Wake Up, Sonny Boy: Sleepwalking in an Alternate Dimension

Yohan Berry
Aug 5 · 9 min read

This article is a part of AniTAY’s Summer 2021 Early Impressions series, where our authors offer their initial thoughts on the new, prominent, and exciting anime from this season!

One of the most rewarding aspects of keeping up with seasonal anime is that there is always something to look forward to. Usually anime adaptations are announced a year prior which is contrary to original anime, who can’t afford having a slow turnaround to generate excitement. Surprisingly, 2021’s offerings of originals so far have exceeded expectations with noteworthy series like Odd Taxi, Wonder Egg Priority, and Vivy; Sonny Boy is the latest show continuing the trend of excellence. In the show, a group of high schoolers, along with their school itself, have been transplanted in a new world and given superpowers, and they must now quickly adapt to this new world and its strange rules to survive and navigate their way back.

Sonny Boy is a rarity in anime as it is directed and written by a single person: Natsume Shingo. Not only has he proven his directing ability with adaptations like One Punch Man and ACCA, he also contributed animation, storyboarding, and the likes on many acclaimed series, working alongside creators like Masaaki Yuasa and Shinichiro Watanabe. With Sonny Boy, he gets to exercise more creative control, and I think it will mark an epoch for Natsume’s career as his biggest opportunity yet to share his unique auteurial vision.

The colorless void of the world initially

To dissuade anybody who laments how stale anime has become, Sonny Boy stands out from the ubiquitous mold with its bold art direction. The show maintains a fine balance between being expressionistic and accurately depicting the scenery to ground the supernatural setting in realism. The creators made sure to accurately retain the verisimilitude of a lived-in Japanese high school, which sells how the adolescent cast quickly adjusted to their new reality, despite being surrounded by a black void. While the scenery is given great visual attention, it is ever shifting to reflect the uncanniness of the world. Backgrounds become distorted, expressionist coloring reminiscent of a Rothko painting (I am reaching a little here), glimpses of abstract and anachronistic new worlds. The island the students discover resembles a watercoloured painting, and the show plays around with the medium by smudging it to convey fire and rain. It all looks like a nostalgic City Pop album cover, and it even further embraces a retro aesthetic through character designer Hisashi Eguchi, author of the classic 80’s-manga, Stop!! Hibari-kun!.

Visual storytelling chronicling the status of the missing students while showing people’s negative opinions of them

Sonny Boy’s sound design also consistently elevates the stylistic direction. Different factors play to make the black void feel alien. Voices and footsteps are echoed, and the school remains brightly lit despite no source of sunlight. The first episode’s conclusion is cathartic in its use of sound: the episode restrained itself to only diegetic noise until the veil over the void lifted, like a light switch waking the students up from a collective dream, making the introduction of the theme both triumphant and rewarding. The soundtrack in following episodes range from bouncy jazz to spacy and hopeful synths. Their appearances are infrequent, used only to amplify key moments as the show prefers to let the calm atmosphere carry scenes. Of course, all this stylish direction is of no importance if the story and characters are not interesting.

Nozomi and Nagara

Two outsiders, Nozomi and Nagara, form a bond. The latter is a resigned, directionless teenager and the former is a free spirit. They were together when the school was transported and have stuck together since.

Their personalities play well off each other. Nagara defers to others and has a hard time looking people in the eye. While others become frustrated or look down on him, Nozomi cuts through his walled-off defenses and gets him to speak his mind. While Nagara shies away from others for self-protection, Nozomi dislikes following the crowd, opting to take literal leaps of faith or exploring out on her own. Before drifting to the new world, Nozomi witnessed several moments of Nagara sleep-walking through life, even overhearing the conference he had with a teacher that was concerned about his lack of career goals and support from parents. While it is not exactly clear yet why she’s drawn to him, there are many indications that she feels they are kindred spirits. They both reside comfortably on the sidelines but share the same resolve to do the right thing, and a longing to not stay in the same place. They are dandelions.

Mizuho in search of her cats

The show mostly follows these two, but each episode expands and opens up more of the cast. Choosing highschoolers as the subjects allows the director Natsume Shingo to explore certain subcultures or prevalent behaviors in current Japanese teens. Nagara is an example of someone going through the motions, and there are many other troubled students trapped in this world. Mizuho boasts one of the most useful powers in the show — the ability to receive any items through Amazon delivery (called Nyamazon), but she gets into trouble because she speaks callously. Her righteousness contrasts with her candidness, often putting her at odds with herself and others. In one scene, she struggles to give an apology to an unjust person, and in another she is too harsh in how she tells Nagara to stand up for himself. She survives in this new world because she’s very useful, but not every student is so lucky.

Among the students is a dynamic of the haves and have-nots, those privileged with power and those who have to do their share of manual labor to be useful. Anxieties have formed for many and we see references to hikikomori (shut-in) behaviors in the third episode. In this world, hikikomori are placed in a series of black-velvet rooms where they are free to laze about as their physical body is trapped in stasis. To rein in those with power, the students attempt to pick a leader; however, the person voted for, the muscular and nasally Cap, let his new position get to his head and tried enforcing rules through violence. Since then, the group has elected for a more democratic process, where the students gather in front of a blackboard like a class meeting. Other characters noted that Cap’s arrogance stems from never having a role of importance before, much like with many of the now-superpowered students as pointed out by Pony, “All of a sudden, you’ve obtained this incredible power, when you were just a stooge before”. Some students are playing out a power fantasy with their new abilities, and it shows how unhealthy it is to use something so arbitrary to determine the worth of self and others.

A side-note: The names of all the student council members come from their physical attributes; Cap wears a baseball cap, Pony has a ponytail, and Hoshi’s name means star, like the one that rests flamboyantly under his eyes

I have to mention the character that appears most antagonistic in the first three episodes: Hoshi, has an air of maliciousness even while preferring to remain on the sidelines. He has an eerie ability to manipulate others, and holds a tremendous influence despite his small stature and unblinking eyes. He never gets his hands dirty, quietly smiling as he stirs Cap’s infatuation with power, or informing Pony on who was leaving hateful comments about her online. He even instigated a mob against Mizuho in episode two, as he appears to be able to share visions of death and destruction with his classmates. He has one the most ambiguous powers by far and even has some connection to what is essentially a third-person narrator. It is unsettling to hear such a deep adult voice narrating through him; it’s jarring every time it appears.

Nagara’s signature look of indifference

All of the students, including Hoshi, often have abstract powers and are never explicitly explained. It is left for the viewers to decide. Some powers can be easily understood, while others require more observation, and it even withholds key information needed to better understand them. I wondered why there was a carousel and piles of boxes left around the school at first and my questions were answered in the next episode when we are introduced to Mizuho browsing Amazon off her phone. While it isn’t clear how her packages even arrive, the method is shown when she complains to her cats about how they got her order wrong. I love how this somehow implies that her cats are interdimensional mail carriers. Another character, Rajdhani, has the ability to create simplified geometric designs to be used as tools. This power has boundless potential, however we only see him using it to make toys or a roof to shield him from the rain.

The extent of the student’s powers may be obscured for now as the series will be revealing more of its properties. Perhaps it will be that they aren’t as arbitrary as once assumed and have some connection to an individual’s personality. For instance, Nagara’s skills in discovering portals to different worlds is perhaps manifested from his innate desire to be anywhere else. It’ll all tie back around to the central mystery: How did they all get there?

There is a lot more in store for Sonny Boy and, personally, it has been a blast watching it every week. Each episode is perfectly paced and uncovers a new wealth of material to dissect, and I get to enjoy spirited discussions with friends about what everything all means. New questions emerge as the puzzle continues to build itself. It all works and is never incomprehensible because it takes pains to animate the minute details, paying attention to things other animation may overlook like subtle body language and framing. Sonny Boy is a stunningly beautiful work with creative flourishes breathing life into every frame.

Thank you to TheMamaLuigi for his help proofreading this article.

Sonny Boy
Based on: Original anime
Directed by: Shingo Natsume (One Punch Man, Boogiepop (2019), ACCA, Space Dandy)
Produced by: Madhouse (Perfect Blue, Hunter x Hunter)
Streaming on: Funimation
Episodes watched: 3

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