REVIEW: Sonny Boy, a Confusing but Unique Spectacle

Season aired: Summer 2021

Number of episodes: 13

Genres: Supernatural, Drama, Mystery, Adventure

Thoughts: Sonny Boy is one of the few original anime airing this season. Produced by Madhouse, the anime focuses on a class of students who find themselves suddenly floating in a blank dimension. Time doesn’t move forward, and some of the students develop powers while others do not. As they aimlessly float in this dimension, the students start asking themselves how they found themselves adrift, how do they survive in this empty dimension, and will they ever make their way back home. 

While the anime starts out as a simple survival mystery, its plot abruptly changes at the halfway point. To put it simply, Sonny Boy is not an easy anime to follow. Many of its episodes’ themes are centered on philosophical topics such as the ideas behind war, time, and human desires to feel special. In each of these episodes, different dimensions and powers are used to elaborate the story behind each philosophical topic. The dialogue is very indirect, and so is its visual storytelling. Every detail ends up having a purpose, and, as a result, you have to stay completely alert to fully understand the episode and the overarching theme.

Unique art style

The anime is unique, if nothing else. The art and animation styles are wildly different from most anime, as Sonny Boy opts for simpler character designs and stylized backgrounds paired with fluid movements for static poses. The simple character designs are the most impressive as, despite the lack of classic anime details such as different colored hair, unrealistic hairstyles, and intricate eyes, they are distinct enough in their body language and facial expressions for me to immediately recognize who is who. While it’s common to see how anime series influence each other, I genuinely cannot think of another series that is remotely similar to the art style of Sonny Boy or matches how the series uses that style to tell a hands-off story.

That being said, if you’re watching the anime expecting answers to all your questions, you simply won’t get that. The anime finds no need to resolve certain questions because it doesn’t contribute to the main plot — finding a way home for the protagonists — and to keep true to its philosophical core. 

However, the anime’s dependence on plot and philosophy does hurt its characters. While they are important to the story, you can’t help but feel a sense of detachment because it’s hard to emotionally connect with them. The episodes tend to focus on a single character, but because the story can be so hard to follow, you spend most of the time working out the puzzle of the narrative rather than understanding how the narrative speaks for the character. This becomes even truer after the halfway point where the students begin to break away into separate groups. Many of the characters from prior episodes begin to fade from your mind and are only mentioned in passing at the end.

Strongest episode

The most important characters do manage to make their marks, but they do not inspire powerful emotional investment. Nagara, the main protagonist, is the only one who goes through a genuine character arc by learning to engage more proactively with his world and to stand up for what he wants. Mizuho’s character is largely resolved in a single episode. Nozomi exists more like a symbol, and her attitude and personality reminded me too much of manic pixie dream girls — albeit with more philosophical importance than those characters usually have. Asakaze is an anti-villain who stays frustratingly petty and stubborn for most of the series with thoughts of false grandeur. My favorite character, Rajdhani, is the most likeable, but I cannot say that he had any other purpose aside from being the information center with a positive attitude. In fact, the most interesting characters of the series belong to the animals, with the strongest episode awarded to a black dog.

Sonny Boy also makes the interesting decision to largely cut out the soundtrack. In fact, the entire first episode didn’t have a single bit of music, which drives home how empty the dimension is. In later episodes, the background is largely peppered by real life noises rather than musical ambience. This decision, I think, worked well in the anime’s favor as the lack of music made the entire setting feel far more disconcerting than hearing music.

Beautiful but hard to follow

In the end, I understood what Sonny Boy said, but it took a lot of energy to get there. I think if they simplified the story to provide an easier connection to the characters, this series could have reached a larger audience. However, due to its decision to dive as deeply as possible into the abyss of philosophy, life, and time, I think it takes a particularly attentive viewer who loves the abstract to fully appreciate the series for what it is.

Rating

Plot: 8 (Multiplier 3.5)

Characters: 6 (Multiplier 3.5)

Voice acting: 6

Art/Animation: 8.5

Soundtrack: 7.5

FINAL SCORE: 71

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