CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Shin Wakabayashi, Yūta Yamazaki, Yūki Yonemori, Yūichirō Komuro, Shinichirō Ushijima, Yūsuke Yamamoto, Maiko Kobayashi, Eita Higashikubo, Mitsuru Hagi

FEATURING: Voices of Kanata Aikawa, Tomori Kusunoki,  Shuka Saitō, Hinaki Yano, Yūya Uchida,  Hiroki Takahashi; Mikaela Krantz,  Dawn M. Bennett, Anairis Quiñones, Michelle Rojas, Brendan Blaber, Ian Sinclair (English dub)

PLOT: Four teenage girls buy eggs from mannequins in hopes of bringing suicides back to life.

Still from Wonder egg priority (2021)

COMMENTS: Episode 1 (“The Domain of Children”) is a promising start. We meet Ai Ohto, a hikikomori heroine with heterochromia, already inside of a dream. Following a brief orientation in Ai’s waking reality (a hermit existence with only her mother and a visiting teacher to relieve the self-imposed loneliness), we go into the following night’s dream, which brings schoolgirls with blurred faces, a talking toilet paper roll, grinning eyeless balls called “see-no-evils” (who will be recurring adversaries), a flashback inside the dream, a crying statue, and a resurrected firefly who offers Ai an egg that contains, he claims, the thing she really wants—a friend. It ends with the firefly revealed to be, in reality, a crash-test-dummy mannequin in a tuxedo who hangs out, along with a more casual mannequin wearing his baseball cap backwards, in a garden where the two sell teenage girls Wonder Eggs out of a vending machine. Each egg leads into a dream where the buyer must save a former female suicide from a metaphorical monster; succeed in enough of these missions, it’s hinted, and Ai will get her dead friend back.

Thrown into this scenario, the introduction is charmingly disorienting, although enough clues are supplied that, by episode 2, the outlines of the plot are comprehensible (aside from the overriding issue of how and why this oddly conceived suicide egg economy exists in the first place.) The series then falls into a “monster of the week” groove; in the second episode, Ai fights a demonic coach to save a gymnast worked into suicide, and in each of the next four installments a new Wonder Egg devotee comes on board, until we have a girl gang of four dream warriors. Each of the characters has a distinctive design and a nice character hook: Neiru is an pretty but emotionally-stunted girl genius, Rika is a peppy and mischievous former junior idol, and Momoe is an androgynous outcast. The missions the girls go on allow the creators to address an array of topics of interest to the target audience: bullying, unrealistic expectations, self-acceptance, molestation, gender identification, obsessive fandom, and, most prominently, suicide. In between battles, the girls bond, and a couple of subplots—Ai’s teacher and his relationships to much of the female cast, hints of Neiru’s backstory—start developing. A few new elements are also added, like little individualized reptilian pets assigned to assist the girls.

Then, just as things seem to be falling into a repetitive rut, the series hits a bump. Episode 8 is already a clip show, a recap of the previous seven installments with the mannequins’ narration explaining all the egg rules in condescending detail. It seems that the production’s ambitions exceeded the animator’s ability to deliver episodes on schedule (I was reminded of an episode of “Paranoia Agent” where the animation staff struggles mightily to meet a deadline; apparently, this is a recurring issue in the cutthroat world of anime production). Unable to deliver the latest episode on schedule, they rushed out a placeholder instead.

When the show returns from its one-week hiatus,the previously leisurely, repetitive plot development turns into a reckless race to the finish line—and now with a much darker tone (this, in a series already built around teen suicide). For the next four episodes, we depart from the monster-of-the-week format as new plot twists are introduced at a breakneck pace: an albino clone in a coma, squishy concepts of parallel worlds, a temperamental cyborg girl, a super-deadly dragonfly-headed scythe-wielding dream boss and—most importantly to the girls—a new hairstyle for Neiru. Not all of these tendrils will bear fruit, in an ending that’s as rushed as you might fear. Episode 12 was, at the time, presented as the series finale, and, although it closed Ai’s psychological arc, it left many loose ends and confused much of the audience. Never fear: a “special” episode followed three months later, promising greater closure. Unfortunately, the first half of that episode was yet another series recap (now I’m really angry!) Since several months had passed since the “finale,” perhaps a refresher was needed; but, with the sting of episode 8 still fresh in fans minds, and the creators no longer under the time pressures that caused the compromise in the first place, it felt like some sort of insult. Piling on further, the epilogue is action-free, and, despite the animators having the most time to craft it, it’s an underwhelming effort that does little more than set up a long-shot possibility of a season 2.

So what to think of “Wonder Egg Priority”? The series’ artwork is superior: flowery, feminine, detailed, and appealing, with lively and violent action sequences featuring monsters who are simultaneously comical and grotesque (an art teacher appears in a dream as a floating head from which tubes of poisonous paint dangle). It deals with social problems facing Japanese high school girls in a way that is obvious but brave, facing issues like suicide, self-harm and pedophilia head-on. Although the girl’s game-like adventures are simple to grasp, the plot has a rewarding (if sometimes frustrating) complexity underneath. The mannequins are freaky, and the debut episode is a grabber. With so much going for it, “Wonder Egg Priority” ends up feeling like a missed opportunity. The producers clearly bit off more than they could chew (some of these issues are chronicled in detail at Sakuga blog). It approaches botched cult TV greatness, like “Neon Genesis Evangelion”‘s final episodes or “Twin Peaks” season 2, on a far lesser scale, with a far smaller (if no less loyal) fanbase to disappoint.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…one of the weirdest yet most fascinating anime of the year.”–Siddhant Pamnani, Leisure Byte (contemporaneous)

Where to watch Wonder Egg Priority

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