「夏の果ての島」 (Natsunohate no shima)
“Island at the End of Summer”
Once again a season kicks off with a Funimation pre-air release. This time around it’s actually my top pick, Madhouse and Shingo Natsume’s Sonny Boy. It’s kind of weird having my most anticipated series kicking things off, never mind a week early – especially in a season as barren as Summer 2021 looks to be, that show is always carrying a lot of weight. The fewer real prospects you have on any schedule, the more it hurts when one of them flames out. All the more so the one sitting at the top of the table.
Well – the headline is certainly that Sonny Boy’s premiere was very good. Excellent, even. It certainly asks more questions than it answers, but that’s to be expected with this sort of series. But close behind it is the rather direct parallel between it and Umezu Kazuo’s legendary 1972 horror manga Kyoushitsu Hyouryuu (The Drifting Classroom). I knew there were some similarities in the premise but they ended up being so direct that this almost felt like a remake – in fact, The Drifting Classroom was specifically referenced. I suspect this will end up being more or less a homage, and the story will veer off in its own direction. But for inspiration a show could do a lot worse.
In point of fact it’s always struck me as rather odd that Kyoushitsu Hyouryuu never got an anime (it got a very loose live-action TV drama adaptation in 2002) so who knows, maybe Natsume-sensei feels that way too. I’ve said from the beginning that everything about Sonny Boy put me in mind of 1990’s anime, and nothing in the premiere changed that impression. From Eguchi Hisashi’s character designs to Natsume’s premise and austere direction, this felt like a show out of time – which may or may not be ironic, depending on the reasons for what we saw go down in the premiere.
Let’s leave the Drifting Classroom parallels to the side for now, at least until we know how deep they run – the title of that series gives you its basic premise. What we have here is a bunch of high schoolers (unlike TDC or Lord of the Flies, where they were grade schoolers) whose school mysteriously ends up in a dark void. There are no teachers, no adults of any kinds, and no means of contacting the outside world. Worse, some of the kids have developed superpowers, which they naturally abuse for their own amusement. Chaos quickly seems to be asserting itself, leaving it up to the student council to try and impose a sense of order.
I haven’t seen a cast list beyond the four (presumably) main characters, so I’m not even keeping the names straight at this stage. The initial focus is on Nagara (Ichikawa Aoi), seemingly a low-key slacker type, and Nozomi (Oonishi Saori) a strong-willed troublemaker who befriends him. The leader of the espers is Asakaze (Kobayashi Chiaki), who ends up facing off with the student council. The president is Mizuho (Aoi Yuuki), though initially the half-bright Cap is put in charge and the boy who seems like the real power of the group (he has a star on his face, for what it’s worth) is giving most of the orders.
This core idea – feral teens left to fend for themselves against an unknown world with no adults to bail them out – was the basis of a vast number of anime in the 90’s and 2000’s. Most of the characters are largely archetypes in the premiere but that too is normal for this kind of story. It’s not clear whether the powers are specific to individuals or just sort of hanging in the ether waiting to be employed, but star-boy seems to have a better sense of that than anyone else. Nozomi is the other main plot driver. Impatient with this world she decides to leap off the edge of it chasing a feather, and this seems to get the entire school transported to a tropical island. Does that mean the second ep will be the Lord of the Flies homage (my colleague Pancakes, who helpfully capped this episode for me, said of the premiere that it “looks a lot like a Lord of Flies if it was written by Wittgenstein”)?
As to what’s really going on here, I’m not going to dive into the deep end of that pool after one episode. The most obvious explanation is that everyone is dead – the cats (rebirth/reincarnation), the feather (weighing of souls), and the star (spirit guide/God) suggest that, not to mention the vision Star shows Asakaze. But that seems almost too obvious after only one episode to actually be true. That was the thing with those old anime in this genre, though – sometimes the cigar was just a cigar and sometimes it was a Freudian nightmare or a WMD, and you never knew for sure until the end.
Make no mistake, Sonny Boy is fully on-board with that old-school vibe. As Natsume Shingo fans know he’s a phenomenal technician, with an ability to derive maximum impact with minimum bombast (as he did in Boogiepop and Others, for example). It’s all in the editing, the cinematography, the reaction shots, the sound design. I even got a little Ghost Hound vibe out of this premiere, though I won’t get my hopes up for Sonny Boy to be a masterpiece on that level. I got pretty much what I was expecting here, and given where my expectations were that’s a very good thing indeed. I remain inclined to believe Sonny Boy will be summer’s best series, and anything else will be a fairly big surprise.