by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 3 of
Sonny Boy ?
Sonny Boy's third episode opens with its protagonist nearly dying inside of a toilet. I think that's as good an encapsulation as any of the series' dry sense of humor and penchant for absurdity in its pursuit of metaphor. The island hasn't become any less strange, but the kids are adapting to its strangeness. Even the class outcasts have a niche found for them in this ecosystem, which is the main subject of this week's installment. It's no less dense than the first two episodes, but it benefits from being more focused than either of them. Now that we have a grasp (however loose) on what's happening to this drifting classroom, we can start to dig in earnest into how it happened, who these characters are, and why any of this matters.
Much of that information is likely to stem from Rajdhani's research. We certainly didn't need his help to figure out what Nagara's not-so-secret superpower was, but I doubt it'll take long for Rajdhani to figure out how it intersects with Nozomi's. I like, too, how his extensive research into the other worlds provides a passive benchmark for how much time has passed in between this episode and the last. Sonny Boy so far seems to laud his dogged scientific approach as the class' best chance at understanding and escaping their predicament (remember that it was Rajdhani who figured out what actually caused the fire last week). He's characterized as candid, open-minded, and collaborative, which are great personality traits for a scientist.
Hoshi, while no less intelligent, has pretty much the opposite characterization. He's devious, secretive, and manipulative, although he's quick to justify his underhanded methods as necessary for maintaining societal order. Appropriately, his power is also more mystical than Rajdhani's—a strong, authoritative, and disembodied voice tells (and shows) him what the future holds. When Nozomi asks him who the voice belongs to, the unspoken answer is likely “God,” but that begs the question who God would be in this scenario. Is God an all-powerful being? Is God a teacher giving the students a rather unusual lesson in civics? Or is this figure just another inevitability baked into the surreal fabric of their situation? At the very least, Sonny Boy seems to be setting up the Reason versus Religion conflict, which would fall right in line with its allegorical aspirations. And it also seems pretty obvious on whose side Sonny Boy lies, yet I'm nonetheless interested to see if it can add some nuance to the situation as it develops. Can Rajdhani's application of the scientific method steer the students to safety, or will Hoshi's prophesized savior lead them to a different kind of salvation?
Naturally, Sonny Boy's commentary doesn't stop there. The class divide between the students has only grown thanks to the “rules” of the island. This answers a lingering question/concern I had about Rajdhani's proprietary Bitcoin app; the students do need to work in order to earn money, although the specifics of what constitutes “work” are still frustratingly vague. I believe, however, that we can assume that the valuation equation is just as arbitrary and inconsistently-applied as it is in our normal capitalist society. The episode has plenty of evidence of such, when we see a bunch of presumably non-superpowered students doing hard labor tilling the land under the hot sun in order to earn their keep. In the very next scene, though, a superpowered student overseer effortlessly manipulates a floating glob of earth as he sits in the cool shade of a tent. The disparity and irony are as thick as the tropical heat. Similarly, Nagara's friend with the E.T. finger enjoys a cozy position tabulating the superpowers of every student. It doesn't matter that his own power is useless; the mere fact that he has one is enough to grant him that privilege. And of course, he uses that privilege to reinforce his standing, ranking his objectively dumb power as A-tier. The people who draw up the rules inevitably tip the scales in their favor. Any system that allows itself to be rigged, will get rigged.
Nagara realizes the absurdity of all this, and he confronts Mizuho about not freely giving away all the stuff the other students need. She rebuts by reminding him about the blue fire, but even ignoring the island's mystical imposition, that still wouldn't be a good solution. The real problem is that one person, Mizuho, controls all these resources. Even if she was the most selfless person on the planet, and even if she was able and willing to freely provide everything to everyone, that would still result in a situation where everyone depended on the whims and charity of a single person. No matter how good the intentions are, that has a pretty bad set of historical precedents. This isn't Mizuho's fault either. This power was dropped into her lap, and it was dropped well before her class drifted into another world. This is a systemic evil bigger than any one person, and it can't be toppled by working within the bounds of that system.
Along those lines, Nagara comes to the conclusion that he can't blame the shadow students for retreating into their world of curtained respite. Recluses aren't self-made; they're backed into a corner by a society that rejects them, and they make the most of that corner by living in it. The islands codifies that into a significantly more unsettling phenomenon, as it is wont to do, but the basic mechanics remain the same. It's telling, too, that the other students aren't worried about the recluses' welfare so much as they're just disturbed by the sight of their shadow forms. That's the only reason they care enough to sic Mizuho and Nagara on the case, and by admission, they probably wouldn't have noticed the disappearances otherwise. That's a pretty scathing indictment from Sonny Boy, yet Nagara still decides it's best to bring the students back into the general fold. He and Mizuho are able to mend their relationship in spite of their mutual prickliness, so to some degree, he has to hold hope that the others can make the most of a second chance as well. He's not invalidating their choice as much as he's recognizing they never had a choice in the first place.
Sonny Boy's written content gives me plenty to chew on, as you can tell by now, but its execution is just as fascinating, and arguably even more sublime. Consider how the show depicts Hoshi's power—the voice that speaks to him has a noticeably different sound mix than any other character voices, adding to its otherworldliness. I also like how freeform the series has been in showing the variety of other worlds Nagara keeps stumbling into, drawing from the kinds of psychedelic visual effects used the pioneers of speculative sci-fi cinema (I'm thinking of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris in particular). This week's featured world, with its endless labyrinth of soft blackout curtains, more specifically evokes the Red Room from Twin Peaks (and who better to crib surreal imagery from than David Lynch?). And the climax is triumphant, literally blowing away the claustrophobic darkness of the recluses' prison and furling it into a gigantic black rose, suspended in the sky for a single beautifully uncanny moment. While I certainly hope Sonny Boy will have meaningful things to say when it's over, I'll be pleased if it can maintain its distinctive aesthetic and deliver animation showcases with this much creative freedom.
Sonny Boy's pot is still simmering, and it's early enough in the season that I expect it to simmer for a good while. I think we're all nervously waiting for the moment when it boils over, but in the meantime, I'm glad to see the narrative making strides with broadly-sweeping social allegory and weird yet competent character development beats. While Nagara isn't terribly exciting, I've warmed up to the rest of the main cast. Mizuho in particular feels like the most rounded of the bunch now, as she deals with the conflict between her antisocial tendencies and her responsibility as the island's benefactor. Like society itself, there's sure to be plenty of friction between who these kids want to be and who the laws of this universe expect them to be. That's a tough thematic nut to crack, but Sonny Boy is nothing if not ambitious.
Sonny Boy is currently streaming on Funimation.
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