This piece contains spoilers for the first episode of Wonder Egg Priority. I recommend checking out the first episode when you have the time, though be mindful of a content warning for bullying, violence and suicide. Anyway, let’s talk about Kyoto Animation!
Years ago, Kyoto Animation released an advertisement for the light novel series Beyond the Boundary. My first reaction seeing the studio animating freakish dog monsters, blood swords and zig-zagging blasts of magic was: why can’t Kyoto Animation be drawing this all the time? Why spend so much time on romantic dramas like Kanon or Clannad, or cute girls doing cute things shows like K-ON! or Nichijou, when they could be drawing wild stuff like this? I know I wasn’t the only one with those thoughts. The shoutbox on a blog I frequented at the time had at least a few people yelling for the folks at Kyoto Animation to do a full Beyond the Boundary series. Draw something more like that, they said.
Eventually they did, with the release of the Beyond the Boundary anime in 2013. By that point, I had changed. Watching the first episode of Beyond the Boundary, I couldn’t help but think back to the episodes I’d seen of K-ON!! and how confident they were by comparison. In the following years I would learn that drawing small and intimate interactions between characters is just as challenging to draw as flashy action sequences. Kyoto Animation stands tall in the hearts of animation fans across the world because in the face of an industry that demands a slurry of marketable content to appease its investors, they have refused to compromise. They produce stories that feature great character animation within obsessively detailed environments, they do it on their own time and they train their staff from the ground up to do so effectively. No other studio in the industry has their consistency, and even after being hit by the worst terrorist attack in recent Japanese history the studio continues to forge on.
Yet I never lost the part of myself that preferred the action and horror of that Beyond the Boundary advertisement. I can’t help it. I grew up watching and loving Fullmetal Alchemist, not Air or Love Hina. Throughout my life I’ve always had an affinity for the grotesque. Seeing the work of Kyoto Animation, with its lovable characters and environments that practically glow with warm nostalgia, I couldn’t help but think, “this isn’t for me.” And that’s fine. With a few exceptions (I fucking love Liz and the Blue Bird) I accepted that Kyoto Animation would never make the kind of weird and pulpy art that I went to anime to find; and that more traditionally action-oriented work like Beyond the Boundary wasn’t any more daring, really. I changed my expectations, and my relationship with their work has been happier since.
The first episode of Wonder Egg Priority is what I dreamed of years ago when I saw that commercial for Beyond the Boundary. It is indisputably made by people who revere the work of Kyoto Animation: from its careful attention to the way the characters move, to its similarly lived-in backdrops, to its use of depth of focus and conjuring an imaginary “camera lens.” As others far better schooled in Kyoto Animation lore than I have pointed out, it’s just as invested in the work of Kyoto Animation’s arguable master Naoko Yamada: just look at how the first episode frames shots of the heroine’s feet and legs to tell us how she feels at a given moment, or its use of flower language.
But it’s also a show that could not have been made by Kyoto Animation. It is a show that uses the full attention to detail that characterizes the studio’s best work to depict a realistic corpse. It is a show that literalizes the claustrophobic prison of Liz and the Blue Bird’s high school as an actual, monster-infested Silent Hill nightmare of a building. Its main character is carefully designed to give the viewer a strong “moe” feeling, yet there’s a powerful moment in the episode’s second half where we see her metaphorically drinking the tears of her dead best friend. Kyoto Animation is no stranger to difficult material: Hyouka is famously one of the most thoroughly imagined depictions of high school in anime history, while their early Key visual novel adaptations ran the gamut of tragedy. But compared to the majority of their work, Wonder Egg Priority is an assault.
That doesn’t mean that the show is, god forbid, a “deconstruction” of Kyoto Animation or something. I think the staff clearly has too much affection for that. The key may be in the way that Wonder Egg Priority’s first episode walks a careful line between bizarre horror and Kyoto Animation-style nostalgic realism. We’re given plenty of anime-like things, like a monster of the week, a suspicious wish-dispensing machine and a magical tool the heroine conjures out of thin air at the end to save the day. But the artifice is grounded by the realistic way the cast speak to one another, the way that the series gives them space to converse naturally. We see a girl come out of an egg, but then we see her carefully put on her earrings and fix her hair in the bathroom mirror.
I’ve seen comparisons between Wonder Egg Priority and the work of everyone’s favorite Lynch-influenced anime director, Kunihiko Ikuhara. Certainly you could make thematic comparisons between Ikuhara’s body of work and what might be going down here. But Ikuhara’s a director who rose in the industry learning how to make the most out of a little, using limited animation as a tool to shock and amuse viewers. The thorough character acting of Wonder Egg Priority exists outside of the Ikuhara playbook. Even better, the first episode of Wonder Egg Priority sees no contradiction between the shadowplay of an Ikuhara show and the nuance of a Yamada show. It can do both of these things at the same time. That’s wild!
I’m careful to say “the first episode of Wonder Egg Prority” here. Original anime series are always risky, and by delving into such fraught material the show is certainly flirting with disaster if that material is poorly handled. The scriptwriter, Shinji Nojima, is acclaimed for his work on thematically difficult and messy J-dramas in the 90s, but his recent work looks a bit more scattershot on brief inspection. There’s plenty of reason to be nervous. So why am I excited? Of all that exists in this messy, shitty world, art gives me hope. Whether Wonder Egg Priority succeeds or bombs, one thing’s for certain: it’s 2021, and anime has a future!