There’s something disturbing about the Super Sonico anime TV series. And I don’t mean that in a sensationalist, link-baiting way, but in a genuine discomfiting way that is at odds with the high-fructose aesthetics and heart-warming stories. It’s more intrinsic and hints at what the TV anime is representative of.
Sonico as a character - the busty, pink haired, headphone wearing poster child of the series - started life as a mascot character for the company Nitroplus (often stylised as Nitro+) way back in 2006. The quintessential image of a doe-eyed anime character with pneumatic breasts and a disregard for clothing rippled across image boards and if you were to do a search for the character on more or less any representative image silo today (workplace readers duly warned) then you could be mistaken for believing Sonico is just another hormone fuelled fantasy catering to the broad headphone fetish. Indeed, in the anime series she is never seen without her gargantuan and unwieldy headphones, going so far as to wearing them in a hotspring or in flashbacks to her childhood.
Nitro+ the company seem content enough with (or at least powerless to stop) the deluge of highly pornographic representations of their trademark / mascot; they have games to sell after all - including the phenomenally well regarded Steins;Gate. The SoniAni TV series resolutely ignores this situation and pitches Sonico (last name, her first name remains, what else?, “Super”) as a cat-loving, college-attending, band-fronting wonder child packing all the foibles fit for fanaticism.
If you’ve ever ventured into the myriad world of Japanese pornography then you’ll no doubt be familiar with the “gravure” video genre which takes a flesh and blood female and voyeuristically follows them around such strenuous activities as walking on the beach in a bikini, lazing around an obviously rented house in a bikini (the lady not the house), or generally frolicking, eating or idly chatting while showing a lot, but not too much, skin. The cheap to produce films sit in the same sleazy category as men’s magazines like FHM or Zoo (if you’re British) but skirt around the pedantic and byzantine pornography laws of Japan by being ostensibly titillating but otherwise mawkishly innocent. SoniAni is the same: a gravure video carved up into twelve episodes.
Sure it’s three episodes before someone makes a crack about Sonico’s cup size but it’s the same kind of early-evening, teenage-boy dream that gravure videos cater to. Each episode purports to be a glimpse into Sonico’s life - aww, look how she’s taking in that vagrant kitten! - but it all comes across as an extended advertisement for Sonico herself. One story mid-way through the run even tries to create a meta singularity by being about a reporter prying into Sonico’s life, trying to get the “real” side of her. Like a noh drama representing life writ large, it smacks a little of avant garde theatre.
Positioning the series as a subversive, rainbow-coloured advertisement for Sonico is, by extension, an advertisement for Nitro+ the company. A fever dream of capitalism, Sonico rockets past pretenders like Digi Charat by creating a perpetual, self-fulfilling advertising machine for a company. Love the character, love the company, buy our products.
It didn’t start like this though. Sure you get the beach episode only a quarter of the way in and you have to overlook headphone-related gaffes like Sonico trying to talk on the phone without taking them off, but for the most part this feels like an impeccably distilled character piece, iyashkei at its pinnacle, and regardless of the internet’s representation of Sonico, the only swelling interested parties will experience will be their heart because aww, she helps out her aunt at her restaurant and has to say part ways with her childhood mentor. Feel the affection damn you. Connect with this ditzy, earnest pixie.
Sonico’s absolute perfection though - her faith in people, her sincere mannerisms, her diligent work ethic - all accumulate until she becomes larger than life and you’re unable to believe in the fantasy that she represents. This is no mere character, this is a brand marque. Sonico never removes her headphones despite the jankiness of the situation because without her headphones she’s just another luminously-haired character baying for your attention. You can almost feel the cane of a marketing executive beating a writer as they try to temper her purity, or at least attempt to ameliorate what is no doubt a growing ear wax problem.
The best companion piece for Super Sonico I can imagine is the 2010 live action film Helter Skelter which sees a similarly “perfectly” proportioned model and budding actress begin to fray and come apart at the seams as her career accelerates and eventually careens out of control. It’s a scathing look at fashion, the media, and the pursuit of society-agreed upon beauty and the rotten heart it installs in its champions. With hints of Hideaki Anno’s Love and Pop as well as Satoshi Kon’s masterful Perfect Blue, it shares the same space as them because it peels back the curtain and explores what happens to these media darlings when the cameras fall silent. For Sonico though, the cameras are always rolling.
This isn’t the story of someone who has to clean the litter tray of her five cats, or who gets her pocket caught on a door handle while leaving a room, or who suffers back pain, or of someone who suffers setback after setback until it becomes too much to bear. That isn’t this series and it never purports to be as much, it’s low fantasy without the mystical. But like Chitanda from Hyouka, Sonico goes conspicuously far into the perfect princess zone which is all the more obvious by having the series revolve entirely around her adventures and personality. It’s perhaps somewhat of a moot point for viewers outside of Japan seeing as Nitro+ games and products are still limited, incredibly niche items so advertising, no matter how cynically masked, would be largely ineffective.
Despite its fervent capitalism though, the series isn’t without some merit. It is embarrassingly easy to watch and continues the trend of using of 3D computer graphics, this time in the surreal technicolour vignettes that play during the closing credits of each episode. The music isn’t outstanding but benefits from the same dazzle of watching live musicians play, only in this case it’s uniformly well-endowed lady characters. The episodic stories are twee and fulfilling if you can overlook the marketing machine lumbering behind them, but like the siren song of myth something more sinister lies behind the allure.