This piece discusses suicide, transphobia, sexual assault, pedophilia, and rape apologism at length.
Wonder Egg Priority premiered to dazzling praise back in January, with almost film-quality animation and a creative team of talented newcomers either beginning their careers or stepping into new roles. Its story, about four adolescent girls each seeking to revive someone who’d lost their lives to suicide by protecting other victimized girls in a magical dream space, was precarious but also refreshing in its blunt willingness to acknowledge social ills. As the first half introduced the cast and their stories, fans were gearing up to call it one of the all-time greats… only for the show to fall victim to the most grimly spectacular implosion since the have-more-babies propaganda disaster Darling in the FRANXX. So, what the hell happened?
Suicide and Survivor’s Guilt
Thematically speaking, Wonder Egg was playing with fire from the word “go.” The series opens with 14-year-old Ai living as a shut-in after the shock of her friend Koito’s suicide, only to be approached by a firefly who tells her there’s a way to bring Koito back to life. In the midst of this apparent break from reality, Ai enters a dream space where she’s tasked with protecting a stranger her age who also died by suicide — but here, the once-powerless Ai is able to fight a manifestation of the stresses that drove her charge to end her life (called “Wonder Killers”). Doing so can’t bring this “captured maiden” back to life, but it gives her closure, and a mysterious statue of Koito grows a little bit warmer. Ai eventually meets three other girls pursuing the same goal, and as the girls bond they also begin to question the potentially sinister motives of the two strange mannequin men, Acca and Ura-Acca, who’ve been giving them all these “wonder eggs” to protect.
It’s an incredible setup, one that seemed primed to make a grand statement about how society harms young women and give our heroines a chance to overthrow a that system by challenging Acca and Ura-Acca in the metaphorical space and Ai’s teacher Mr. Sawaki, who seems connected to Koito’s death and is now dating Ai’s mother, in the real world. The first seven episodes are moving character pieces, and while the subject matter was frequently heavy, the abstract conceptualization of those issues contrasted against very sparing graphic imagery in the real world kept the show balanced on a razor’s edge of watchability. It was obvious that this was a show that would be made or broken based on how it ended.
Cracks in the Foundation
But even in that well-regarded first half, there were a few visible trouble spots — most notably, a speech given by the Accas in episode four pontificating that unlike men, women commit suicide because they are flighty and impuslive. In a world where viewers were still expecting those characters to be the ultimate villains it was easy enough to brush aside, but the show’s director then put out a comment on Twitter stating that Neiru had been intended to push back against the sentiment, but it was cut for time. Since Nojima repeated this same reasoning in interviews, this led to some early speculation that there might be tension between series composer Shinji Nojima’s scripts and the rest of the creative team’s.
All of this was being unpacked up to the airing of episode 10, which involved fellow magical girl Momoe protecting a trans boy and grappling with her own gender issues. Many viewers had read Momoe as a trans girl up to this point: her anxieties involved being called a “prince” and feeling pressured to dress masculine; her first meeting with the other heroines involved her crying happily at being recognized with a girl, along with an otherwise inexplicable conversation about Adam’s apples; and one of her battles in the dreamscape involved a Wonder Killer screaming at her for “invading” a women’s-only train car. Episode 10 brought this subplot to a head, with Momoe’s trans boy charge Kaoru giving her his trans flag-colored jacket after the two shared a heart-to-heart; Momoe later rips her shirt open to reveal a flat-looking chest and a trans flag-colored sports bra, shouting “I’m a girl” before striking the final blow against a transphobic Wonder Killer. The visuals repeatedly scream “this is a trans character affirming and protecting another trans character and coming to love herself for who she is.”
The subtlety and reliance on imagery in Momoe’s story, when placed next to the blunt trauma-checklist of Kaoru’s backstory (including corrective rape and pregnancy), led to a fresh wave of argument, much of it centered around whether visual cues could be said to “count” as confirmation of the narrative many viewers had been observing since Momoe debuted. It also reinvigorated the background conversations as to whether the show knew what it was doing with all of its extremely sensitive themes or ultimately just amounted to very pretty suffering porn, especially when the episode’s moment of triumph was immediately followed by Momoe suffering a mind-breaking trauma. With only two more episodes to go and a previous episode already spent on a clip show recap due to the show’s pandemic-strained production, faith in the show’s storytelling ability was falling.
And so, this is the point at which the show elected to add the equivalent of Star Wars midichlorians to its metaphor-fighting magical girl story.
Muddying Magic with Sci-Fi
Several elements of Wonder Egg Priority dipped into the broader world of speculative fiction, the most notable of which was the introduction of “parallel worlds.” Though the writing decided to dress up the concept with faux technobabble worthy of Star Trek, in practice it worked with the show’s exploration of suicide and “what could have been.” This formed the basis of what very nearly worked about the show’s (first) finale, with Ai protecting an alternate version of herself and thus getting the chance to see how far she’d come and finally let go of her survivor’s guilt.
If that were the limits of the sci-fi influence, Wonder Egg Priority would have occupied the same space as magical girl titles like Flip Flappers or Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The lip service paid to hard science was awkward in both of those cases, but both titles ultimately paid off satisfyingly for their characters. Wonder Egg, meanwhile, brought each of its main girls to their lowest point before stopping to finally give the backstory of the sinister-seeming Accas. With it came the revelation that both men had built an eternally 14-year-old AI named Frill, who proceeded to act with a murderous rage implicitly motivated by sexual jealousy when Acca got married and had a biological daughter. A grieving Acca’s response was to lock her in a dark box for years, from within which Frill was somehow able to enter the dreams of other teenage girls and push them into suicide, starting with Acca’s daughter Himari. While the ultimate takeaway isn’t quite valorizing of the Accas, given their harrowing abuse of Frill, it nonetheless expends a great deal of hand-wringing over their sadness at all the conveniently dead women in their lives, and makes Frill the “greater evil” without exploring her in any further depth afterward.
This was no mere case of stapling the word “entropy” onto a well-established magical contract system. Frill’s introduction brought with it a range of questions that Wonder Egg Priority seemed to have neither interest in nor the capacity to answer, from now-relevant logistical questions like how Frill the AI had interfaced with human brains when the series had never introduced any kind of widely available VR or other neural technology, to ugly gendered implications that no single throwaway line about the “other factors” involved in teen girl suicides could possibly ameliorate. Nor did it help that in addition to Frill’s jealousy-fueled murder spree, the flashback also took the time to imply that the also 14-year-old Himari had attempted to come onto her uncle Ura-Acca before her death. In fact, four of the five teenage girls who experience romantic attraction in the series fixate on adult men.
It seemed inevitable that these disconnected and discomfiting last-minute additions might be the final legacy of the series, with viewers left to take what solace they could in Ai’s small amount of closure and the fact that while she apparently also learned the truth about her friend Koito’s death, that information was never revealed to the viewer — a last fleeting nod to the idea of suicide having no easy answers (except, of course, for the robotic Nymphette Kreuger apparently stalking your dreams). Unfortunately, viewers’ requests for more information were answered by the announcement that the show would air a special 13th episode at the end of June 2021, a full two months after the TV airing finished.
Production Collapse and Episode 13
By this point, news about the human cost of Wonder Egg Priority’s production had found its way online. A now-deleted tweet discussed a producer being hospitalized twice for exhaustion while working on the show in an uncomfortably lionizing fashion; meanwhile, an animator took to BiliBili to vent about the 13th episode entering Second Key Animation a mere five days before it aired. The combined strain of the pandemic, the weak script, and the collective inexperience of the talented staff had led to a complete production collapse, and the results were painfully clear in “special episode” number thirteen.
The first half of the hour-long special was dedicated to the show’s second full-length recap episode, which seemed cut deliberately to erase the ambiguous and often ominous framing of Mr. Sawaki as a potentially kind-faced threat; instead, the clips were repurposed to create a straightforward summary of Ai nursing a crush on her teacher, which made her jealous of her friend Koito and reluctant to bless her mother’s intent to marry Good Man Sawaki. The reason for this became clear with minutes left to go in a special that raised yet more questions and answered precisely none of the preexisting ones before dropping the biggest bomb of all: Koito’s death was not suicide but an accident.
More precisely, Koito had come on to Mr. Sawaki and gotten onto the roof when he rejected her, loudly accusing him of rape and threatening to jump before slipping. Ai and the audience are also told that the reason she transferred to the school in the first place was because she had driven a teacher at her old school to suicide with these same tactics. Sawaki tells Ai all of this as the two stand before a painting he’s done of her, his future stepdaughter, as an adult. We are allegedly meant to take this as his way of encouraging her that she will survive adolescence and someday grow up into a powerful adult. No comment is given on the fact that the painting prominently features red camellias, a symbol of passion and desire, or that the work’s title is “Latent Heat.”
Teenage Girls as Unknowable “Other”
The ripple effect of this narrative decision feels almost too gargantuan to unpack. There is first the fact that teachers are dismissed annually in the hundreds for sex crimes against students, a number which only accounts for successfully levied punishments and not perfectly legal actions like checking students’ underwear, which was only successfully outlawed in one prefecture this year; or even anecdotal cases like a teacher who recorded his students in the bathroom and didn’t lose his license. With such a massive power imbalance built into the existing system, not only in Japan but all over the world, it feels grossly irresponsible to paint adult men as the helpless, goodhearted victims of scheming teenage girls, particularly in a show that set itself up to mull over, representationally, the question of why those Teenage Girls™ kill themselves.
Sawaki’s character — and his relationship to Ai — had already cracked the series’ thematic foundations one episode prior. When Ai defended her parallel self, the Wonder Killer who manifests is indeed Mr. Sawaki… or rather, a manifestation of Ai’s anxieties about him. Once she defeats this manifestation that tormented parallel Ai, our Ai returns to the real world and throws her support behind her mother and Sawaki’s marriage.
Up to that point, week by week, Ai and the other girls were empowered to fight a physical manifestation of a monstrous abuser, one that now looked as ugly on the outside as it was on the inside. The catharsis of those fights came from the rock-solid certainty that we were meant to be in sympathy with these teens and the systemic abuses that killed them — an entire episode was dedicated to a victim whose torment centered around not being believed. By making Sawaki the final Wonder Killer, the show finally had an opportunity to show the audience what the impact those representational struggles could have in the real world, when fought by a girl who lived to tell the tale. Instead it chickens out, and the result is Ai fighting off her own anxieties of how, just as she might have died, Sawaki “might have” been a bad person — while cementing “our” Sawaki as a man who could well have the sun shining out of his rectum. And while it’s at it, this revelation that anxieties can play into the monster’s form casts implicit doubt on every victim’s story that came before. It is at this point that calling for the grace of “unreliable narration” feels, at best, unearned.
It doesn’t matter that this likely wasn’t the show’s attempted statement — more than likely, it was simply that the script’s odd and somewhat stomach-churning attachment to Sawaki as a sympathetic character butted up against the need for Ai to overcome him as an antagonist, and the result was an abstract rendition of “Not All Men” in a series that had never at any point previous claimed — at least textually — that it had any interest in adult men being a central part of the story. With the introduction of dreamstalker Frill and exoneration of Sawaki, Wonder Egg Priority is no longer a grand metaphor about societal evils but a tangible science project about two eternally middle-aged dudes turning teen girls into science projects.
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Assessing the Wreckage
What was the point of all this? I’m not here to suggest that art requires a neat and tidy resolution of every difficult issue it brings up, but as Wonder Egg Priority ran down the checklist of depicting every abuse a teen girl might conceivably suffer, it raised the question of who this was all for. Early on, it seemed as if it might be to provide catharsis for viewers who had lived through trauma themselves, but as increasingly clumsy execution was compounded by the apologism for the adult male characters and the unpleasant glimpses into the hand behind the scripts, it started to seem more like the show was itself doing a little science experiment, a 13 Very Special Episodes meant to allow other men to pat themselves on the back for being so understanding of the strange and alien creature known as the teenage girl.
As a weekly communal experience Wonder Egg Priority was a joy, and its first seven episodes make for an impressive and imaginative showcase for the hardworking artists who poured their hearts into this show. Episode 7 is easily one of the best single episodes of anime I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a fascinating look at artistic conflict within a creative team, and a useful reminder that television and film are collaborative arts that can rarely be boiled down to a single representational face. But I wonder if we aren’t poorer for its existence on the whole, given that the high degree of polish on the visuals led to the team outsourcing huge swaths of animation to overseas animators — a move that has injected a new shot of adrenaline into a spiraling, worker-exploiting industry and which I expect we’ll be seeing the ripple effects of for years to come. All for a series that, as a commentary on adolescent struggles in modern Japan, can’t even provide the same satisfaction as a series that was literally cancelled halfway through. As best, Wonder Egg Priority will build the portfolio of its talented artists, who I can only hope will flee to more competently written productions.