by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sonny Boy ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Sonny Boy ?
Incendiary in its impenetrability, and pugnacious in its pretentiousness, Sonny Boy stands as this season's weird anime experiment for weird anime watchers. In other words, I'm once again in my element. The premise is, in its own way, simple to explain: unknown forces grant a high school class unique superpowers, at the same time whisking both them and their entire high school building away to a black alien void. The premiere thus blends wry speculative sci-fi with existential horror, as the kids grapple with their new abilities alongside their cosmic marooning. While there's plenty of narrative and thematic meat on that bone, this still belies much of the deep and disorienting clockwork ticking away under Sonny Boy's surface. There's a lot going on here, and as of episode two, I'm extremely eager to dig into it.
As with any story about an isolated group of schoolchildren, I don't think you'll find a Sonny Boy essay/reaction out there that doesn't allude to the obvious cues it takes from past works of fiction like Kazuo Umezu's The Drifting Classroom, as well as their common antecedent Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I read the first few volumes of The Drifting Classroom to prepare, and in comparing the two, what strikes me the most is the philosophical difference in how they depict the titular “drifting.” Umezu instills dread by contrasting the neat geometric orderliness of the school building against the gnarled irregularity of its surrounding post-apocalyptic desert. Sonny Boy instead draws from the uncanniness of isolated video game assets, dropping its school unscathed in the middle of perfect terrifying nothingness. It's an approach that makes sense, given how often games are used as a touchstone in modern power fantasies (pick a random isekai story). Aesthetically, even the superpowers evoke familiar glitches: the students' “textures” stretch and warp, and the building folds and clips into itself, forming an Escher-esque wad of schooltime signifiers.
Sonny Boy's distinctive approach to its material also cannot be separated from its director, writer, and original creator Shingo Natsume. He's a director of many faces, dishing out a bombastic blockbuster hit (One-Punch Man season one), slinging a singular sci-fi anthology series (Space Dandy), and delivering lower-profile adaptations with plenty of panache (ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. and Boogiepop and Others). Sonny Boy is unique in that it's poised to be a “blank check” work, where Madhouse has more or less given Natsume the freedom to do whatever he wants thanks to his résumé. If 2021 has proven anything, it's that auteur-driven works like that can be a mixed bag (on the scale of Odd Taxi to Wonder Egg Priority), but I like Natsume's approach so far. It feels like a synthesis of what he learned working with both Shinichiro Watanabe and Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa's influence in particular can be seen in the way Natsume lets his animators stretch proportions and perspective in order to further disorient the audience. Meanwhile, I can hear Watanabe in the pitch-perfect music cue at the end of the premiere.
It might seem weird to praise Sonny Boy's musical direction when the vast majority of its soundtrack has been pure silence, but I like it! After all, John Cage proved that silence can be music as long as it's given context, and I have to imagine an infinite black void is probably pretty darn quiet. It also infuses power into those moments when the music finally does kick in—the escape at the end of episode one, and the fire at the end of episode two. Still, it's a deliberately off-putting creative choice, so it won't appeal to everybody. Similarly, Natsume's writing style here is extremely obtuse. While he's avoiding any internal monologues by choice, he weighs down his dialogue with high-concept abstractions, circuitous conversations, and deadpan absurdities. Personally, I enjoy heady sci-fi technobabble, and I relish dialogue that requires a lot of reading in between the lines, but I can understand how audiences might be frustrated at how stiff and clinical these people can sound.
These first two episodes also arguably suffer from trying to squeeze too much into too little space. The premiere is especially dizzying, flitting between all of the important characters and factions without providing much opportunity to digest its information or connect with their personalities, making the characters feel like mouthpieces first and people second. However, I'd argue that this is an intentional quirk, and that the complexity of the ideas and conflicts at play justifies this approach. After all, the show begins a full week into their predicament, so it's clearly more interested in the ramifications of their journey than in its origins. Episode two, though, while no less dense, gives us a wider perspective of various relationships. Mizuho's checkered past with the student council is one example, and it leads me to believe that the show will provide context and emotional grounding as it's appropriate going forward.
Like Lord of the Flies, this small collective of schoolchildren turns into a microcosm of all human society. Our protagonists, however, are the people who don't conform to the expected standards of that society. Main boy Nagara is nonconformist through inertia alone. He begins both episodes lying supine, only rousing when disturbed by fellow outcast Nozomi. Nozomi, by contrast, rebels loudly and deliberately, but she's also one of two characters (alongside Rajdhani) who makes a concerted effort to understand what has happened to their class. The flashback in the premiere beautifully illustrates the contrast between their personalities: Nagara stands motionless on the roof looking at the oncoming storm clouds, while Nozomi is perched high and framed by a flawless blue sky as she joyfully tears her book apart. Ironically, any chance of escape depends entirely on these two misfits; Nozomi can “see” the exits thanks to her power, and both of the drifts have been preceded by Nagara or her clasping the other's hand. There's a similar irony at play with Mizuho's Nyamazon power, through which the entire class ends up relying on another loner for their supplies.
Opposite this loose rebel alliance are the members of the student council, who push for law and order in spite of the ridiculous situation. Sonny Boy hasn't been shy about exhibiting anyone's character flaws, but it's definitely been the most critical of these would-be leaders. Cap's motivation in the premiere, for example, is not altruistic but selfish—he doesn't want to get in trouble for the damage the other students are causing with their powers (and that's only if they're able to return to the real world in the first place). The show also implicitly highlights the difference in severity between the inciting “crimes,” which are a couple of broken windows that eventually repair themselves anyway, and the resultant penalties, which verge on psychological torture. Cap's reign is primitive and punitive; he rules simply by virtue of being the biggest and strongest student, which is a pre-Stone Age way of choosing a leader. Unsurprisingly, it falls apart.
The other student council members don't fare much better in Sonny Boy's eyes. Pony, the president, only got elected thanks to electoral fraud, and she freely uses her advantages as a member of the ruling class to squash the voices of her dissidents. I don't have to tell you that's a really freaking spicy angle to include in your societal allegory in 2021, but there's no question that the people in power play by different rules than the rest of us. Hoshi, meanwhile, is a devilishly shrewd manipulator of soft power, effortlessly pulling the rest of the student council's strings. Sonny Boy makes a big show of his hypocrisy, contrasting his professed altruism with his unnerving totalitarian tendencies. While he's the closest thing we have to a villain so far, I doubt that it will be so simple, especially considering the real power in this story stems not from him, but from their surroundings.
This is where I can finally talk about what I think is the crux of Sonny Boy's allegorical ambitions. Lord of the Flies believes that civilization is tenuous. Its characters start out by mimicking the governments of their elders, but at the end of the book, they've descended into murder and savagery. Golding suggests chaos, not order, is our species' natural state (or at least the natural state of British schoolchildren). Sonny Boy, however, posits the opposite: order, not chaos, is the natural state of the universe. Society and civilization form because of nature, not in spite of it. In the school, the students' rules are enforced by an external force that punishes anyone who disobeys them. On the island, a similar force upholds the principles of fair and equivalent trade. The students might be gifted with incredible superpowers, but they're still beholden to the basic tenets of a cooperative civilization. This is Sonny Boy's grand rhetorical magic trick: what if the social contract were as inviolable as the laws of physics, and what if the laws of physics were themselves malleable?
That's an interesting thought experiment, and I'm excited to see where it goes from here! Sonny Boy's already shown that even this conceit has its intriguing loopholes, allowing plenty of space for interpretation and critique. Rajdhani, for instance, solves the island's fire problem by inventing Bitcoin, which involves a nominal exchange of value despite the fact that there's no actual value being created or exchanged here. Yet this still “satisfies” the natural law of the island. Is that a feature, or is that a bug, and does it matter either way? In this case, I think the answer lies in the episode's interwoven subplots about Mizuho and Nagara. Nagara, spurred by Nozomi's sharp tongue, goes out of his way to save Tora, and Mizuho, as thanks, gives him a hat. No money exchanges hands, and Nagara's contribution is intangible, but the trade is still “fair” as far as the island is concerned. More importantly, however, this forges a bond of trust between the two of them, which is worth more than any cryptocurrency wallet.
Honestly, there are so many other small and large details I'm dying to explore, but for now, I'll wrap up by praising Sonny Boy for being a bold breath of fresh air in a relatively slight summer anime season. Natsume instills this show with an incredibly strong creative voice, and despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, Sonny Boy seems determined to be a one-of-a-kind experience, from its surface aesthetics down to its buried briarpatch of themes. I just can't wait to see how weird it can get.
Sonny Boy is currently streaming on Funimation.
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