Mari Okada is, to put it lightly, a divisive personality among anime fans. She as a writer favors a very particular brand of romance and melodrama that can come off as stilted, shallow, or even manipulative — seemingly obsessed with love polygons and over-the-top, heavy-handed displays of emotion. I’ve fallen on both ends of the spectrum in the past, having enjoyed some of her original series like Anohana and Kiznaiver (as well as several of her adaptations, like Toradora), but I’ve been less than thrilled by many others, including Anthem of the Heart and Wixoss. Unfortunately, Nagi no Asukara promptly fell to the pitfalls of the latter and did very little over time to pull itself back up, so today, I’d like to explain a little about why I feel that way.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Opening impressions of Nagi no Asukara are honestly not bad. The first scene, literally the first minute, does a swell job of immediately setting up the most important aspects of the story. Before our apparent protagonist has even left the house, the setting is plainly underwater, with a background weather forecast babbling about currents and sea levels, and — perhaps more obviously — literal fish floating around the room. As he gets ready for school, this protagonist is playfully mocked by his family for being overprotective of a childhood friend, which he responds to a little too loudly and forcefully, clearly implying that he has a crush on whoever this friend may be. And those are the basics really, in a nutshell: underwater society and romance. Well, “romance”... w-we’ll get to that.
Anyway, he then leaves the house, revealing to us the most impressive and consistent thing about the series: its visuals. I don’t want to get too many people upset at me too early, so while I do have my issues with the show’s aesthetic, I’ll leave the complaints for later, and for now just admit that it does look pretty. A good word that comes to mind would be “serene”. Nagi no Asukara, at its best, looks simply serene, offering wide shots of clear ocean, open scenery, fields of snow, beautifully lit and backed by moody notes of piano. This sets a tone, and it sets it well. It’s easy, to a point, to sit back and just take in the experience of watching Nagi no Asukara, because when its visual and audio design are working together in perfect tandem, it’ll strike a chord in just about anybody. The Ofunehiki festival scene around halfway through the series  is an especially strong example of this, setting tribal chants against unnaturally bright, rapidly flowing water, as plot events come to a climax, creating a simultaneously beautiful and perilous atmosphere.
So that’s the good, but now we start transitioning to the bad, because the bad is really unfortunately the substance of Nagi no Asukara. It can pretty itself up all it wants, but its ultimate focus is still on a story that can be really hard to care about. After our main character leaves his house, he meets up with his group of friends, by and large our main cast for the rest of the show. It quickly becomes obvious that this main character, Hikari, likes one particular girl Mayaka. But another girl, Chisaki, likes Hikari, and another boy, Kaname, likes Chisaki, and Mayaka herself likes a surface dweller named Tsumugu and before long we have (spoilers, by the way) this, a fucking love heptagon, and the issue there is that none of these people are all that likable or interesting. Most every conflict these characters face is some derivative of “I like that person and I’m not sure if they like me”, with any new potentially interesting conflicts invariably swept under the rug to retain focus on that boring old one.
I’m not saying that romance in and of itself is a boring thing for characters to pursue. Tsuki ga Kirei was one of my favorite anime of last year, but there’s a difference between pursuing romance, or realizing your feelings for someone (a la Toradora), and just sitting around thinking about romance — because that’s ultimately what so much of Nagi no Asukara boiled down to. Everyone loves someone, but everyone’s paralyzed into inaction by the possibility of irreversible change as a result of confessing. Chisaki’s the worst of it; literally her defining character trait is that inaction. She’s always vaguely treading water (metaphorically) without willing to commit to anything because she’s so afraid of change. That perhaps could have been a more compelling struggle if she had some actual reason to fear change, maybe some past trauma, but no, in the end it basically amounts to being too scared to take a leap, for hours of screentime.
Ok, I exaggerated a little; it wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone was unlikable or had nothing to them. Kaname is comparatively a semi-mature, selfless guy who’s always just kind of around, like an afterthought, which culminates in a pretty solid scene come Episode 24, where he admits that, despite that calm exterior, he’s terrified of being left alone or unwanted, which is how things seemed to be going. Another (initially) decent character would be Miuna, a little kid who lives on the surface. She’s not especially complicated, but she’s at least sympathetic, a little girl who lost her mom, and is thus defensive and afraid of her dad hooking up with someone new, feeding into a broader conflict of the show’s first third that was actually somewhat compelling, involving Hikari’s older sister. Her arc was also about romance, being the girl in a relationship with Miuna’s father, but there were far more interesting elements at play than a “will they or won’t they” because no, they did. They were a couple. That was the starting point, not the goal. This sister’s arc had more to do with overcoming tradition and prejudice, braving banishment from her clan for daring to date a surface dweller, ignoring their peoples’ and family’s respective racism to come together out of love. Trite, perhaps, but at least that’s an active narrative you can root for.
And Miuna’s role in that story, as mentioned, was the daughter who understandably couldn’t bear the thought of a new mother. The three of them eventually becoming a happy family is a natural conclusion of the storyline, and rightfully that’s more or less where Miuna’s relevance ends — that is, until there’s a timeskip and she’s old enough to properly join in on the love decagon without it coming off as too pedophilic. Great.
I guess that brings me to the timeskip. Being completely serious, I honestly believe the ulterior motive of the timeskip was to have Miuna and her little friend in on the romance shenanigans. Very little about the progression of the plot itself really necessitated a five-year gap (especially since half the cast doesn’t age), and most of the good ideas it presents as a result of this gap are quickly discarded. Hell, I was excited when the timeskip first happened. It was a chance for the show to set free, break new ground, become more than a teenage melodrama, which for two solid episodes it did. Episode 15 might damn well be my favorite episode of the series. Hikari awakens to an unfamiliar world where, in the blink of an eye (from his perspective), everything and everyone he ever knew has changed. He feels stranded in an unfamiliar landscape, everything similar but nothing the same, holding back tears every waking moment because the weight of it all is so crushing. That’s some Gunbuster shit, that’s great. Give me more of that story, but no, the rest of the cast is slowly reintroduced and we’re back to same-old-same-old, with the addition of tired plot devices like amnesia.
You might be noticing a theme here. What gets really annoying about Nagi no Asukara is that there are flashes of the show it could have been, legitimately compelling moments and subplots — the sister, the timeskip — but it leaves so many of those elements underdeveloped or underexplained in its endless pursuit of the love dodecahedron. The entire conceit of the water village, while cool on the surface, comes off as disappointedly undetailed and ill-thought-out. I can accept that the characters’ hair and clothes don’t move as if they’re underwater because, I get it, the level of animation that requires would be way too intensive for a TV anime, but it just feels lazy to not take into account how electronics or cups work underwater. How do you have bowls of soup? I dunno. And neither does the show.
That’s practically the thesis of Nagi no Asukara. It’s too fixated on the mediocre story it wants to be, neglecting the potential to become what could have been a much fuller and more interesting one. The characters aren’t really good enough to support the intended character drama, and as a result the plot surrounding them often doesn’t have enough thought put into it to get by on its own merits. And by the end, it has the gall to not even definitively resolve the love icosahedron, dropping hints and maybes but actually doubling down on so very little, leaving me nearly to wonder what the point of it all was (I know, they saved the world, but somehow that felt incidental.)
This’d make a decent stopping point for the review, but I did say near the beginning that I would touch on my problems with the show’s visuals, and since I’ve little else left to say, let’s do it. I do think the show looks good, it has pretty backgrounds, but in my opinion it gets oversold. People will literally tell you that Nagi no Asukara looks “incredible”, “majestic”, “astonishing” — and it’s fine if you feel that way, I’m not trying to say you’re wrong for thinking that — but maybe because of that, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Certainly, there are moments that look incredible, but there are also many moments that just look good, and long stretches beyond that which only look generally competent — and the character animation’s pretty up and down, too (15 18:35). I guess my issue is one of consistency. People act like the highs are all that exist, and the highs are certainly stellar, but it’s not a show I could say looks routinely stellar, like Hyouka or Nichijou, or well, most things by KyoAni. I also wasn’t the biggest of Nagi no Asukara’s color palette. I appreciate the dedication to 99% of the shots having some shade of blue, it’s a thematic fit for the setting, but I quickly found it tiresome to constantly be looking at blue.
Look I know it may seem I’ve come down hard on Nagi no Asukara, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I get some unkind comments, but I don’t think it’s a failure of an anime. There were a number of little things I did enjoy — it had a decent sense of humor, it made an effort to give every pair of characters one-on-one conversations — it just upsets me because with a few tweaks, I can see how it could’ve been so much better, without even altering the general framework. (This makes me wonder if I would not be as big on the likes of Anohana were I to rewatch them today, but that must be left for another time.)