A gift for Shingo Natsume, and a present for us all.
[The following is my contribution to the Anime Secret Santa 2022 project, organized this year over at AGC Podcast. Please also enjoy reading the others!]
I have almost a decade of contributions to the Anime Secret Santa project posts floating around the website at this point. So I tend to have a particular comfortable pattern.
I like having something of a more personal anecdote at the start. Someone had to have the unenviable task of digging through my own anime viewing database records to suggest something for me to watch. I almost feel I owe it to be a little more personal with the final result.
I also get to carve out some space. To place the review a bit more as a particular moment in time than I may already in other normal posts. You might sift through the Secret Santa posts I did for, say, the last few years of world events: Ghastly Prince Enma Burning Up and Detroit Metal City.
I would like to think they carry a particular tenor, even now.
So, the three suggestions I had for 2022 were: The 1993 version of The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Birdy the Mighty Decode (and its related material) from 2008, and Sonny Boy. Which aired just the other year, in 2021.
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is kind of amusing to consider. I have bought things from Right Stuf since they still sent physical catalogs in the mail. Right Stuf were also the original English language license holder for the series even back in the VHS tape days. So, it has popped up a lot in their advertising materials over their many years. Tylor is almost like one of those folks at work or school where you see them so much on a regular basis. But then one day, you have the sudden realization you have never spoken much to them. We just keep passing each other in our own world, day by day. As Right Stuf was acquired by Crunchyroll this year, after thrifty five years of independence, it could have made an interesting footnote on my particular experience with the series.
Birdy the Mighty Decode is something I think I just straight up lost track of at the time it was coming out. 2008 was prime meltdown years. The anime industry bubble which had inflated so much over the late 1990s and early 2000s popped at last. There was a lot of business chaos, bankruptcies, cancellations, all the classics. All around, it was a hard time to keep track of a lot of things as they were coming out.
I am sure I would have a nice time with either of these works.
Sonny Boy, to get to the actual topic of the screenshots and whatnot decorating this post, I have a somewhat similar little story for why I never got around to it. But different enough in tone where I felt compelled to pick this one from the litter.
The series follows a group of students who, one day, find their school detached from reality. They are adrift in another dimension. Or perhaps, a series of dimensions. The new worlds have their own unique rules the students have to figure out through trial and error. By the time they have a handle on the new rules of reality, they are on their way to another world. New rules to have to work through and navigate. Be it independent or together.
And again. And again.
I would have watched Sonny Boy as it aired. It was just the other year. It has such a strong creative staff and background story, which I will get to in a moment. It was so close. But, I missed out at the time.
The last few years of, well, the state of the world required me to get picked up and bounced around. Through what felt like endless streams of mandatory overtime and essential work.
Rules changed all the time.
I wanted to make sure I found my way here.
Lead studio duties for Sonny Boy were handled by Madhouse, with a rather particular set of standing orders. If you would like to read something more focused on the overall production process for this series, I recommend a particular soaring write up over at the Sakuga Blog side of Sakugabooru.
To cut a long story far, far short however: Producer Motoki Mukaichi has worked on projects from A Letter to Momo, Space Dandy, and various parts of the short film anthologies organized by Katsuhiro Otomo. You may remember, on the Space Dandy front, how Shingo Natsume was the Series Director. I wrote about every episode of Space Dandy as it aired in 2014. To the best of my ability, at least.
Shinichiro Watanabe was the Chief Director over the entire project, and each episode had its individual Episode Directors to use the show as a rotating creative canvas. Natsume was an essential part of the glue holding the entire project together. He has made a heck of a directing portfolio for himself over the last decade. The over the top qualities of Space Dandy and One-Punch Man. The rather excellent and stylish political intrigue of ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. He was even able to land the directing gig for adapting Tatami Time Machine Blues, the follow-up novel to The Tatami Galaxy. The original novel was adapted to anime via a project led by Masaaki Yuasa over a decade ago. This is no small set of creative shoes to be asked to follow after. Not everyone can step up to the plate with this level of power and consistency.
All of this is well and good, and Natsume has created a stellar track record for himself.
But if you notice a running theme: he has so far spent so much of his talent playing in the creative sandboxes of others.
The offer for taking on the project which would become Sonny Boy is simple: anything Natsume wanted to do. So long as he had fun.
…I am sure there is more complicated legal paperwork.
But, you understand the sentiment. Again, read the Sakuga Blog post I linked to up above.
Natsume is the overall Director, yes. The Original Creator, sure. But also the writer for every episode script. He handled storyboard duties for at least half of the episodes. And so on and so forth.
Anime production is a complicated process involving so many people of course.
If you look through other credits, you indeed see a number of other industry names. Watanabe in the wings as a Music Advisor. Yoshiaki Kawajiri popping in for some odds and ends with other storyboard duties. Hisashi Eguchi dropping by as Original Character Creator, whose work on Perfect Blue and such gives the characters a certain classic feeling of familiarity. But one a viewer might not be able to place right away.
But again, I feel I would be doing a disservice to Sonny Boy if I did not recognize how deep rooted Natsume is to the series.
This is his playground.
Which is an appropriate lens to have if one wants to get the most out of this series.
You should want to try every variety of the sights and sounds on offer.
Do not just ride the slide or the hang on the jungle gym all day.
Character animation is often loose, allowing for a lot of liquid movement and billowy exaggeration. Background layers can be and are swapped out at a snap for dramatic effect. Like someone flipped a literal switch on the world. It can be disorienting, as if the viewer themselves has become detached from reality. As near as one could be to the characters, at any rate. The saturated color palate is arresting. I am reminded a lot of the music album art direction of folks like Masayuki Yano, who did a number of city pop and funk covers decades ago.
If the viewer is prepared to welcome these choices, in all their forms, the series is potent at developing a sense of “Where are we going next?”
You should want to see around the next corner, despite (or perhaps even because of) any increasing dread conceptual horror. Just how far away is the potential for things to ever go back to how they were before? Is such a thing even desirable past a certain point?
And what is our collection of student pinballs going to do when they slam into the inevitable obstacles up ahead?
I could imagine someone knocking the series for its dialogue. Characters have a tendency to come across at times less as people and more of a collection of worldviews. Natsume is also not a writer by trade. However, I think he leaned into what he could to best support the overall goals of the visual production.
Character interactions may not be naturalistic, but they are at least able to always serve as thematic.
We have a limited time in any given world, to experiment with the rules and whatever tricks are at play. So, the more concept driven character building does feel justified as a way of anchoring the rest of the show. The various points of view for the characters get to bumper car off of each other, while providing plenty of misunderstandings and opportunities for resolution. Or a lack of resolution, as the case may be warranted. This allows a heck of a lot of space for the visuals to run as free as possible.
Then we get back on the ride for another episode.
Unlike something like Space Dandy, the characters do remember where they have been from one episode to the next. They are still themselves, and they carry this self with them as best they can given the circumstances.
It is an at times dense and high concept character delivery style which runs rather love it or hate it. But I happen to enjoy it, and it does pair well with the turnstile structure of the series.
I also happen to enjoy how Kal’tsit talks in the Arknights mobile game, so… you know.
Your mileage may vary. But I like it.
To consider Sonny Boy in the light of some other anime I have written about before, I am reminded of the animated works of Shigeru Tamura: Ursa Minor Blue, Glassy Ocean, and A Piece of Phantasmagoria.
Thinking about the poetry of the star projectionist. How such a wondrous sounding job could also be a kind of routine work. Condensing such a feeling and thought exploration. How facilitating the mood is emphasized in the enjoyment of the art. The feeling is what lingers with us when we leave, if we are open to holding it.
Sonny Boy is a series which lends itself well to speaking in abstract circles and roundabouts. As I know I have done this entire post. But it is not out of any desire for me to hide some radical plot twist or eleventh hour genre upheaval.
I assure you it does not become, say, a secret delivery vehicle for a collectible card franchise. Or part of the Drakengard universe.
It is like I am being asked to proofread an explanation for why a new favorite roller-coaster is memorable.
Going through the experience of the work, with these characters interacting with these situations, was fulfilling.
The journey. The cohesive whole. The greater than the sum of its parts. As an audiovisual delivery mechanism intended to create a particular feeling.
Natsume was provided with the most valuable kind of industry gift.
What he released is something I am sure to reopen over the years. And again. And again.
However long forever means.