Video editing by Ahbi of The Cartoon Cipher
The sun is nowhere to be found in the opening act of Sonny Boy‘s finale. The dreary August rain casts a grey pall over every inch of the city, where street lamps and umbrellas blossom with muted light and color in their tiny individual protests against the sky’s dark shroud. A man buries his nose in his phone and blames you for walking into him. Your mother solemnly collects the scant scorched remains of your grandmother. Your jerkwad boss yells at you and punches your shoulder. Every stray cat on the street reminds you of your own estranged companions. You eat a microwave dinner alone in your empty apartment, silent except for the muted percussion of droplets on the windows. This is the world Nagara and Mizuho buckled the fabric of the cosmos to return to. It’s our world, and it sucks.
If the penultimate episode was the explosive space-faring climax, then the series finale delivers the quiet denouement to a long vacation. The episode can’t help teasing us a bit, but it soon becomes clear that these versions of Nagara and Mizuho are our versions of Nagara and Mizuho. A flashback shows us that the final version of Project Crusoe turned out to be a success. With Nozomi’s Compass and Asakaze’s last-minute aid, our two remaining protagonists defy God and run past the boundaries between dimensions, finally arriving at the light Nozomi saw all the way back in the premiere. It’s been two years, but they’ve made it back home.
Their victory, however, is a bittersweet one. Returning home doesn’t mean all of their problems have been magically solved. There’s no divine revelation heralding their return. There are no powers or portals that can help them. There is only the day-to-day drudgery of school and work. The most beautiful and painful part is that Nozomi is here, alive and well, but she’s not our Nozomi. It’s enough to make Nagara question whether their trip back home was really worth it—whether their drift really happened in the first place.
Despite that, Sonny Boy concludes on a hopeful note. Even though Mizuho ignores him at first (which is, by the way, the most Mizuho thing she could have done), she connects with him soon after, and the two manage to raise each other’s spirits out of the surrounding gloom. They’ll always share the experiences they had on Hateno Island together, and nobody can take that away from them. Nagara, later, also manages to talk to Nozomi. He’s no longer the kind of guy who ignores the cry of a bird in need. He’s still shy. He’s still awkward. But he’s grown up all the same. He decided to be better, he worked on being better, and he became better. Slowly and incrementally, he can keep doing the same. He has his whole life ahead of him. The rain will stop. The sun will shine on him again.
MAYBE THE REAL “SONNY BOY” WAS THE FRIENDS WE MADE ALONG THE WAY
Despite the title of this video, I bristle at the idea that any part of Sonny Boy, let alone its ending, can be “explained” in a singular way. Sonny Boy is abstract by design, steeped in surrealism and symbolism, so any interpretation of it is going to pivot on your own experiences and perspectives. I don’t want to give you an answer. I can’t give you an answer. Shingo Natsume wrote and directed this whole thing, and I doubt he would be able to explain every little detail—and I wouldn’t trust him even if he did! Sonny Boy tackles questions about existence that have plagued humans as long as we’ve had conscious thought. There aren’t “answers” to those that can fit in a YouTube video.
That said, what I can do is take some of the big lingering questions from the finale and give you the best guesses I have right now. However, these should start conversations, not end them.
What happened to the rest of the students who drifted?
You get to decide! Seriously, I think the finale makes the right call focusing almost exclusively on Nagara and Mizuho, because there’s no way it could have provided closure for all of the other characters we’ve met. Remember, though, that Rajdhani gave us a rough outline in the previous episode. Despite their immortality, he postulates that human consciousness itself has an expiration date—that the more experiences we accumulate, the more we become numb to them. Eventually, presumably, all the students will lose their humanity and turn into an object, a power holdover, like Nozomi’s Compass. That is “death” for the drifters, but it’s not all sad. Asakaze tells us that Rajdhani becomes a forest, and Mizuho smiles at that, because I can’t think of a better ending for someone who was as fascinated and infatuated with nature as he was. We can imagine an infinite amount of similar endings for everyone else. Go write some fanfic!
So, what made them drift again?
An intersection of Nagara’s, Mizuho’s, and Mizuho’s cats’ powers. The cats created copies of the students, Nagara observed and fixed their existences into the network of parallel worlds, and Mizuho gave them all immortality. Beyond that, it beats me! Their principal/God might have had something to do with it too, but he also might be lying. There’s also a strongly implied connection between the parallel worlds and the students themselves, and it’s possible they are one and the same—that each world is the remnant of a student who “died” in the way Rajdhani explained. Honestly, though, I think the precise reason for the drifting phenomenon is less interesting than the many ways we see the various students cope and adapt to their new existences.
Why do only Nagara and Mizuho return home?
Because they’re the only ones who want to. That might sound self-evident, but I’m not kidding! They (plus Nozomi) are the only students who still decide to go back after failing once and learning the truth of their situation. Like Rajdhani says, it’s actually very easy for them to go home; like most things worth doing, it’s just a matter of sacrifice and commitment.
Okay, why do Nagara and Mizuho want to return home?
I don’t think there’s a definitive “correct” answer to this. But if we assume they caused the drifting because of their subconscious desire to escape from reality, then it makes sense for their story to end by returning to it. They have things they still want to do, and together, they found the determination to do them. And while their lives aren’t “fixed” when they get back, there are small improvements. Mizuho no longer shuts herself away with her cats. She reaches out to Nagara. Meanwhile, Nagara managed to escape his troubled home life and move into his own apartment. They can both continue to make small steps like this, but only because they’ve decided to.
And this might not be the main reason, but their journey is also their way of respecting Nozomi’s last will and testament, spoken wordlessly to them through the needle of her Compass. That light—their new home—is her final gift to them.
Why doesn’t the principal stop them?
Nagara correctly guesses that he can’t. Any power the principal has is likely confined to the network of These Worlds, so he can’t do anything if somebody decides to step beyond them. Their first attempt didn’t fail because the principal stopped them—it failed because they went about it the wrong way. This time, Nagara and Mizuho aren’t taking any shortcuts. They’re traveling the full length of the journey on their own volition, and they don’t need anyone’s permission for that. In the metaphorical sense, it also means we don’t need any authority’s permission, whether human or divine, to carve our own path. We only need to run in the right direction.
What do the two Compasses mean?
Asakaze holds the original Compass left behind when Nozomi died, while Nagara and Mizuho hold a copy that her cats made. All season, Nozomi had been a frustrating presence for Asakaze—both an unrequited crush, and a reminder of his own shortcomings and lack of determination. He was similar to Nagara in that regard, but where Nagara used Nozomi’s provocations to improve himself, Asakaze retreated deeper into his insecurities. In this final meeting, however, Asakaze gets over himself and stops carrying a torch for Nozomi. By handing his Compass over, he’s choosing to respect her final wish in lieu of his own, so that she can travel to the source of the light she once saw.
Ironically, this other version of Nozomi ends up dating another version of Asakaze. They seem happy together, so in this version of events, they managed to lift each other out of their downward spirals in middle school. Nozomi doesn’t die before graduation, and Asakaze mellows out. Maybe, subconsciously, our version of Asakaze was passing the baton to this version, giving him the chance to do better than he did.
Why doesn’t Nagara ask Nozomi to be his friend?
This is the most frustrating part of the finale—to see Nagara clam up around her after all this time. I want to see him fulfill his promise to her so badly. But that doesn’t change the fact that this Nozomi is technically not the same Nozomi who asked him to do so. I can’t speak for Nagara, and considering the torrent of bizarre circumstances that led him to this point, I can’t blame him for being weird about it either. Returning home the way he and Mizuho did meant respecting and accepting their friend’s death. This Nozomi can’t be a replacement for her, because it wouldn’t be fair to either Nozomis. She’s her own person, as was the other Nozomi to herself.
Despite all of that, Sonny Boy gives us plenty of reason to hope. Through the fledgling bird, a symbol of Nagara’s own growth and room for potential, Nozomi connects and speaks with him. It’s a short exchange of pleasantries, but it’s a foundation built on his willingness to be a better, more caring person than before. It’s a small step, and he can keep making those. He can continue that conversation with Nozomi another time. He can stay in touch with Mizuho and reminisce about Hateno Island until their memories effervesce away. He can work at his crappy job tomorrow and continue forging a life for himself away from his mother. He can keep at it a little bit at a time. It’s still dark out, but the rain stops. He can take another step forward.
What does the title “Sonny Boy” mean?
Buddy, your guess is as good as mine! But I think it might refer to that monkey hairball that always smells like sunshine. Rajdhani once said it was a good symbol for Nagara, which seemed ironic, given Nagara’s frequently sullen disposition. Here at the end, however, it fits. The anime ends on a shot of his beaming face. He is our “SUNNY BOY.”
DON’T SAY GOODBYE
In the end, Sonny Boy is improbably rich, echoing the kind of experimental and deeply personal series that endeared me to anime in the first place. It glows with creative energy, radiating out like lightning, from its style, to its animation, to its music, to its philosophy, to its characters, and beyond into the audience. It’s much more than the sum of its parts, and it has a lot of parts.
The best example of this in the finale is the last leg of Nagara and Mizuho’s journey through space-time. In the hands of a lesser creative team, it’s easy to imagine this scene falling apart into indiscernible chaos. Under Shingo Natsume‘s direction, it’s the episode’s breathtaking psychedelic centerpiece. Asakaze’s appearance provides one last morsel of closure and one last helping hand from their classmates. God scolds them, but he cannot stop them. Math-rock ensemble toe’s “Sonny Boy Rhapsody” cuts through the silence to provide rhythm and structure. Their friendship (along with a length of rope) binds them, and Nozomi’s hand points them in the right direction. However, what truly anchors Nagara and Mizuho, in the narrative, thematic, and aesthetic senses, is the light. It illuminates their faces and casts long shadows behind them. It defines the movement and contours of their bodies against the swirling concatenation of portals and tesseracts. It’s there, waiting for them. This final leg of their journey isn’t a drift. It’s a sprint.
Sonny Boy is often existentialist and frequently nihilist in its interrogations of life’s meaning. It never shies away from the absurdities of the world, and it expresses them in forces as large and unfathomable as the laws of nature, and in conflicts as small and petty as a single strand of hair. It wallows in dark places drenched in death and regret. It revels in our fundamental futility. Yet Sonny Boy never loses hope either. We may never find more meaning than our own individual and limited experiences, but that’s not so bad. Because we can share them with others. Because sometimes cool things happen. That tiny pinprick of light is always there, and it’s worth running towards.
I don’t want to say goodbye to Sonny Boy, and thankfully, I don’t really have to. As it evolved from a curiosity into a best of the year contender, as its scope widened and as its characters grew warmer, I found my thoughts laden with its presence. This is one show I’ll be turning over in my head and heart for a long time, and I’ll be doing so with its soundtrack on repeat. There will never be another anime quite like Sonny Boy.
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