WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Sonny Boy Episodes 1 and 2.
Drawing attention to original anime is hard, so Shingo Natsume's Sonny Boy has been working to build hype through preview screenings ahead of its July 16 premiere. Episode 1 streamed for a limited time on YouTube in June, while Episode 2 premiered at Anime Expo Lite. Based on these first two episodes, Sonny Boy is looking like one of this summer's most challenging but also most interesting new anime, remixing the tropes of Lord of the Flies and The Drifting Classroom into a compelling new drama.
Sonny Boy's opening episodes are a challenging watch because, if you're not paying attention the whole time, it's incredibly easy to get lost. Rather than start at the beginning of its story, Episode 1 begins in media res with only bare-bones exposition. 36 high school students have been teleported outside of their reality while at school, and some of them have developed superpowers. Though the powerless Nozoki seems to be the primary viewpoint character, the story so far doesn't really focus on any single protagonist, so keeping track of everyone's names and abilities is a lot of work -- there are no My Hero Academia-esque subtitles to remind viewers who's who.
In traditional Lord of the Flies fashion, the central thematic question of Sonny Boy is whether a group of teenagers can keep order among themselves without any adults to enforce society's rules. As one would expect in this sort of story, those who seek order are often corrupt figures and violence inevitably erupts as a result. This struggle is only heightened by the conflict between those with superpowers and those without. The Lord of the Flies comparison only gets clearer when the school teleports to a tropical island in another universe, though the kids aren't alone on this island -- a mysterious Disney-esque castle sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of this landscape.
Natsume has stated he wants to explore new animation techniques in Sonny Boy, and this is demonstrated mainly in how the superpowers are presented. In Episode 1, the most dramatic example is in Asakaze's power to control gravity, which is illustrated by breaking scenes up into crackling geometric distortions. The artistic showcase and big new mystery in Episode 2 is a series of blue fires the students are still trying to determine the source of.
Does Sonny Boy count as an isekai? As a story about traveling into other worlds, technically yes -- though it has little in common with either the classical Oz/Narnia-esque portal fantasies of older isekai or the otaku-centric RPG mechanics of contemporary isekai. However, although the new world the students enter isn't itself a video game universe, Sonny Boy does have some fun game-like inclusions thanks to Radjani's power "Pocket Computer," which essentially brings video game elements into the real world. A power-up inspired by Super Mario Bros 3's tanuki suit is a particularly fun touch.
There's a lot to like about Sonny Boy. Shingo Natsume is operating in the eerie and mysterious mode of his Boogiepop and Others adaptation mixed with the experimental playfulness of his work on Space Dandy. Dandy's chief director Shinichiro Watanabe helped supervise Sonny Boy's music, and while the Anime Expo preview didn't include the anime's opening and ending sequences, it's so far sounding like an excellent soundtrack. You'll come away from these first two episodes curious to see where Sonny Boy's story goes next.
Sonny Boy premieres on Funimation on July 16.