Wonder Egg Priority – 01 (First Impressions) – Over Hard

Well, what have we here? Only the most mind-bending, cerebral, downright trippy anime of the season, featuring absolutely stellar animation and direction and music. It’s one thing to be good-looking; Jobless Reincarnation is good-looking. But to be downright gorgeous, while also featuring an instantly sympathetic main character you just want to gather into a protective hug as she rides a psychological roller coaster through shifting space and time?

Welcome to the oddly-titled but brilliant CloverWorks original anime Wonder Egg Priority, created and written by Nojima Shinji (his first anime), directed by Wakabayashi Shin (his directing debut), and starring Aikawa Kanata (her first voice role). All of the elements that make a great anime hum along in perfect harmony with the precision and assuredness of far more seasoned staff.

It starts simply, and without holding our hands. This is a show you just have to go with and trust it won’t lead you astray. The lonely Ooto Ai finds a dead lightning beetle in the road, and upon giving it a proper burial it immediately resurrects, talks to her, and has her follow him down a proverbial rabbit hole. When she wakes up in her bed she finds a strange egg, and wonders what to do with it.

Ai sneaks out late at night often, and when she does so I couldn’t help but remember all the times I’d sneak out late at night, often not for any particular reason than I couldn’t sleep and needed some air. I could feel that distinct tingling you feel in the darkness, and the excitement of going out on your own.

But does Ai actually leave her house? Perhaps not physically, but she does enter a bizarre dreamworld that uses her school as a template. When she spots two classmates with pixelated faces and mocking grins defacing her locker with dozens of “DIE” tags, she retreats to the bathroom—where she most likely often retreated in real school to avoid the bullying.

Then the damn toilet paper shapes itself into lips with the same voice as the lightning beetle and demands that she break the egg. When she tosses it against the stall door, it grows to the size of a person and bursts to reveal a redheaded girl in a school uniform.

When the two leave the bathroom, a pixelated bully throws an axe at the redhead, leaving an ugly gash just above her shoulder, and she and Ai run from a swarm of “Seeno Evils”, no doubt a symbol of the evils peers pretend not to see in school.

Ai is also wounded in the liver area, but when the two girls successfully escape through a narrow broom locker, her wound vanishes while the redhead’s remains. The girl says Ai is virtually immortal, because this is her dream. If they can hold out until the next bell tolls, they’ll be home clear. But when the Seeno Evils return, Ai stays put, and the girl has to run off on her own.

Ai’s dream takes a funereal turn when she walks through a hall of white flowers, then walks through a floating door that leads to the school roof, at the edge of which a bronze statue is mounted. Ai recognizes it as that of Nagase Koito, a girl in her class who committed suicide by jumping off the roof.

Ai recalls the day Koito transferred to the class and immediately tried to befriend her. Ai tried to keep her distance, calling herself ugly, but Koito thought her differently-colored eyes were beautiful.

Koito visited Ai at her house, entered her blue womb-like bed, took Ai’s foot in her hand, then gave her a big hug, again asking if they can become best friends. We return to Ai on the roof’s edge, the statue cradling her, lamenting how she betrayed Koito even though she was her one and only friend.

She’s snapped out of this lament by the sight of the redhead down below, still being chased by pixelated bullies and the horde of Seeno Evils. Ai decides she’s had enough of sitting around doing nothing and springs into action.

She takes her multi-color pen, raises it like a sword, and takes a running leap down to the ground to deliver a devastating strike to the lead bully, obliterating her in a cloud of red-stained rubble and leaving a crater in the ground. Ai then returns the smile and double peace signs the redhead gave her.

Surprised and grateful for Ai’s help, the redhead introduces herself as Saijou Kurumi. But no sooner do they shake hands than Kurumi disappears in a puff of smoke, just after telling Ai not to forget her. The lightning  beetle’s voice says it’s a shame, but she has to cheer up if she wants her best friend back.

Ai starts to make sense of her experiences, and figures that the egg she was given contained someone she needed to save: Kurumi. But there are more eggs, which means more girls that need saving.

Cut to Ai back home about to tuck into breakfast with her mom, when her nose starts bleeding. The wound in her side that healed in her dream is back in the real world, and Ai is hospitalized. Her parents have no idea what the hell happened, but assume it happened when Ai snuck out one night.

hen Ai recovers, she races back to the odd escalator in a cave, which leads to a trap door and a chute that leads to a room filled with hundreds of eggs in washing machine-like tanks. From there, she finds herself in a strange garden with a blue sky that on closer inspection is merely paneling, suggesting an interior.

There she meets two figures with sewn heads, as well as a normal human girl who is collecting eggs. Ai seems instantly smitten with this girl, but the girl says nothing. And so begins, presumably, Ai’s quest to resurrect her friend by collecting eggs, freeing those trapped within them, and saving them from foes, which the bug promises won’t be as easy as the Seeno Evils this time.

Honestly, watching this episode made my brain bloom, explode, then slowly reconstruct itself. It was so sumptuous, so confident, and so goshdarn strange. At various times I was reminded of the work of Akiyuki Shinbou, Maasaki Yuasa, Ikuhara Kunihito, Kon Satoshi, and Shinkai Makoto, as well as Paolo Sorrentino, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Wes Anderson. In other words, this was some proper auteur film shit. There’s nothing else like it airing this Winter.

I particularly liked how few answers we got early on, while the info the bug provides later about How This Is Going to Work can’t necessarily be taken at face value either. What is reality and what is a dream is often deliciously unclear. But here’s what I do know: Ai, a troubled, profoundly lonely girl bullied at school for her eyes and suffused with guilt for what happened to her best friend, has been given the means to possibly make things right. I truly cannot wait to see what weirdness befalls her next time.

Akudama Drive – 04 – The Kickass Express

As expected once the Shinkansen took off from Kansai Station, the action and difficulty level of the heist kicks into a higher gear. The train is hurtling towards an “Ultimate Quarantine Zone”, and if that doesn’t kill them, the sweep that eliminates all organic material before the Kanto gate certainly will. Oh, and the Master and Pupil have hopped aboard.

With so many different ways to die, the shrinking of the setting to a long but relatively narrow tube makes for some excellent action set pieces. Without a lot of space for lateral movement, there’s a lot of people punching, kicking, or tossing their opponents across the length of a carriage.

Brawler and Cutthroat fight Master and Pupil with Doctor offering occasional support and Hoodlum, um, cheering on his kyoudai. Ordinary Person and Black Cat watch Hacker’s back as he hacks one lock after another to reach the next carriage. Each lock gets more complex, so it feels like a game for him.

Indeed, everyone seems to take the unexpected setbacks and increased difficulty level in stride, thriving off the increased challenges. That’s with the exception of the lazy and childish Cutthroat, who just wants to see blood, but even Master can’t help but be impressed by his natural fighting skills.

Thanks to the weekly Bunny & Shark informational segments, we learn more about how and why the Shinkansen operates, while Hacker and Ordina’s progress reveals passenger carriages, meaning the train either used to transport people to and from Kanto, or once did and no longer does. After the mostly metal and mechanical freight carriages, the lavishly-appointed, wood-paneled carriages are a lovely visual change of pace.

Once Courier finally gets to his bike, he points its railgun forward to destroy the defense drones, then points it back at the Executioners, slicing their carriage off from the front of the train. This exposes everyone to the Zone briefly, but Doctor uses a quick-solidifying foam to seal the breach. Like last week, some members are more important roles than others, but everyone is needed and everyone contributes, with both actions and wry banter.

They finally reach the front carriage, which has an appropriate “final stage” aesthetic with its clean off-white bulkheads. Hacker breaks through all the locks he can, but the final one requires a seal he doesn’t have. That’s when the Black Cat disintegrates, revealing it was the seal all along. Ordina uses it to open the vault…where they find a young brother and sister in military uniforms.

The sister immediately plays a note on a flute which stops the train and puts up a protective shield. The brother speaks with the same voice as the cat’s (Maaya Uchida), while the sister is voiced by Ichinose Kana. So, Mission Accomplished—everyone’s super-rich, right? Seems that way; I don’t see the siblings double-crossing their own rescue team.

The question is, why were two human children being transported to Kanto like cargo? As the Black Cat implied with an earlier comment, Kanto is far from the wonderful Utopia Hacker believed it to be. Will our gang head back to Kansai for now, or will we get a glimpse of the not-so-perfect-after-all other side?

Akudama Drive – 03 – Ocean’s Seven

As the Black Cat continues to describe the plan to infiltrate Kansai Station, the Ordinary Person tries not to stand out too much, lest her Swindler persona be exposed as a fraud. She later admits alone (with the gorgeous skyline as a backdrop) she’s strayed quite far into the world of criminals, but as Courier tells her, he does what he does because it’s “where he belongs.”

Ordinary Girl probably hadn’t led a particularly interesting life up until now, and even though these are all insane criminals, they’ve collectively been nice enough to make her feel like she belongs too. It’s nothing groundbreaking, characterization-wise, but Kurosawa Tomoyo really brings a lot of brightness and personality to “Ordina.”

This week we watch the gang infiltrate the station, which earns the episode the title “Mission: Impossible” for good reason: this motley crew of crazy people will have to work together, and well, in order to have a chance at success. Not only that, Ordina plays a key role at several points in the episode. She’s no passive observer.

Once the split group reaches the two elevators, they rely on precise countdowns to time the pressing of two switches on two levels at the exact same time. The switches are protected by glass-like forcefields, which are defeated in different ways.

Brawler simply destroys the unshielded supports for the fields, while Cutthroat pierces through them one by one. Ordina has to borrow Hacker’s drone to deliver a decisive fastball into the line of suspended blades so the one at the front hits the switch just as Hoodlum’s temple hits the other.

Once they reach the Shinkansen platform, they activate an EMP provided by Black Cat, knocking out power for the entire city, but also Hacker’s connection. With Hacker unable to increase the allowed weight of the cargo to permit it to pass through the train’s plasma field, the only person lighter than him—Ordina—has to take his place in the cargo crate.

She makes it inside without incident and drops the field just in time to allow Courier to speed in on his bike; then everyone else boards right before the train’s emergency start kicks in. Again, the train actually moving wasn’t part of the plan, but it will have to be now. There’s no going back from this point.

While this episode only covers the first half of the Shinkansen heist, I’m glad it slowed things down so we could not only watch the details of the infiltration go down, but also have more fun interactions between the characters. Both the Kansai station and the music the heist is set to elevate the sense of occasion and importance to the mission, which is about to kick into a higher gear with next week’s “Speed”.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Akudama Drive – 02 – 1.5 Meters for a Billion

With all the players introduced, the robotic Black Cat reveals she’s the mastermind who had them all collared as an insurance policy. The mission to rescue Cutthroat was a test they all passed. Unfortunately for the lower-level Akudama Hoodlum and non-Akudama Ordinary Girl, the fact they’re still alive and played a role means they could prove useful, so they’re not allowed to walk away.

The cat suggests a change of venue to discuss their next job, which will pay a cool billion (100 million is already in everyone’s accounts, indicating the cat isn’t altogether untrustworthy. Brawler secures them some transport by hijacking a bus (all of which fly here) and Hacker handles the piloting. Their trip across town is just the latest in a nearly constant feast for the eyes. There’s too much detail to catch it all in one viewing.

The airbus trip also allows our colorful characters to interact a bit. Hoodlum and Brawler become fast friends, Courier and Doctor don’t, and Cutthroat is enamored of Ordinary Girl’s pink eyes, hair highlights, and clothes. Though pink isn’t as good as (blood) red, and his fixation on that color leads him to hit all the red buttons on the bus, resulting in the activation of its emergency afterburners.

After a quick history lesson with stick puppets about Kanto and Kansai (the former bombed and then totally rebuilt the latter), the gang emerges from the airbus, which has crashed into the upper level of a seven-star hotel. After disposing of all the human and robotic guards, they all gather in a suite so the cat can brief them on their next mission.

They are to infiltrate the Shinkansen, the only way to travel to Kanto from Kansai, and revered by most of the latter’s inhabitants as a “sacred entity”. There’s a 1.5-meter vault containing cargo the cat wants, but won’t disclose exactly what that cargo is. A successful attack of the Shinkansen has never been accomplished, but everyone gets $9 million if they can pull it off.

Their briefing is interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Executioners: a male Master and female Pupil who have a License to Kill Akudama. The Pupil takes the lead and goes after Brawler, and the suite’s trippy mood lighting is accidentally activated, making their brawl even more cool and stylish. Pupil proves at least an equal fighter to Brawler, and cuts Doctor’s throat, while Hacker and the cat escape.

Before Pupil or Master can determine why an Ordinary Person with no criminal record and a four-year Hoodlum are hanging out with a bunch of elite Akudama, Courier remotely calls in his bike, which flies up to the suite, crashes through the window, and fires its railgun at the Executioners. In the ensuing explosion, the Girl and Akudama get away, and Master and Pupil vow to get them next time.

We end up in an abandoned warehouse—what was to be the original site of the briefing before Cutthroat caused a detour to the hotel. Everyone is fine, even Doctor, who stitched up her own throat. All that’s left is to await the Shinkansen’s next stop in Kansai. They’ll only have twenty minutes until it starts back up for Kanto, so they should at least go in with a plan…even if the more chaotic members of the gang inevitably mess that plan up.

Rating: 4/5 Stars