'From the Star...': Children of the Sea (Dir. Ayumu Watanabe, 2019) Review
“From the star.
From the stars.
The sea is the mother.
The people are her bosom.
Heaven is the playground.”
And the so the festival begins…
‘It’s not you it’s me’, ‘we want different things’, ‘I just can’t see a future with us; I’ve been spitting these lines at movies for the last few years’, embracing a mentality that sometimes the film is just not the right fit for me. It began as a kindness, there are so many works that I can see for all their charms but then I’m hobbling about with shoes on the wrong feet. Many of my reviews have been kinder than I wish to be, wielding diplomacy where maybe I should wield some steel. But last week shifted things. Koko-di, Koko-da walked the Mile with me, I had to condemn it for its frustrating shortcomings.
Today, I’d resigned from the gallows, climbed on a soap box to gesture wildly about the complexity of this week’s surprise viewing: Ayumu Watanabe’s stunning 2019 Adaptation, Children of the Sea. Under Studio 4°C, the company behind some favourite’s including Mind Game (Yuasa, 2004), Tekkonkinkreet (Arias, 2006) and even the enjoyable mixed bag that was Berserk: The Golden Age Arc (Kubooka, 2012-13), Watanabe achieves something rather monumental. Lu Over the Wall (Yuasa 2017) meets Angels’ Egg (Oshii, 1985) were my first impressions when it came to its conclusion, by the morning after I would be so bold as to state it was reminiscent of 1988’s Akira – condensed from a series of manga that overflowed with existential ideas and equally as ground-breaking. To add to the fantastical, composing a soul for the sea and sky, Joe Hisaishi returned to the realm of cinema. His score provides a nuanced gravity that allows the film a voice as much in moments of serenity and colossal upheaval.
Based on the manga of the same name by Daisuke Igarashi, it follows fourteen year old Ruka over the course of an eventful summer. After an incident in which she injures a fellow teammate at her sports club, she is forced to leave when she refuses to apologise. Due to estrangement from her troubled mother finds, Ruka finds solace in the local aquarium where her busy father works where years before she experienced a supernatural sight in one of the exhibits. Something equally as strange happens again when she meets the high-spirited Umi (Sea) and later the ethereal Sora (Sky). The younger of two brothers raised by dugongs, their skin is sensitive to the air, craving the ocean to survive. Because of this, the aquarium took them in to investigate their origins and their link to the sea. In meeting them a mystery begins to unravel; supernatural phenomena unsettle the creatures of the sea, a comet falls from the sky, and a ghostly whale song announces the coming of ‘The Festival.’
The original manga is highly complex; Watanabe had to strip away elements to capture the essence of the highly original source material. Perhaps better described as a Sci-fi, keeping within the spirit of the art and style of the original story, Watanabe focusses on the story of Ruka, strips away characters and plays down side plots until he tells a strange, abstract folk tale of loneliness, duty and rebirth. In true Japanese storytelling fashion, it takes something simple and breaks it open to reveal all the little cells holding it together, intricately linking to the universe, eventually leaving much to contemplation.
The lukewarm reception took me by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it becomes something wholly unexpected. It branches off from the manga taking core ideas and condensing a long-running format in to something more concise. If I have any criticism it’s that it could be interpreted as too broad a source material to really be done justice. But the slice that Watanabe serves us is a hypnotic experience. It reminds me, as I earlier stated, of the infamous Akira. A brief glimpse of what is a wealth of story within the post-apocalyptic manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, he manages to harnesses the essential heart of his original story, boiling it down to the tragic friendship between its two main characters. Big ideas are explored; the atomic war between men, power and the annihilation of humanity. Somehow the film still feels vast as does Children of the Sea, a powerful, philosophical voyage.
The earth breathes; in the ocean we find natures womb, all life celebrates its rebirth as the cycle continues – it unites us to land and sky, each organism a piece of us, made from the stars above. We are all connected. These big ideas are captured in some intense sequences of its third act, an odyssey through the conception of the universe. It’s purpose a mystery that transcends Ruka and the two boys. In the team funding the research of Umi and Sora, we see the artificial in stark contrast to a film fit to bursting with life – they want uncover the truth by any means necessary, fuelled by greed and more so man’s hubris, an endeavour to outwit the world we live on with a delusion that we can hold natures will in our hands. This film rejects that, pushes forth the truth that we are more than what we believe to be, that the ocean carries answers we will never begin to understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Some people hate vagueness in their stories, I can be one of them and roll my eyes for good measure; but sometimes a story can thrive off its ambiguity.
On a basic level, Children of the Sea still remains grounded. The story of Ruka is familiar to many; struggling to control her emotions, unable to communicate she lashes out. She can’t find a voice in her life. When she discovers her connection to Umi and the sea, she begins to see the world is bigger than her comprehension. Ruka finds solace in the company, a boy who is inherently open-hearted. His naivety and honesty awakens a need to protect him, helps her to speak through action. As Jim, one of the guardians of the two boys, states in a moment of insight; “We humans cannot convey even half of our thoughts if we fail to put them into words well, but whales may, through a song, sing and communicate what they see and feel as it is.”
The theme of loneliness is prevalent, all the more highlighted by the massive topic that in any conversation can begin to eat you whole. Many, if not all, of the characters are lonely. Where in nature this ebb and flow of communication reveals the organic shifting of the earth’s cycles, from the lowliest bug to largest mammal, the humans are a messy in between of stifled emotion and lost identities. We resist the cycle, like we resist most of the wonderful things the planet offers us. In a pivotal scene between Sora and Ruka, she acknowledges her own loneliness and that of the two boys; radiant with life, the sight of the falling star she witnessed was also shining so bright because it wanted to be seen. That beautiful glow made her sad when she could see such aloneness.
Children of the Sea is teeming with sumptuous visuals, hyper details and lush artistry that pays homage to it’ source material and more. It captures the terror of its more Lovecraftian scenes, the abhorrence and tenderness of the ocean we are immersed in and the muddling’s of people in amongst it all. A blend of intricate CGI and hand drawn technique, it’s probably one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. Drawing attention to each of these styles, in vital moments, each frame is pulsing with life. The smells and sounds heave from the screen. The team explored new visuals, technology and experimented with colour compliments to bring to life the world of the ocean below and it’s binaries with the world above and beyond; the skies are painted in hues of reds and purples rarely captured in Anime, the water alive upon each surface it graces. The film becomes a sensual adventure. Right down to the falling rain, each drop becomes a character all of its own.
However, I feel it is only right that I address the controversy that surrounds not only this film but the animation community as a whole. Children of the Sea is another example of misconduct in a vast plain of poor work environments, mismanagement, fraud and abuse. The film suffered a familiar production hell that has been wrought throughout the animation community for decades. In the works for five years, during that time it was revealed that (once again), animators worked for little money, gruelling though hours’ worth of overtime and exploited by the studio. Now, from the little sources I have it seems an attempt to unionize meant that staff did get paid but without the activity of the union, they would have been worked to death with no compensation. The most beautiful of works have often been produced by companies unwilling to pay their animators worth. There are exceptions, some recent studios have attempted to provide safer, more supportive work environments but these are too few and far between. May it be a work culture epidemic or simply an extension of the corruption within all entertainment industries, Children of the Sea is just another example of extreme conditions that pushed its employees to breaking point. The final product is absolutely phenomenal but I can’t help but think that it is unlikely we will see anything of this creative magnitude again as long as companies refuse to support their employees. More so, it’s not worth the lives of people who lovingly, painstakingly crafted it.
When I think of all the creatives that came together to make this astounding film, the hours, the talent, the passion for what they do, I can’t comprehend how one can’t be moved immediately. Maybe I’m soft for more classic animation, I know I’m biased. But in viewing Children of the Sea I saw an infinite wealth of creative expertise and beyond that existential horror. I have yet to see something quite so hypnotic, misleadingly pensive in its early half, gradually creeping into terrain of cosmic wonder until I felt I had been washed in clarity. If one goes into this film expecting a clean –cut narrative journey, they will be sorely disappointed as they would if they anticipated an orgasmic thrill-ride of psychedelic visuals. It’s neither and both of these things. Terrifying in its capacity, deeply intelligent, touching and devastating. With all this, it still provides an affirmation of sorts.
In the end, for me, I felt like I had seen something of some importance – something worth sticking about for. I hope this film will gain more traction, which with time, the soul and the thought that went into is not lost. It’s a feature that could only be told through the beautiful yet harrowing work of the talented animators, one that I do not expect to see imitated. With little explanation, we are left with speculation and feeling, and I can’t hate that when Children of the Sea offers me something rather cathartic.