be. It has Ikuhara's love of storytelling through imagery and symbolism, heavy themes, and egg-based metaphors, while the visual style heavily resembles Yamada's, including the cute girls with an emphasis on character acting and dramatic lighting, and both creators' fondness for queer themes. This is, in fact, a very good thing; Ikuhara is one of anime's greatest auteurs and, while I may not care for her storytelling, Yamada's visual style is undeniably arresting.
But this isn't the work of Ikuhara and Yamada, and it would be doing the people who actually worked on it a disservice not to credit them. Incredibly, this seems to be largely a batch of, if not newcomers, industry veterans working in a new role. Director Shin Wakabayashi is an experienced key animator but has only directed a few episodes and never helmed an entire series by himself; writer Shinji Nojima works primarily in live-action, which doesn't lend itself to the same kind of imagery-driven storytelling on display here, though he has made a few manga. It's an incredible accomplishment, making something like this on the first outing.
The visuals, however striking, tell a difficult story about bullying, complicity, and survivor's guilt. The symbolism isn't exactly subtle; it doesn't take much guesswork to figure out that Nosee Evils represent the people who see bullying take place, but do nothing, and the role they play in bringing harm to victim. Ai's experience, told in brief snapshots of her time with Koito, is heartbreaking and shattering. She thinks that, by breaking open these eggs and saving people in these other worlds, she may be able to bring her (girl?)friend back. However, I suspect that won't be the case.
Like Kemono Jihen two days ago, I went into Wonder Egg Priority knowing nothing and expecting nothing; and like Kemono Jihen, I found something spectacularly beautiful and touching and wonderful.
One of my favorite analogies ever when it comes to film criticism is the one that Roger Ebert used to describe the films of David Lynch, where the dreams – or, in most cases, nightmares – of Lynch's movies were like the madly boiling and frothing of a science experiment, and the test tubes could all shatter at any moment. It only takes a minute or two for Wonder Egg Priority's premiere to begin communicating that exact same bold, overwhelming vision. Ai Ohto's story sees her wandering through nightmares and dreamscapes that only barely begin to come together into anything that “makes sense” by the end of the episode, though they intertwine with and reflect on her real-world grief and isolation, which is rooted in the bullying she has experienced all of her life, and the tragic suicide of her only friend, Koito.
Though Wonder Egg Priority features some genuinely graphic imagery, and is dealing in general with a supremely dark subject matter, the show is happy to play around with its very malleable tone, frequently alternating between nightmarishness and fairy-tale whimsy in a single scene. The show is also astoundingly gorgeous, directed and edited with the kind of confidence and consistency that gives it the aura of a big-budget feature film. It is often very rare to see convincing character acting in animation, especially on television, but there are so many moments in this episode where you can tell exactly what the characters are thinking because of the slightest shift of their eyes, or a subtle adjustment in their posture. The best scene in the episode is one of its quietest, where Ai seems like she might make friends with the girl who sprang from the egg that Ai was sold “for free” by her own dream. This girl, Kuruni, laughs wistfully and remarks, “Nothing costs more than a free gift, eh?” The girls share a momentary but powerful spark of chemistry, but when the little monster guys that have been chasing them show up to continue pursuing Kuruni, Ai falters, and abandons another would-be friend. Kuruni just smiles a little, again, and waves goodbye. It's a perfect little moment.
Wonder Egg Priority even manages to survive the transition to more traditionally “anime” action-adventure fare, where Ai goes to the faceless nightmare girl that has been stalking Kuruni and her, pulling out some wham-bam action-anime special moves in order to thoroughly explode the monster. It is a beat that could have easily derailed this whole premiere, reducing the show to yet another high-falutin' take on the same old cheesy material. Wonder Egg Priority sticks the landing though, because all of the time we've spent wandering with Ai through her waking and sleeping life was executed with such careful precision that we can buy that the show's high-brow ambitions and crowd-pleasing spectacle would function in harmony to tell this story.
More than anything, I am utterly taken by Wonder Egg Priority's commitment to selling the high strangeness of Ai's quest to (maybe?) undo her best friend's death as a surreal vision that demands to be taken seriously; this is what has me comfortable characterizing it as a science experiment worthy of comparison to the likes of David Lynch, Kunihiko Ikuhara, or Satoshi Kon. Like the best works of those other artists, Wonder Egg Priority seems to understand that the only way to make its dark dream work is to ensure that its audience never once waver in their belief in its characters, in their humanity, and their pain, and their capacity to transcend the laws of the “real” world. To betray this trust that the audience has placed in the show would be to risk shattering the experiment's test tubes completely. I can't say whether Wonder Egg Priority will stick the landing, or even if any episode after this one will live up to my now sky-high expectations. I sure can't wait to find out, though.
So just to start, it's probably best to go into the premiere of Wonder Egg Priority with as little priming as possible. Pretty much all the promotional material has been purposefully vague about just what this show is about, and there's a pretty good reason for it. That's not to say enjoying this premiere is dependent on being blindsided by a twist or some sudden dichotomy shift, but I personally think it'll be a more rewarding experience to crack this egg yourself firsthand. Also probably eat breakfast before watching it. I didn't and spent half the premiere hankering for a good omelette.
That said, it doesn't take long to work out that Wonder Egg is going to be strange. By the two-minute mark our heroine, Ai, is following a reanimated lightning bug down an escalator built into a tree because it told her that's where she can make friends. And that's the show easing you in, as this series is operating within a surreal and psychological dream logic that only grows more palpable and volatile as the premiere goes on. Liminal spaces shift and warp between cuts, space itself is infinitely malleable, and as the episode progresses even the passage of time becomes suspect.
All of this is carried through impeccable direction and editing, but the real standout is the gorgeous character animation on display. So much of Ai and the rest of the cast is communicated through how they move and carry themselves through the strange world around them. From the way Ai cocoons herself in her hoodie to how she always hesitates before she starts to walk in any given direction, there's a level of visual characterization that effortlessly bridges the transition between this dreamlike reality's wonder and terror.
Because there's definitely a darkness to Wonder Egg, but not in the trite way “dark” stories starring cute anime girls usually goes with exaggerated gore and suffering. Rather, the horror elements at play are of the psychological kind, bringing Ai's own fears and trauma to life in terrifying, surreal forms that are genuinely startling. And I do mean trauma. The moment Ai stumbles upon funerary hallway in the middle of her school's hallways, you know what's coming, but the imagery of her friend's suicide is no less shocking, and where it becomes clear that this is more than a simple world of nightmares.
I imagine that moment is going to make the difference for a lot of people on whether they want to see more of this or not. Wonder Egg is playing with intensely personal, sensitive material and while I think this episode handles that whirl of emotions well, it will doubtlessly leave some uncomfortable at best. For now though, I'm very much intrigued. And hungry.
I was not sure what to expect based on the advertising blurb and preview videos, but even so, this debut episode caught me off guard. I suspect that this will be a common reaction to the first episode. That's primarily because this is a much, much darker tale than what the advertising let on. The first episode focuses on both overt and strongly implied bullying, both of the featured girl (over her heterochromia) and two other girls that she meets. The episode also features graphic, bloody violence and suicide. The implication here is that featured girl Ai was a loner because her classmates bullied her, so a new girl named Koitomo tried to befriend her. She also ended up getting bullied and timid Ai did not stand up for her, so Koitomo jumped off a roof. We don't see the whole process detailed out for us, but the end result – with Koitomo laying on the blood-splattered sidewalk – is the episode's most graphic image.
All of this results from Ai finding the egg and cracking it open, releasing another girl in an alternate-reality school setting who is strongly implied to have also been bullied, only she is being pursued by a faceless girl with an axe and a horde of little minions with knives unsubtly called Seeno Evils. Aside from tossing hints out about Ai's situation, the point being made here is rather blunt: Ai is in this situation because she did not stand up to the bullying when she could have, so she can only change things by taking a stand. The possibility exists that she may be able to get Koitomo back by doing so enough times.
This is some pretty heavy stuff, which makes the lighter tone that some scenes have feel incongruous. I am also not clear what the creative staff was trying to accomplish by making what was presumably supposed to be blood splatters into paint splotches. A lot of this is abstract on a level almost reminiscent of Kunihiko Ikuhara's works. But while the content may not sit well with everyone, there's no denying the quality of the technical merits. This stands up with Sk8 the Infinity and Mushoku Tensei as one of the best-animated and best-looking series of the new season. I was particularly impressed by the quality of the character designs and the portrayal of Ai's body language, but the episode does everything well visually (even if I might sometimes question why the visuals are done that way.)
If I rated this one based on visuals alone, it would probably get a 4.5. The lower rating is an indicator of my ambivalence over how those visuals work with the content.
Wonder Egg Priority is a very pretty episode that I did not like. There are several reasons for that – as I've said, I have a very low tolerance for stories about bullying, and when those stories also seem like they're going to make some questionable statements on the subject, my hackles go up. Wonder Egg Priority wavers between that point and also being about learning to cope with bullying and the loss of a friend, and how those two elements combine could either make or break this show.
The plot follows Ai, a girl who, for some undisclosed reason, has stopped going to school. One day, for whatever reason, she gets an egg from a gachapon machine, and shortly thereafter she ends up in another world that looks very much like ours. Immediately upon arrival, we see signs that something isn't right – two girls crouch in front of a shoe locker, either writing “die” or erasing it, and through the classroom window we can see flowers on a desk, a clear sign that a student has died. Ai runs to the bathroom, where the toilet paper forms a face and begins telling her to “break the egg.” When Ai does, a high school girl comes out of it, and the two begin to be chased by horrible little knife-wielding gremlins the high schooler calls “Seeno Evils.”
Even before we hit the flashback about why Ai has stopped going to school, we can tell that bullying played a part in it – the Seeno Evils and the faceless girls from the shoe locker are clearly meant to represent the way that both instigators and bystanders who say nothing are both guilty. What we don't quite know is what role Ai played in the suicide of her friend Koito, whose death is the midway point of the episode – was she also a victim? Or was she a Seeno Evil, complicit in it? And, most importantly, is it true that if she saves other people, like the high school girl who came from her egg, Koito will come back to life?
That's where I get especially uncomfortable with the story, although I may certainly be taking the promise of the egg-giver too literally. More likely this will simply turn out to be a magic realism take on Ai's grieving process. But that the specter has been raised makes me uncomfortable with where the story may be going, and this is a brand of horror that just doesn't work for me. I can see that I'll likely be the outlier on this episode, but oh well. For people with a very specific set of experiences, this could be a difficult show to watch, no matter how beautiful it looks.
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