The past few years have brought us some huge anime blockbusters. My Hero Academia has become this generation’s gateway anime in the same way that Naruto was for the previous one. Jujutsu Kaisen reminded us of what was possible in shonen battle scenes. And, of course, Demon Slayer broke records all over the world. But when we focus on only a few standout series, we sometimes forget other approaches to anime exist…
Sonny Boy premiered this past July, as part of an otherwise quiet summer 2021 anime season. Details were scarce before the first episode aired: It was an original anime, not based on an existing manga, light novel, or videogame. It was about high school students who develop supernatural abilities and get transported to another dimension. Based on key visuals released ahead of the first episode’s air date, its animation style was a callback to earlier anime eras less defined by the highly stylized character designs of today. And, perhaps most notably of all, it was directed by Shingo Natsume, who is most remembered for directing the stellar first season of One Punch Man.
Based on Natsume’s directorial role and the sci-fi premise, people who tuned into the first episode immediately drew conclusions. Students getting transported to another dimension where, free of adult supervision, they must fend for themselves? Clearly a shout out to the horror classic The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezz. Teenagers developing superpowers who then turn on each other in displays of dominance and power? Sci-fi Lord of the Flies, anyone? People getting stranded on an island and trying to find a way home? Hello, Robinson Crusoe!
The assumptions aren’t entirely wrong. The group chat used by the students in the series does reference The Drifting Classroom. One character does have a copy of Robinson Crusoe. The inspirations and influences are there to be seen. But leaving the conclusions there does both the show and viewer a disservice. Sonny Boy is none of these things. It’s something else entirely.
At first glance, Sonny Boy looks like it’ll take a clear step-by-step approach to plotting. The students get transported to another dimension and they must get home. A clear problem. A clear goal. We soon learn that there are multiple dimensions, each with their own set of rules the students must learn and live by. A complication. A big one, even. And we discover that Nagara, the class loner and outsider, seemingly can shift from one dimension to another. He’s the solution! Right?
Sonny Boy doesn’t take the standard storytelling approach we’ve come to expect from anime—especially the action-packed blockbusters from the last few years. While the story’s goal may appear to be to get home, that’s ultimately not the path the show takes. Or rather, the path home is circuitous and not at all obvious. Nagara may have the ability to go home—and bring everyone else along with him—but the driving question soon becomes: Does he want to? And if he doesn’t, why?
Beyond the interpersonal drama between Nagara and his classmates, a larger mystery looms through the anime. Why did the students get transported to another dimension in the first place? As the series unfolds, we see that they’re not the first class to experience the phenomenon. And unless something changes, they probably won’t be the last. What’s the point of this? Is there one? Or is it merely the whim of a capricious god?
The answers don’t come quickly and what answers do come are up for debate. Sonny Boy unfolds at its own pace. It drops clues and revelations on a weekly basis, all in a very measured and deliberate way. People used to seeking out manga to find out what happens next in an anime will be stymied. There is no source material to reference here. Instead, we all must sit down and piece together what’s going on with each new episode. In a time when most anime is based on already existing properties, the prospect is both daunting and exciting. Combined with a less obvious storytelling structure and approach, it creates a different experience. That might turn some people off, but anime fans who have been looking something fresh and unique should start here.
Sonny Boy isn’t a blockbuster. With the series more than half-complete, it’s become quite apparent that was never the goal. It’s the anime equivalent of an indie film from A24. Not everyone will like it. In addition to the storytelling approach, the characters themselves aren’t especially likeable—but they are very real despite the fantastical situations they find themselves in. The show expects a lot from the viewer but like an indie arthouse film, people who do put in the effort will find much to enjoy.
Sonny Boy is available to watch on Funimation. The anime just wrapped up its first season.