After watching Keiichirō Saitō’s first storyboarded episode of Sonny Boy (Episode Three, ‘The Cat Who Wore Sandals’), my expectations for this series had already been surpassed. From the excellent shift in lighting, made complete by debut animation director Nobuhide Kariya, to his use of several visceral close-ups, Saitō had already made his mark on this anime. However, it turns out that the artist had even more to give on his second storyboarded episode titled ‘Laughing Dog’ which tells the melancholic backstory of the talking animal, Yamabiko.
It is likely that those who are familiar with the up-and-coming storyboard artist today were made aware of their strong presence on past anime headed by director Shingo Natsume. This includes episodes seven and thirteen of the mystery drama Boogiepop and Others as well as the epilogue to Ono Natsume’s intriguing political drama ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. – Regards. With that being said, there were very few things that could prepare me for Sonny Boy’s eighth episode.
‘Laughing Dog’ – Sonny Boy #08
Storyboard / Episode Director / Animation Director: Keiichirō Saitō
Screenplay / Series Director: Shingo Natsume
Art Director: Mari Fujino
Sonny Boy 08’s ‘Emptiness’
Saitō enhances the underlying feeling of isolation that was present in the previous episodes. The director builds on some critical components in Shingo Natsume’s visual toolkit; the use of opaque white backgrounds reinforces the looming feeling of loneliness that the inhabitants were bound to experience after being stranded for so long. It is also an unfortunate reminder that those who are stranded have been left to fend for themselves in the face of adversity. The adaptations made to Natsume’s visual language make it very clear that there are few places to run or hide, amplifying the sense of seclusion and hopelessness that comes with being cut off from the world you once resided in.
From a spatial point of view, the emptiest shots are the ones that stand out the most. The same lonely feeling of the backstory manages to infiltrate the footage set in the present moment. Not a single cut in this episode feels irrelevant and each cut back to the present makes us realise how empty the world of Sonny Boy really is. It also highlights how insignificant the characters look within their surroundings. The compositions in this episode and the overall construction of it work hand-in-hand; the two moments in time may feel like they are worlds apart but Saitō’s spatially bare shots (in both the past and present) subtly let us know that these are actually two parts of an interconnected whole. The fact that a single flashback is capable of altering one’s entire perspective of space and the hollow nature of this anime is nothing short of phenomenal.
Intimacy and distance in Episode 8
This episode gains its uncomfortable feeling partially due to the extreme distances that the camera is set at. The discreet wide-shots capture character interactions from afar, while simultaneously reminding the viewer of how lonesome their surroundings are. By peering into the spaces that the students reside in, Saitō gives us what feels like an unfiltered insight into the grim reality of living day-by-day through an epidemic and emphasises the fact that help is not on the way. On the other hand, the close-ups & extreme close-ups tell a rather different story. Honing in Kodama’s facial features produces an interesting layer of irony; although her beauty, serenity and righteousness are constantly being discussed, her face says exactly the opposite.
This episode feels so uneasy is simply because it ventures into places that storyboard artists like Shingo Natsume and Yoshiaki Kawajiri haven’t. Natsume does have his fair share of close-ups, but his much more measured style renders the viewer as a distant spectator and keeps them out of the heads of the characters in some instances. Contrastingly, Saitō uses the camera to scrutinise faces in much finer detail. The artist explores the uncanny nature of human facial features and takes advantage of the plot point at hand to get intimate with them in his storyboard. After becoming so accustomed to Natsume and Kawajiri’s more observational style, this episode could not come at a better time.
Saitō’s beautiful lamp lighting. Top – Episode 8 (AD: Keiichirō Saitō) / Bottom – Episode 3 (AD: Nobuhide Kariya)
Although some of the artist’s techniques can be viewed as an extension of the ones introduced by his collaborators, this episode still manages to set itself apart from the rest. The lighting techniques in Episode Eight alone make it feel incredibly fresh. I would even go as far as arguing that they almost feel like they belong to another body of work entirely. Just like in Episode Three, Saitō continues to emulate the look of dim artificial light sources; I am always impressed by the attention to detail given to the lighting patterns. The way the light slightly coats the periphery of the subject while engulfing the rest in shadow ultimately makes the characters seem a bit more in-tune with the world around them. Sonny Boy often makes it clear that the world the characters have been transported to is rather peculiar and out of the ordinary – the lighting in Saitō’s storyboarded episodes take us back down to reality, stripping away the various visual ‘tricks’ that the show often uses.
What makes ‘Laughing Dog’ a ‘masterpiece’ so to speak? In my view, it embodies what anime should be all about – giving creatives the freedom to provide their own artistic twist on the story at hand (within the limitations of said production). This is no new feat when it comes to anime directed by Natsume and Episode Eight is an example of the extraordinary results that can be obtained if this approach is taken. Keiichirō Saitō uses his uncomfortable, uncanny visual tools to share what it means to feel truly alone with the audience. Visually engaging stories like this one are part of the reason why I find creator-driven projects such a pleasure to watch.