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Ai growls as glass shards fall around her face in Wonder Egg Priority Image: CloverWorks

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Wonder Egg Priority is reimagining Magical Girl empowerment

The way the action-heavy anime subverts classic tropes is its own thrill

[Ed. note: This article contains general spoilers for Wonder Egg Priority. It also contains mentions of self-harm and suicide that may be unsuitable for some readers.]

Even amongst high-profile sequels and adaptations, few anime series have stood out from this winter season more than the amazingly titled Wonder Egg Priority. CloverWorks’ animation is lavish, with consistently incredible layouts and drawings across its conversations and its fights. But under it all is an uncommonly dark core. The directness with which series director Shin Wakabayashi and writer Shinji Nojima approach painful topics instantly sets Wonder Egg Priority apart from its Magical Girl anime predecessors.

In Wonder Egg Priority, 14-year-old Ai Ohto grieves after the suicide of her only friend Koito, and enters a dream world where she must fight to protect the spirits of dead girls, housed within “Wonder Eggs.” To help them find peace, Ai has to fight creepy, kitchen knife-wielding demons called “Seeno Evils” and larger monsters known as “Wonder Killers.” Ai has her own agenda: her strange benefactors, mysterious mannequin men named Acca and Ura-Acca, promise to return Koito to life in exchange for her services. As Ai undertakes her missions, she meets and befriends three other girls doing the same, for their own mostly obscured reasons. That includes Neiru, a taciturn and isolated child of wealth; Rika Kawai (“as in ‘kawaii’ because I’m so cute!”), a former young idol whose obnoxiousness masks unspoken pain; and most recently Momoe, calm and confident in all areas except when faced with stigma toward her androgynous appearance. Each week, they buy Wonder Eggs from magic gachapon machines and undertake missions to save Egg girls in their own distinct dreamworlds.

As with other Magical Girl shows, an otherworldly familiar grants access to abilities that empower the girls to reshape the world, enact their agency, and feel assured in themselves. Wonder Egg adheres to that tradition in some places but breaks from it in fascinating ways. On its face, the show is a mash-up of psychological horror and coming-of-age drama, with clear influences. From the beginning are intricate layers of visual language that recall the work of A Silent Voice director Naoko Yamada (particularly her use of flower language) and the subjective, magical realist portrayal of reality that made Satoshi Kon a name.

Wonder Egg’s approach immediately turns the concept of the Magical Girl into something ominous; Ai’s “benefactors” warn in the very first episode that “the first one is free. The rest will cost you.” This is mostly literal as Ai has to buy each egg, though the other costs are yet to be seen. That underlying idea that the very system in which the main characters operate (in this case, patriarchal and capitalist) is itself exploitative recalls both the famed Revolutionary Girl Utena and Kunihiko Ikuhara’s other show Mawaru Pengiundrum. One show that will come to mind for many is Puella Magi Madoka Magica, another series that subverted the Magical Girl subgenre by showing it through a more horrifying lens. For viewers of that show, the potentially Faustian bargain between Ai and her so-called benefactors should immediately set off alarm bells. It remains to be seen how far Wonder Egg will go with those implications, but there are definitely bad vibes, as Acca and Ura-Acca view their life-and-death struggles with callous detachment.

The girls are granted strength, though even in its more overtly magical girl moments, the characters don’t transform themselves so much as their perception of the world. They imbue objects with power rather than the other way around. Not that the trope of transformation is outdated, but the ballerina-like glamour and grace of a Sailor Guardian isn’t entirely befitting of Wonder Egg, in which a protagonist who is bullied for her unique appearance is learning to be comfortable with herself as is. It’s important that Ai fights while dressed as herself — it’s not someone else’s power, but her own, from her perspective and resolve.

The series also foregrounds the ugliness of reality. It’s not vaguely “about trauma” like some shows are content to be but actually traces specific issues back to their systemic root as well as the impulses that amplify them. In the show-stopping third episode, “A Bare Knife,” the girls that Ai and Rika have to protect are commentaries on the toxic side of idol culture, Rika herself being both a victim of and complicit in the exploitation of young girls navigating that space. It’s also the unfortunately rare anime to take sexual harassment and assault seriously, treating invasive actions as the petrifying threat that it is, rather than brushing it off as a crude joke. Wakabayashi and Nojima don’t pull punches, which makes it a hard show to recommend universally — many will find the show’s quite direct exploration of self-harm to be an insurmountable hurdle. But so far, the show never sensationalizes such material, with careful and often lyrical portrayal of the hidden traumas born from commonplace, predatory cultural systems.

The trick is in the elegance of its presentation. While the show is often direct, it avoids exploitation even when the imagery is explicit, and does well to balance its contrasting material, linking charming comedy and tough social commentary. Wakabayashi and the other episode directors show restraint in the right moments, taking a necessarily oblique approach to its most difficult subjects. The heaviest details are shown through incidental reveals: Ai catches an accidental glimpse of another character’s scars, and her own experiences with bullying are revealed simply through the appearance of her dreamworld. The nuances of its naturalistic character acting are combined with smart juxtaposition that imbues objects and the world around them with emotional significance. In one scene, news of a great change in Ai’s life is timed to a rivetingly detailed cut of sukiyaki, a raw egg shattering as the space of her home becomes even more uncomfortable.

While Wonder Egg picks apart much of its thematic material through quiet and careful observation, it also does so through loud and spectacular action. Each episode culminates in cathartic, astonishing sequences that never lose sight of authorial intent, even as the animation becomes more playful and experimental. The third episode’s final, high-flying action sequence that borders on the abstract as Ai and Rika display the power of their mutual understanding, heroically leaping to the Egg Girls’ rescue. And while each girl retains their distinctive but down-to-earth character designs (courtesy of Saki Takahashi), there’s still Magical Girl transformation, just with things that Ai interacts with: Her favored pen transforms into a battle-ax; a gymnastics ribbon into a whip; penlights into small lightsabers. The show’s subjective visual approach to reality and the girls’ worldview also applies to Egg’s genre thrills.

The show uses bursts of action to expound collective rage at commonplace predatory behavior, as each of the aforementioned “Wonder Killers” has a clearer allegorical purpose. In other hands, this might feel too literal, so it’s a testament to Wonder Egg’s craft that it feels complex, with the action serving as an extension of each episode’s character study. “A Bare Knife” might be the most potent example, as episode director Yūki Yonemori’s uses what appears to be animation on the threes early in the episode, the juddery movement reflecting new character Rika’s disruptive personality. Conversely, in the fifth episode, Neiru’s big fight moves with the slickness of a spy thriller, her magic weapons based around distance and precision.

The drawings bringing these moments to life feel unparalleled in the consistency of their detail and quality. It’s all propelled by DE DE MOUSE and Mito’s bouncy, off-kilter electronic score that isn’t far off from that of Satoshi Kon collaborator Susumu Hirasawa. Such scenes assert themselves from their peers with surprisingly frank brutality, the violence specific and painfully real even in large-scale, earth-shattering brawls. While most of these battles are thrilling and fast-paced, the show’s horror roots reveal themselves every so often, like in the episode “Punch Drunk Day,” which finds terror and desperation in a close-quarters fight against an invisible enemy. The impact of the blows against Ai are painfully clear.

The combination of violent combat and traumatic backstory is anything but gratuitous. Wonder Girl Priority is extremely charming and funny in its portrayal of its main player’s quirks and how they compliment and clash — Rika’s persistent needling of her friends, Ai’s friendliness and idealism, Neiru’s straightforwardness, Momoe’s calmness. Their revolt against the yolk of abusive adults and even complicit peers is but one part of the journey, as each girl begins to break out of their shell and confront their isolation thanks to their newfound support system — something more empowering than any of their otherworldly abilities. Its approach to the aesthetic and narrative traditions of the magical girl subgenre (themselves ever-transforming) is emblematic of the rest of its sometimes-indescribable appeal. Even with its many influences worn plainly on its sleeves, Wonder Egg Priority lives at a crossroads of a number of different genres, with a slippery approach to style and tone and a defiance of simple categorization, all while maintaining a sense of clarity. That’s part of what makes it great, as it remixes disparate elements into something more than the sum of its parts.

This is an anime with the potential for all-timer status, though there’s a sense it could fall apart as writers continue to pick at incredibly uncomfortable material. It’s unknown whether Wakabayashi and company will stick the landing, but it’s rare that a series comes out of the gates as consistently exciting, challenging and gorgeously-animated as this. Wonder Egg Priority is like many things that came before, but right now, nothing else is like it.

New episodes of Wonder Egg Priority air each Tuesday on Funimation.

Update: Sections of this essay have been updated for clarity.

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