‘It’s been a tough year.’  This is a phrase that we’ve all heard countless times lately.  Whether it is through the news, social media or word of mouth, I am often reminded that the world is in the middle of multiple crises and that I’m unwillingly stuck in the crossfire.  Sometimes it feels like we’re tied down by the awful events of the past and present, while simultaneously drifting towards an uncertain future.  This jumbled amalgamation of feelings does not have a specific name but there is an anime that attempts to shed some light on how we can overcome them.  That anime goes by the name Sonny Boy, written & directed by Shingo Natsume.

There have been multiple anime from this year’s lineup that have been able to reflect on a multitude of ever-present topics, from Wonder Egg Priority’s exploration of the various issues that many people have to navigate through during their adolescent years to Odd Taxi’s commentary on the interconnected nature of societies.  In spite of this, there is always something special about a show that is able to tap into the contemporary issues we face in the present moment, even if it is done in a more abstract fashion.  Sonny Boy finds its audience at a time when we could all do with a bit of motivation or a few words to help us recalibrate the way we view the world in these negative times.

The events of the past year and a half have certainly taken a massive toll on the way we conduct our daily lives.  Just like the characters in this anime, we’ve essentially had to rethink how we live and try to move to a place that resembles ‘normality’.  However, there is no ‘normal’.  An unfortunate parallel between both our world and the fictional world(s) of Sonny Boy is the idea that we will never be able to return to ‘the simpler times’ that we took for granted before our lives were turned on their heads.  The looming idea that the stranded characters will never be able to return home synchronises scarily well with the anxieties many of us are experiencing at this current moment in time.

So what exactly do we do when we’re faced with the harsh truth that suggests that we will never be able to return to our previous way of living?  Natsume answers this question very simply: we have to keep on moving forward.  Even when the walls of adversity start closing in on us, we have no choice but to keep on making strides in order to discover a new world that we feel comfortable living in.

As an audience, we’re made aware of this principle at the start and end of the anime with all three main characters having their chance to shine in the form of a dramatic running scene.  Even outside of those scenes Natsume and his team make it clear that when everything is at a standstill, we have to keep on trudging onwards to either make new memories or explore what is available to us.  Both Episode 2 (storyboarded by Yoshiaki Kawajiri & directed by Ka-Hee Im) and Episode 8 (storyboarded, directed & animation-directed by Keiichirō Saitō) capture this spirit really well by revolving around the characters continuously walking to their destination while a story being told to them at the same time.  Just because the world may be at a halt, it does not mean we have to stay put alongside it.  And while you’re making progress on your own, you might even inspire others to do the same.  In other words, we all need to keep trying our best.

Nagara’s gradual development throughout the series encapsulates this notion perfectly.  At the start, we are met with a pessimistic schoolchild who appears to be buckling under the pressure of the world.  However, after discovering he can steer his own reality to some extent (both literally and metaphorically), thanks to the encouragement of others, the anime leaves us with a boy who can hold his head up high in the face of life’s challenges. 

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about Nagara without mentioning Nozomi, Mizuho and Rajdhani – the individuals who catalyse the character’s growth process.  Each character deserves a piece of their own but the biggest thing to take from their dynamic is the idea that we do not need to face monumental challenges alone.  It is easy to think that we are the only ones searching for purpose during these times but in reality, it is a collective struggle made up of like-minded people.  Times of hardship make us aware of a whole host of people who are also trying to figure out how to overcome the same obstacles that we are; we can all lift each other up to get ourselves to where we want to be.

Similarities can certainly be found when one puts the mysterious island & worlds of Sonny Boy next to the unusual times we’re living in right now.  Both of these share the ability to transform the way we think, act & interact with one another.  Many of us have had to adapt to new regulations, adjust to a modified form of social etiquette and learn how to become comfortable with ourselves in isolation.  These may all be challenges but they are also learning experiences in their own right.  Sonny Boy serves as a reminder that no matter what place we find ourselves in, ideal or inadequate, there is always something to learn – it’s simply a matter of acknowledging and embracing the lesson that presents itself to us.

What does it mean to ‘live’?  What does it mean to ‘die’?  What I find so enthralling about unexpected events, as seen in Sonny Boy or the ones we are experiencing right now, is the way that they are able to completely redefine our response to these questions and ultimately alter our perspective on what it means to be ourselves.  Shingo Natsume explores these layered questions as best as possible in this anime, making it perfect food for thought.

Shingo Natsume & co’s visual language can help us get to grips with these in-depth questions.  From the very first episode, Natsume establishes a minimalistic and visually ‘empty’ style through the use of single-coloured backgrounds.  This transfers beautifully to Episode 8 as well as Episode 11 (storyboarded by Norifumi Kugai & directed by Nichika Ōno) which use solid white & light blue backgrounds to portray the cold, lonely nature of death and isolation.  Furthermore, these empty backgrounds constantly remind us that the schoolchildren are alone in their journey to unravel what these worlds means to them.

There is also some visually ‘busy’ imagery to make the anime’s commentary on the past a bit easier to digest.  The formless collages of past footage make quite a few appearances in Sonny Boy and help Natsume and his team communicate the message that we are partially guided by our pasts but not defined by them.  With that being said, our previous experiences, relationships and accomplishments prior to entering these tumultuous times are still so central to who we are, which is why we should use them to help propel us towards a brighter future.

Perhaps the reason why Sonny Boy is such a difficult anime to ‘understand’ is because we’re looking at a reflection of ourselves.  After all, it is never an easy task to understand the times in which we’re in when we are the ones inside them.  With that in mind, I’m sure Sonny Boy will mean something completely different to another generation of anime fans.  Even though this series will likely never reach the eyes of the mainstream audience, the fact that it holds the potential to have a profound impact on its viewers, as it did for me, makes it a success in my eyes.

The beauty of this anime resides in the fact that there are so many nuggets that can be extracted from both its visual codes and written dialogue; the ones I’ve managed to talk about here can teach us a great deal about how we can mentally overcome some of the challenges that we are facing in the world right now.  Maybe this view is hopelessly optimistic but as the anime points out: what is and isn’t possible in the world is determined by the people who live in it.  Although we may not hold the power to change the world, we do hold the ability to rethink what we are and aren’t capable of.  No matter how long the tunnel is, there is always light on the other side – we just have to acknowledge that it’s there.

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