The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sonny Boy ?
What is this?
This science-fiction ensemble drama centers around 36 boys and girls. On August 16, midway through a seemingly endless summer vacation, middle school third-year student Nagara (center in image above), the mysterious transfer student Nozomi (right), and classmates such as Mizuho (left) and Asakaze, are suddenly transported from their tranquil daily lives to a school adrift in an alternate dimension. They must survive with the super powers that have awakened within them.
How was the first episode?
I'm not entirely sure what to make of Sonny Boy based on the first episode. This original work, animated at Madhouse and written and directed by Shingo Natsume, takes obvious influence from classics like The Drifting Classroom and Lord of the Flies. It melds and merges these concepts into a single idea: what if a school and 36 of its students were suddenly transported into a black void with no way to contact the outside world, and at the same time, they started to develop strange powers?
Their responses are as varied as they are themselves. Many of the characters' personalities are already coming through loud and clear, through how they're coping with their sudden displacement in spacetime, how they interact with others, and even their body language. Their powers are often strange, never settling for the classics like telekinesis or flight; instead, they're things like receiving interdimensional Amazon deliveries. Even if the main components of the story are already well-established, Natsume finds space within them to be creative and unsettling.
Natsume's directorial choices add to the strange atmosphere and its sense of simultaneous mystery and stagnation. The character designs shift and warp, moving deliberately off-model in ways that made me wonder if this was a Yuasa anime before remembering that I already knew who directed it. The complete lack of background music – and I do mean complete, since there isn't a single note of it – adds to the unnerving sense that they truly are alone in the void, and everything they knew about society is breaking down.
If nothing else, the first episode of Sonny Boy works as a twenty-minute mood piece. It'll be interesting to see the direction the narrative takes, because I can sense in a very real way that there's a greater theme about society here.
This premiere, more than just about anything else this season, left me frustrated. On paper, there are a lot of interesting things going for Sonny Boy. Shingo Natsume is a unique and confident director, working with an original concept and utilizing a decidedly atypical visual style. The concept of a classroom of students trying to survive and cooperate in such a strange, out-there scenario has a lot of potential. And yet I can't help but feel like this first episode is a letdown.
A big part of that is the story presentation. While lots of potentially interesting character beats and stories are set up in this premiere, I've so far been given little reason to care about any of it. The episode is so busy establishing its concept and skipping through the immediate Lord of the Flies-style power struggle that follows that we never really get to know any of our major characters. We're granted tidbits of characterization that could maybe lead to something engaging, but between our enigmatic heroine Nozomi and our blank-faced male lead Nagara, I could maybe shake out half a paragraph about who they are or what they want or how they feel about anything that happens in this episode. The climax is also obviously meant to raise eyebrows and have us asking questions about just what is going on, but without an emotional anchor it just comes off as a shrug before cutting to credits.
I also have a personal problem with the way this episode uses music – in that it doesn't. There's not a single piece of music save for the credits theme, and the lack of a credited music composer has me pretty worried that that'll be the norm for this series. That's not great, because while eschewing non-diegetic sound can be a creative or bold approach, it made a lot of this premiere's tension fall flat. In a story like this, atmosphere is everything, and the visuals alone just aren't enough to make teenagers listlessly talking in classrooms against a pure black backdrop interesting to follow, which is 90% of this opening episode. It also has the effect of making every scene feel longer and duller than it's meant to, and is probably what soured me the most on this one.
So yeah, pretty frustrating. There's still plenty of room for Sonny Boy to build into something worthy of actual interest instead of vague curiosity, and I'll be watching more if only because of how weak this season is, but I feel safe calling this premiere a disappointment.
Sonny Boy's premiere is the kind that I can respect the hell out of, even if I'm not sure how much I actually enjoyed the experience of watching it. The immediate details we get about the premise are interesting: Dozens of students have found themselves and their empty school trapped in a nebulous, pitch-black void, and some of them have been given superpowers to boot. This isn't a Danganronpa-style death game, though (at least not yet), and what makes this setup more compelling to me is how Sonny Boy goes for a more Lord of the Flies approach, showing us what would happen if a bunch of kids had to figure out some semblance of societal structure after being thrust into an unimaginable crisis, and then seeing how the kids with power end up treating the kids who have none.
We start right in the middle of things, as so many anime like to do, with the vague details about character backstories and the circumstances of the “storm” that trapped the students in the void only getting shown via flashback later, and even then the writing commits to its surreal, incongruous tone. The thrust of the story revolves around the efforts of a few students to control the many with penalties and punishments that are doled out with the powers of a student named “Cap”, who can emblazon an X on the face of anyone he deems to be unruly and force them to do mandatory exercises and other menial tasks against their will.
Except, the power might actually belong to the star-faced kid? I don't think he even has a name, though he goes around espousing the weak wills of the “sheep”, and the need for people like him to lead them. I don't know what his deal is, exactly, but I don't know what Sonny Boy's deal is, either. The superpowers are treated almost like an afterthought, with kids randomly demonstrating various abilities that are only partially explained, despite us not knowing who they are or what their relationships to one another might be. Nozomi's free-wheeling and aggressively quirky attitude seem awfully suspicious, though her friendship with Nagara is the closest thing the episode has to an emotional hook, since their scenes together give us the few moments where any of Sonny Boy's characters act almost like real people, instead of allegorical archetypes.
The visuals, too, are bound to be divisive. Director Shingo Natsume and Studio Madhouse are flaunting an interesting style, to say the least; the character designs and off-kilter levels of detail in the character animation reminded me the most of Hiroshi Nagahama's controversial Flowers of Evil anime. I'm not sure how much of it comes down to artistic intent, and how much is down to limited resources and budget, but the result is…well, like the rest of the series, it's interesting, but I'm still not sure if I mean that in a positive or a negative way.
Sonny Boy has a lot of potential, that's for sure, and I could see my opinions swinging wildly in either direction depending on where the rest of the show goes from here. It won't be for everyone, but it's something different, and I'm always down to give ambitiously flawed shows like this one a chance, at least.
I'm never quite sure how to feel about introductory episodes that are deliberately odd. Sonny Boy certainly falls into that category, with its elements of the classic manga The Drifting Classroom and the more recent A School Frozen in Time. The premise here seems to be that thirty-six third year high school students, and their school, have been transported into some sort of dead zone, with nothing but fathomless black surrounding them. Some students have gained what they term “superpowers,” others have none, and a few appear to believe they have none but may actually have the most practical powers of all. Also there are a lot of cats in the school for no apparent reason, and that one with the runny nose worries me because the only time I've seen a cat with that kind of nasal drip, it turned out to be a symptom of her sinus cancer.
But things like sinus ailments may not matter in a world where its inhabitants are allowed to make the rules. The three members of the student council present in the school are definitely on a power trip, with the one boy with a star-shaped mark on his face leading that particular charge. His goal seems to be less that he wants to create order from the chaos and more a case of wondering how much he can get away with while still looking like the good guy. He's got no problem turning the experience into a retelling of Lord of the Flies, and when he turns on Cap, the baseball player who goes fully off the rails, it's less that he thinks Cap has gone too far and more that he wants to be seen as the voice of reason – or at least less unhinged than he actually is. If he's the puppet master, it wouldn't do for the rest of the group to see the strings in his hands, after all.
The person most likely to gum up his arrangement is Nozomi, a girl who has apparently just returned from overseas. We know she's a rebel because her skirt is green and her shirt is blue (everyone else is in black and white clothes), and even before the school's move was triggered by the lightning storm, she was busy ripping up textbooks and cornering class loner Nagara on the roof. I'm a little concerned because she's got some markers of the manic pixie dream girl trope, but that's what gets the kids out of the void and into a new setting at the end of the episode: her decision to leap from the roof into the unknown. The message seems to be that you can't trust what your eyes tell you, and if the story doesn't get too enamored of its own schtick, it could be fascinating.
I know that every show is a case of “your mileage may vary,” but I can't really think of one where that statement has applied more than Sonny Boy's first episode. I strongly suggest watching it to see how it hits you.
Things go Lord of the Flies here real quick. Sonny Boy is one of those anime that throws us right into the middle of things and leaves us to play catch up. Basically, 36 high schoolers have found themselves (and their school) floating in an endless black void. To make things even odder, several among them have gained superpowers ranging from controlling electricity to... magical cat-based Amazon deliveries—which honestly may be the most useful power for survival one could hope to have.
There's a lot to unpack here when it comes to the students' fledgling society. There's already tension between the superpowered and the normal kids. Then, on top of that, there's the issue of those who want an ordered society and those who want anarchy. But before either of those issues can come to a head, everyone is confronted with the most important ground rule for this strange world the students find themselves in: it's a world of majority rule. The students vote on a leader who then makes the rules. If anyone is called out for breaking one of those rules, reality itself forces a punishment befitting the crime upon them—be that spending a night calculating out an infinite number or running hundreds of laps around the school.
Unsurprisingly, such absolute power corrupts real damn quick. In this episode, the elected leader starts in a place of good intentions—everyone needs to pitch in to keep their school livable, after all—but all too soon, he's reveling in the joy of being able to punish any who go against his rules. He creates a terror state with everyone either hiding from him or telling him only what he wants to hear. If he had been either a little more evil or a little more intelligent, he would have revised the rules to make them not apply to him—you know, before he hit another kid in the head with a freaking metal bat.
If there is one emotion this anime invokes in me, it's dread. It's not hard to see how quickly reality-altering majority rule can go off the rails even without a petty despot in charge—and that's before we get into the superpower classism and self-determination conflicts. Honestly, it feels like it's only a matter of time till these kids start dropping like flies and, regardless of the series' obvious quality, I'm not sure I've got the stomach to watch that.
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