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This Week in Anime
What the Heck is Going On in Sonny Boy?

by Monique Thomas & Jean-Karlo Lemus,

Director Shingo Natsume has sent 30-odd students adrift to worlds both familiar and strange in a supernatural mystery that often feels beyond description. Nicky and Jean-Karlo try to figure out what the bigger picture is, if there even is one at all.

This series is streaming on Funimation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Nicky, they call them the "Dog Days of Summer", but I'm extremely not looking forward to the onset of September and Autumn. I just hate the cold that much. I just wanna be on a beach forever.
Here in California, I have absolutely no idea what you mean by this concept of "seasons" (I have been faking it up until now), at least in the traditional sense. But I would very much like it if the entire west coast stopped being on fire.

But for those of us who just want to get away from it all and to run away from society and reality, surely, Sonny Boy is the anime for you!
Sonny Boy is a strange beast, and ranks right up there with Otherside Picnic as one of the most interesting and thoughtful takes on the isekai genre that we've seen since the whole blasted fad got pushed into overdrive. It makes me feel like I'm watching one of those old, weird shows Adult Swim would air in between Inuyasha and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex; talky, heady, maybe a little full of itself, but genuinely fascinating.
It's only isekai on a technicality, but otherwise doesn't have much in common with conventional fantasies currently trending in anime. But I agree that Sonny Boy feels like a distinctly older genre, leaning more into aspects of speculative fiction, allegory, philosophy, and drama to tell this transcendental coming-of-age story. And I'd expect nothing less from the first series fully written by acclaimed director, Shingo Natsume.
Oh yeah, and it's got a baseball episode too. This already elevates it beyond your ordinary anime.
Natsume has always been stand-out as a director, he helped pull an amazing team together for One-Punch Man's first season, and then went on to do the more contemplative political drama ACCA-13 (that also involves a lot of bread). He even explored similarly weird territory with his adaption of Boogiepop and Others. So when I heard he was doing his own series, I was certainly intrigued. He also got the extremely trendy Hisashi Eguchi to design the characters, who's previous credits include the 80's manga Stop! Hibari-kun and the original designs for Perfect Blue.
So that's why this 2020s anime is referencing a specific ancient Shonen Jump series from 1982!
But a great artist does not always equal great writing. Before this premiered, I had NO IDEA what to even expect, and even after watching eight whole episodes, I still don't. Sonny Boy as a story is extremely befuddling, but in the best way. This heady series of thought experiments won't be for everyone but I think those looking for surprises will enjoy it . Now, let's try and unravel some of them, shall we?
So, the story starts in media res: a certain high school has been adrift in a void for several days, with only the student body on campus. There's no way to communicate to the outside world, although thankfully they don't have to worry about food running out. Think The Drifting Classroom, only not horrifying and gruesome.
Our main character, Nagara is hanging out in an empty classroom when he's interrupted by his classmate Nozomi. They and 34 other students not only have been drifting for days, but they're also starting to develop strange powers.

With their newfound abilities, some of the students start to act reckless, frequently breaking school property. Along with The Drifting Classroom, it's easy to get a sort of Lord of the Flies situation arising from all this.
Right away, I'm amused by the weird powers people are developing. It's not basic stuff like "this person burps fire" or "is a teenage edgelord who blows stuff up", but heady stuff like "I can make weird spatial folds" or "my cats are my Amazon deliverymen".
Excuse you, it's Nyamazon.
Oh right, how could I forget. The "cat" part is very important. They may not get your order right—but they are cats. They're all, like, "nya". And then you're all, "Don't turn your back on me!" and they're all, like, "Nya".

At any rate, the rule of law starts to break down when people realize that you can't be found in violation of the rules if you never agreed to follow them in the first place, and Nagara finds himself hotfooting it from the student council—when he and his entire class find themselves on a mysterious island. They've found what they call a new "This World", which is specifically different from their home world in that it has its own weird set of rules it follows.
Again, I bring up Lord of the Flies, not only because tension between students is inevitable and potentially disastrous, but not because of the inherent anarchy of the situation. In fact, the problems the students face are just the carry-ons of society from when they were all cast adrift.

The worlds they find are always seem to be govern by a myriad of rules but so does any form of social contract.
Many of these rules are unfeeling and uncaring, forcing students to return to a form of living not unlike when they were back home. For example, the island they're on has a rule that any object given must be properly compensated in some capacity, say, by bartering or by exchanging currency. Failure to do so causes the object to immolate within a certain timeframe. To resolve the issue, the resident computer expert... ugh... creates cryptocurrency based off of daily activities so that the students can utilize a basic economy to ensure their stuff doesn't go up in flames. So congrats: your lost students now have day jobs mining crypto.

Also, seemingly as a follow-up to the last two shows I watched for this column (RE-MAIN and the Reconguista in G movies): kudos to this anime for introducing Rajdhani, who appears to be of Indian descent. Here's hoping there are more POC in anime going forward!
As much as I hate the concepts of the students using crypto, I wouldn't give Radjhani a bad rap, he seems like one of the more benevolent characters as a man of science. Nothing really comes of introducing currency other than getting around a troubling situation, but systems like money are only a band-aid and never a fix for society's ills.
And how! Ryu-Hyo-Coin came about because Mizuho up there (who is the lady with the Nyamazon cats) was relied on for free stuff for the students, only for everyone's stuff to immolate after a few hours. The student body was convinced her power was behind it all and she was trying to hose them all over. It didn't help that the student body had an axe to grind for her in the first place...
The thing Mizuho, Nagara, and Nozomi have in common is that they're all outcasts in some way. Nagara is apathetic to the goings on around him, Mizuho gets targeted for calling out the Student Council for rigging the election, and Nozomi is a bit of a rebel. Big points to the student council prez here (right) using a nationalist slogan here vs her more radical competition.
Nagara is quickly pulled out of his apathy, however. After weeks of people assuming he didn't have a power, it's revealed he does, and it might be the most important one: he can travel between worlds, and may be the key for the students leaving their "This World" and returning home.
Just because he has the potential doesn't mean he can though! At first it didn't seem like he had a power but now it's obvious he can't really control it either. The other students get mad when they think he is lying about not being able to send them home. And I don't think they would be able to do anything unless they get to the true bottom of this whole adrift mystery.

But Sonny Boy is also an excellent example of "Not about the destination but The Journey." We all want to see the kids returned to safety to their families, but the story seems much more interested in exploring the microcosmic phenomena of the different worlds and using that to explore its ideas.
It helps that each of these students is their own world, as it were. Take Cap! When we first see him, he's the somewhat draconian stooge of the student council, enforcing their rules and punishing students who violate them. When we see him next, he's just a big, goofy guy who's really excited about baseball and the invisible monkeys that play it.
The Monkey Baseball™ episode is truly wonderful, but there's no shortage of great abstract concepts. Some of these episodes feel like they could be standalone stories, like watching a series of short films, but the characters are grounded enough that I don't mind seeing more of them. Even Nagara the sad sack is enjoyable to watch as he goes from a passive onlooker to an active participant with actual friends.

Though most of the 36 students don't get fleshed out, the central cast is worth sticking around for thanks to their personal dramas and their representation of larger roles in bigger society.
Gotta say, I don't like Nagara that much. He comes off as too much of a potato for me to like. And even when the full weight of his power is upon his shoulders, it's like all he can do is shrug helplessly. He never stops feeling like a tremendous sad sack until he sees a guy get eaten by cave bugs (long story). Sonny Boy may not be a conventional isekai, but its protagonist sure is! He's almost like the Senpai from Nagatoro; you expect Foghorn Leghorn to show up and slap his shoulders telling him to stop slouching!
I peg him more in the light of a Shinji Ikari; he knows the situation is fucked up but he doesn't really know how to change it and his response to that kind of pressure is to simply run away. He's lacking in self-confidence in a way that is almost crippling. I think this represents many people's relationship to the status quo, we know that society is not perfect but what can we do about it? Isn't it better to just lie down and call it a day?

But, I also don't think he's that cold. He feels guilt about his own passivity and when he does act he seems to do so for the sake of others. It's clear that he listens. Even when he leaves a bird to die he gets called out for it, and he feels guilty about it. It's through his own efforts that he gradually earns the loyalty of others who continue to push him forward.

An oddly capybara-esque fellow—he keeps attracting people to him. Maybe he's just friend-shaped?

Compare with Asakaze, a much more volatile student who has an easier time (at first) bending the student body to his will. He can manipulate gravity and has shown amazing feats. He's also oddly short-sighted and most of his motivation seems to be purely based on hating Nagara.

I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he was a loser before he had powers and if he goes back, he'll continue to be a loser. He sees Nagara as a bit of a glory-hog when people position him as a savior when he does some of the work. My other hunch is that they both like the same girl (Nozomi) even if Nagara won't admit that he likes her, because these are still teenagers, after all.
Sadly, this also means Asakaze is easy to manipulate. When Mrs. Aki, allegedly a teacher, shows up and starts riling up hatred towards Nagara, it's easy for her to posit Asakaze as her would-be messiah.

That Mrs. Aki is the textbook "MILF teacher"-type running a successful cleavage farm might be a factor, but never mind that.
She's also just another student, though probably from a different class. The reveals in Sonny Boy are wild. We always feel so close to getting home, lead by Nozomi's "Compass" ability, but there's also so much opposition. Even God, seems to oppose them. Some of the students claim they heard the voice of God before they were sent adrift. One of them being the other extremely manipulative shadow-student council leader, Hoshi.
Hoshi was suspicious from the word "go", pushing Cap to be the rule enforcer just to see what would happen. And so far, we have no idea what his deal is. He's always one step ahead of the other students, and of course he wants to go home, but he's as inscrutable as they get.
He's also seen regularly talking to God aka The Principal, and not only did he know that the drifting was going to happen but he decided to go to school and not tell anyone anyways because the others would need him.Even God questions his complex!

Like the first thing this guy does is call everyone sheeple. Not okay! However, I feel he does get a bit better.
Also, God kinda gives me Dr. Strangelove vibes what with his wheelchair and single glove.

Also, he doesn't need the wheelchair, because as we all know... he can walk.


God seems like he kinda sucks. Also, he just HAPPENS to be the principal, according to the talking dog.
Okay, so like... yeah, there's a dog.
His name is Yamabiko. He's 5,000 years old, and also a student. He's entered the school the year the other kids graduated. It's only been a year since they got stranded. He's a good boy.
Also, fun fact: he's voiced by the narrator from Cells at Work! Code Black and To Your Eternity, Kenjiro Tsuda. Put them together, and we get a black immortal dog who deals with diseases! And I wish I was kidding, but that's actually part of his backstory—as it turns out, Yamabiko was also an adrift student who happened upon another commune of students. They all tragically succumbed to an epidemic that turned them into crystals, and his experiences with them turned him into a dog.
Do you ever just like a girl so much you just suddenly turn into a dog?
Have you seen VTuber fans lately?
That's true. Yamabiko's backstory is probably one of the best standalone episodes. It's also one where the beauty of the direction is really apparent. Sonny Boy's art style and direction is about as obtuse as anything else about it. Eguchi's character designs are smooth but I wouldn't always call the animation clean. Lots of times the animation comes off as intentionally sloppy or minimalist, but that only adds to the overall vibes to the realism and surrealism.
Sometimes, all a talky show needs is to look good to compliment the vibes. Yamabiko's episode perfectly encapsulates that. Told as a flashback while Nagara, Mizuho, and Yamabiko hike to some location, we see the tragic downfall of Yamabiko's old community as he watches the people he's come to love slowly succumb to a disease that is too far gone to cure. It could have been handled quite melodramatically; here, it's given a somber tragedy that nevertheless holds its head high.
Yeah, but even though we get many of these of thought provoking episodes, I'm sure some viewers have to wonder. "Well, what's the point? Is it even trying to say anything?" Well, maybe not. I still can't claim exactly what Sonny Boy is trying to say overall, but it pokes holes in the idea that it has to be about a specific end goal statement to be meaningful.

The ant farm episodes ended up being one of my favorites for exploring this. Sometimes I finish an episode and think "the show could end right here and I would still be satisfied," and that's really something.
The show is in a position where it could end comfortably. While Nagara's world-hopping still isn't quite understood, it's revealed that he doesn't have as much control over it as people think, and it's tough to say whether it's making new worlds, making new "This Worlds", hopping between worlds, or only hopping between "This Worlds". But everyone's seemingly accepted the truth that going home isn't going to be the result of some final climactic epiphany, and so they've made do. A bunch of the class boarded an ark and set off for other worlds; Rajdhani made himself a boat and decided to sail off in an attempt at understanding the ocean they're on; and Nagara, Mizuho, Nozomi, and Yamabiko just... chill out in their world, waiting for... something. What exactly? Even they don't know. But they have each other—and that is enough. Meanwhile Asakaze stands by, still not the messiah he wanted to be.
My personal feelings is that a lot of it is if we want society to change, it's not enough to go back to the way things were or fallback on the old systems and expect them to work. Humans are full of the potential to change after all. This is also why I still label Sonny Boy as primarily a coming-of-age story. We reach a point in our lives where we can no longer return and for most of us that's just called "becoming an adult". Once we integrate ourselves into society there's no going back.
It doesn't help that these students are all, as Nicky put it, adrift. What meaning does society hold when it's yanked out from under you? What's the point in the social thresholds held against you when the entire system has bottomed out? When the show begins, many students are keeping up with their studies in the hopes that they'll be back home just in time for finals. By episode 8, only one remains who points out that they would have graduated on that day had they been at home.

It's a good comparison to modern-day students—even the complete decimation of the world economy hasn't stopped the rat race for students to do well, graduate from an expensive college, and somehow get a good job, even though we all know the job market these days consists of a fart sound and a middle finger. But sometimes plying to that old system, completely useless as it may be, is the only thing that can give you purpose.

I'd say even most adults are just trying to get by on their day-to-day even if it all seems fruitless.
We see this with the colony of students at Babel, a mysterious tower that Nagara finds himself warped to. They're building the tower of Babel in an attempt at reaching Heaven, but some students have been working for upwards of a millennium with no sign of stopping. And yet, they make do.
They also mention that there's treasure. I see it that most people's goals are "do good in this life and hope for better one next time" or "magically obtain wealth". Nagara befriends a fellow worker, but then he gets eaten by cave worms. It's not pretty, but he was able to find a purpose again.
It's the old Nietzsche yarn: "With a 'why', you can survive almost any 'how'." You just need that 'why' in the first place."
And while we haven't seen it yet, I think Nagara is spurring into a more proactive character from all this. To see a change that you want in the world, you have to act on it!
It's a twist I also appreciated from one of my favorite Shin Megami Tensei games: those who can't care enough to take a stance on the world will never have the power to change it. But in the meantime, what we have is a guy, his two classmates, three cats, and a dog that was once a man.

I enjoyed Sonny Boy, but I don't know if I can recommend it. It's weird, somber, and very heady. It doesn't even have an intro sequence, and its musical stings are insanely rare⁠—it'll be a long time before you notice that you've been listening almost entirely to environmental noises and there hasn't been a single song playing. I like this kind of thoughtful, navel-gazing approach... but I don't know if other people have the patience for this kind of existentialist pondering.
Oh yeah, it's a totally niche appeal reserved for people who enjoy going to see art films and reading musty old tomes. But I don't like capital-A Art simply because I'm some posturing snob. I like art because it's engaging and that is a better measure than worrying if something is "too smart" for you to enjoy. If people have the slightest desire to leave their anime comfort zone, I implore them to seek it out. There's many worlds that anime has to offer that they might've never known about.
This is a strange beast of a show, and I apologize for not being funnier about it. But I do hope it finds an audience. I'd like to think it'll stick with viewers. Like the ball of baseball monkey fuzz, the most magical thing about it is that it is what it is, and it cannot and will not be anything else.
Also it's got a snot-nosed kitty. What's not to love about that? It's pretty great.

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