Towards the end of Children of the Sea, main character Ruka states “I didn’t even understand anything that happened at all.” She’s doing an excellent job as an audience stand-in. I went into this knowing very little of what it was about and afterwards left it none the wiser. Apart from feeling overwhelmed by the gorgeous ocean and wildlife animation, my lasting impression from this film was of a sense of deliberate inscrutability.
Depending on your viewpoint, that obtuseness could be either the most valuable or most frustrating part of this production. Seafaring cultures the world over pass down folktales about the mysterious denizens of the sea - stories of mermaids or sirens that lure unsuspecting sailors to their doom - seal-skinned women who bear fishermen children then disappear one day never to be seen again - monstrous animals that beckon the unwary to their doom beneath the dark, salty waves. What all of these tales evoke in common is a sense of mystery and foreboding about the ocean and what occurs beneath it. The ocean is a place to be feared and respected, not one to be mastered by men.
Children of the Sea continues this grand tradition, while adding a touch of sweet teenage anime summer romance and a heady dash of bombastic End of Evangelion apocalyptic insanity for good measure. This is a slow-moving film that keeps its cards close to its chest for most of its run-time before erupting into a prolonged hallucinogenic nightmare sequence that may be only partly metaphorical and those cards are lost beneath the seething currents, their faces never to be elucidated to the frankly confused viewer.
I felt exhausted by the end trying to work out what all of the symbolism meant. Throughout the whole thing I kept thinking Am I missing something? Should this have come with a guidebook, some kind of key for me to decode all of this random stuff that keeps happening? Looking at the chapter titles of the manga on wikipedia does not raise much hope that reading the original will clarify matters.
What’s even more frustrating is that multiple characters seem to know exactly what is going on but this is never communicated clearly to the audience. They converse in obfuscated language about “The Festival” and about grand cosmic ideas linking the sea of stars with the earthly sea. A plot-line about the military or private businesses or someone or other trying to profit from the inexplicable events goes absolutely nowhere, a presumably deliberate red herring?
Really, this shouldn’t have been difficult. It starts off simply enough following the story of main character Ruka - a somewhat sullen teen girl who lashes out against a bully and ends up socially ostracised over summer break. Her parental relationships are also strained - she barely speaks to her alcoholic mother and it is inferred she doesn’t see much of her estranged father either. Both parents work at the local aquarium in their seaside town and there Ruka meets Umi - a boy who was apparently raised by Dugongs (a sea mammal closely related to the manatee, or sea cow). That concept in itself is pretty difficult to swallow, especially in terms of the logistics of such an existence. A boy raised by wolves I can just about imagine, but sea cows... No.
Anyway, Umi and his older brother Sora (they do not appear to be biological siblings for reasons that are obvious) have both undergone some kind of spontaneous biological changes as part of their adaptation to undersea life. This means they struggle to survive on land and must remain wet the majority of the time. Ok so far, so Splash. (Any Tom Hanks fans out there?) Things get weird quickly though when it transpires that something is going on with all the animal life in the world’s oceans starting to congregate in the waters around Japan after a meteorite crashes. The boys can understand the whale-songs and they believe (along with various marine biologists and shady business/military types) that something called “the festival” is coming.
To detail any further would venture deep into needless spoiler territory. The premise is certainly interesting, and I’ve not seen anime tackle anything quite like this. It’s a shame that the story disappears up its own whirlpool towards the end. It is always gorgeous to look at with some frankly astonishing sequences that are technically magnificent with a mix of traditional and CG animation. Even the last half hour with its confused storytelling kept my rapt attention because of the beautiful chaos unfolding on the screen. Studio Ghibli alum Joe Hisaishi’s score is simple, emotional and equals the visuals in its beauty. Although this may be one of the most memorable drug-free trips I’ve ever experienced, sheer spectacle is not enough to make a great film.
I would recommend this to anime fans who value sheer unbridled visual artistry above any other movie-watching concerns. Anyone else looking for a coherent story with a thematically satisfying ending should probably look elsewhere. Please also bear in mind that there is a substantial post-credits sequence that you should most certainly stay for at the end. I mostly enjoyed my two hours watching this, but now I know that it is mostly another example of sound and fury, signifying nothing, I probably won’t seek it out to watch again.
I watched Children of the Sea at the Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen as part of their Scotland Loves Anime season. I’ll return on Tuesday 28th January with a review of that day’s film, Birthday Wonderland. Tickets for the next few film showings are still available, with Monday 27th January’s film Promare already reviewed at the link below.
Children of the Sea
Produced by: STUDIO4℃
Directed by: Ayumu Watanabe
Based on the manga by: Daisuke Igarashi
Screenplay by: Daisuke Igarashi
Music by: Joe Hisaishi
Japanese cinematic release: June 7th 2019
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