For years prominent works of Western animation have been directly influenced by anime. This makes the newfound popularity of works like One Punch Man, Your Name and, of course, My Hero Academia all the more interesting. These are properties that take our storytelling tropes and remix them with a Japanese twist. For a long time, we have drawn upon anime, and now anime is drawing back, illuminating the process of cultural exchange, retroactively casting western animation and anime as the contemporaries they have always been.
Ayumu Watanabe’s, Children of the Sea is emblematic of this dichotomy. The film is a western-inspired coming-of-age story with an oceanic supernatural twist that takes heavily from dense elements of Japanese mythology. When the supernatural elements of the story step to the fore all expectations as to where the film should go are eschewed. While built upon elements of western storytelling, the film is still a Japanese product and feels in no way bound to obey the expectations set before it, which exposes how stifled western animation remains. Children of the Sea embodies the virtues and shortcomings of anime, a form that has been afforded the space to explore and grow, making it an interesting counterpoint to their western counterpart, a mature cousin.
Children of the Sea centers on fourteen-year-old Ruka’s (Mana Ashida) whose summer break is thrown into turmoil after she falls out with her handball club and her mother. With nothing to do, no friends to see, and nowhere to go, Ruka resorts to spending her time at the aquarium where her semi-estranged father works. There she meets brothers Umi (Hiiro Ishibashi) and Sora (Seishū Uragami), who was “raised by dugongs” (for real) and are thus capable of living underwater. Naturally, Ruka quickly connects with pair, developing romantic feelings for Umi and a quiet animosity with Sora. However, as her relationship to the boys develops, so too does a supernatural bond, from which spring occurrences that see the cosmos and the sea collide.
In a more conventional film, these occurrences would play out as a series of dramatic beats interspersed with action-adventure sequences a la Pixar’s Coco or even Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You. Children of the Sea, however, is an entirely different creature, one that is not particularly interested in being an enjoyable-but-safe coming-of-age film. In truth, the literal translation of the title, Marine Mammal Children, is more indicative of the film’s ultimate direction. Early on, parallels are drawn between the expanse of space the depths ocean, with the trio of adolescent protagonists being positioned as a thematic connector between the two, and it seems that will be left at that. In the last forty minutes, however, Children of the Sea veers dramatically into psychedelic territory, and those connections that once seemed metaphorical are revealed to be quite literal.
It is in these sections when outlandish, animation driven storytelling takes center stage, that Children of the Sea soars. Unfortunately, the film is an adaptation of a five-volume manga that featured a large amount of traditional coming-of-age drama. The film is burdened with a lot of that element of the story to adapt without the breathing space to do so. The cast is quite small, limited to a handful of named characters, and still, this feels excessive. Many secondary characters have arcs that feel abridged or aborted entirely, leaving them narratively adrift. Even the central trio feels like compressed versions of characters that were once more fully realized. Too often human moments are crammed into montages to make space for convoluted exposition. This is not inherently an issue, but Children of the Sea’s second half sees much of what is exposited becomes largely irrelevant, leaving the first hour feeling both overstuffed and lacking in anything of substance.
But when the second half begins, and all but the absolute bare essentials of the narrative are jettisoned, Children of the Sea comes alive. An ending that abandons all conventional narrative in favor of abstract imagery and high-minded philosophical ideas is nothing new in the world of anime; Akira and The End of Evangelion are both famous examples of an anime derailing its own story to such ends. While indebted to those films, Children of the Sea is not a rehash, it has a unique philosophical point of view, one that befits a film that is taking more into multicultural influences. Watanabe and his team of animators deftly handle the film’s heady ideas, visually articulating them in a way that makes them not only comprehensible but actively engaging. It cannot be overstressed how much of an accomplishment the climax of the film is; it is the most aesthetically beautiful filmmaking I have seen this year.
In this final stretch Watanabe succeeds in the impossible, he sticks the landing despite the fact that Children of the Sea never really takes off. This does not excuse the muddled storytelling, but then again this is not a film attempting to excuse itself. It is one that is exactly what it wants to be, and what it wants to be, while messy, is also singular. For all of its shortcomings Children of the Sea stands as the latest in a long run of reminders that to try and confine animation is to put limitations on something that should be limitless.