A (relatively) short Ikuhara primer, Naoko Yamada, and the “egg” in Wonder Egg Priority

This season’s latest critical darling, Shin Wakabayashi’s Wonder Egg Priority, has been described as, if Kunihiko Ikuhara (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum) and Naoko Yamada’s (A Silent Voice, Liz and the Blue Bird) respective animated series had a love child. This is a fairly apt description based on the first episode, and although many upon first hearing this will wonder what exactly that looks like and how two styles that seem fairly incongruous would go together, those styles do work and the result is Wonder Egg Priority.

If you want to be particularly meta about it, the result is the description comparing two existing directorial styles and the description is also the result. It’s something new, born of known visual languages.

“If it cannot break its egg’s shell, a chick will die without being born. We are the chick. The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born. Smash the world’s shell! For the revolution of the world!”

-the student council (Touga Kiryuu), Revolutionary Girl Utena

For as much as Ikuhara is to believed in his commentary about any of his works, he claims that the saying above — which becomes the repeated motto of Utena‘s student council — came from a friend recommending him Hermann Hesse’s Demian. The original quote from Demian is, “The bird struggles out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born, must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.” Ikuhara added the revolution part, replacing the flight to god with revolutionizing the world.

Without delving too far into this or giving away Utena spoilers — there are entire essays written on how the Jungian philosophy of Demian relates to and/or acts as a foil for what happens in Utena — the most important thing about this phrase for the purposes of this article (and Wonder Egg Priority) is who says it: the members of the student council who are ostensibly villains to Utena Tenjou’s hero.

While there are myriad cases for their villainy, and they actively oppose Utena’s purported heroism, the true villain in Utena (like all of Ikuhara’s works) is the system itself. The student council members are complicit in varying degrees but are also victims of the system they help perpetuate, rather than breaking through that particular shell themselves. The egg itself can be both stasis and advancement. Breaking through the shell of the egg is breaking through physical and mental barriers, or in the specific case of Utena, a stifling patriarchal society that affects and hurts everyone involved.

One of the main questions floating around following the first episode of Wonder Egg Priority is whether presumed protagonist Ai Outo is being scammed. If I may be so bold, I think this is the wrong question to be asking.

Of course it’s a scam.

Ai will never be able to resurrect her friend/girlfriend, Koito Nanase, who committed suicide by hopping to different worlds courtesy of magical eggs from a gachapon machine.

As an aside, there’s another similarity to Ikuhara in the way that the method of accomplishing whatever thing the protagonists want to accomplish is caught up in capitalism. If only you buy enough eggs (acquire enough golden plates, find the penguindrum), you too can make your dreams come true! The enemy is always the system and in Wonder Egg Priority that system — dare I say, the true shell that needs to be cracked less the chicks die before they’re born — appears to be the one that leads to merciless school bullying.

In “hatching” Kurumi Saijo, Ai is brought to Kurumi’s world where monsters called seenoevils attack Kurumi and only Kurumi. In the end, Ai attacks the monsters and defeats them so Kurumi can be free, only to later find out that only Ai herself can be “saved.” Kurumi is a statue in someone else’s world just like Koito is a statue in Ai’s world. Presumably, like Ai was told that Koito could be saved with enough eggs, someone else was told similarly for Kurumi. At the end of the series, standing in line at the gachapon machine before Ai, is another girl, stockpiling eggs in service to her own personal cause.

Ai is the default protagonist for us, and she’s presented in a sympathetic way. Still, there are nods — the PA announcement that you always look the other way when a friend is being bullied, her heartfelt apology to Kurumi when she initially doesn’t offer Kurumi help — towards Ai being somewhat complicit in the system. This is in no way to blame Ai for Koito’s death (although she very obviously does this internally) but to reiterate that in a toxic system, everyone loses.

Ultimately, the solution that Ikuhara protagonists find is in creating true, genuine love with other people without the system getting in the way. It sounds simple but is remarkably difficult in execution. There are shades of this in the way that Kurumi talks about her former friends. They were people that told her things were cute, but weren’t true best friends. Having a best friend makes the so-called punishment of living (to borrow from Ikuhara’s Mawaru Penguindrum) a lot easier to bear. While Ikuhara’s series deal with large-scale societal and macro problems, the solutions are always found within the micro.

This is also where Yamada comes in. Yamada’s focus, since her directorial debut with K-ON!, has been on interpersonal relationships, primarily between young women. K-ON! goes from being a formulaic 4-koma routine to a study of genuine friendship between its five leads as she finds her footing visually. In A Silent Voice, she uses multiple visual languages — in particular, flower language — as concurrent emotional narratives, reinforcing Shoko Nishimiya’s deafness and Shoya Ishida’s inability to communicate despite being able to hear. Again in Tamako Love Story, Sound! Euphonium, and Liz and the Blue Bird, there’s a definitive focus on the micro of interpersonal relationships not in spite of but because of how outwardly mundane they are. She turns the mundane into something with infinite value to a select few — a reflection of how relationships work in real life.

Wonder Egg Priority mashes these ideas together in a beautiful premiere that shows its influences proudly, but never feels like a worse version of either one.

11 comments

  1. This was a very interesting read. I really should (re-)watch another Ikuhara show. Utena didn’t really work for me in the same way most older shows rarely work for me, even if Utena was good enough to get some enjoyment out of it in spite of this. Sarazanmai was interesting but didn’t quite feel conclusive and ultimately never captured me the way other shows like Wonder Egg Priority do. Ikuhara shows are always delightfully weird for me, and I love the comedy, but so far they haven’t really clicked with me thematically. But the way you describe Ikuhara narratives, I think I should have another go at one, particularly Penguindrum. I have good hope that this time that one may work.

    Also only now after you brought up the role of capitalism does the true horror of tying lives to friggin gacha dawn on me. The conflict they set up is really quite ruthless, isn’t it. We might be in for more suffering than I initially anticipated, but I’m absolutely here for it. The first episode was so good at tying its cinematography to its themes and characters that I couldn’t help but write an essay about it, too. Kinda brings me back to Gridman.

    Anyway, good job on this and your flower post! I hope you’ll find more things to write about the show – I’ll be happy to read more!

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