One of the things I love about GKids Films, a distributor of Asian animated films, is the absolute variety and high quality of each production they release in the U.S. The films they release range from stop-motion (My Life as a Zucchini (2017)), traditional animation (Funan (2019)), 3D animation (Promare (2019)), or something more avant garde (Marona’s Fantasic Tale (2020)). Each story could only be executed via animation as the limitations of live action prevent the respective films from capturing the action, excitement, and, where appropriate, wonder of each story. It’s with little surprise, then, that the latest GKids release to hit home video, director Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea, follows the trend of genre-transcending storytelling with the adaptation of author Daisuke Igarashi’s same-titled manga. A visual poem that sometimes leans too hard on imagery to convey intent and meaning, Children of the Sea is a simultaneous exploration of individualism and collectivism amid a philosophical exploration of humanity’s role in the cosmos.
When young student Ruka (voiced by Mana Ashida) finds herself unable to spend her summer break with her teammates at school and unable to get along with her drunkard mother, she goes to the last place she remembers feeling at peace: the local aquarium her parents used to take her to and where her father currently works. Upon arrival, she’s meets to the mysterious Umi (voiced Hiiro Ishibashi) who introduces her to his brother Sora (voiced by Seishû Uragami). The boys are rumored to have been raised in the ocean by dugongs, a marine mammal which are believed to have inspired the mermaid myth, which explains their physical need to be in water for prolonged periods of time. As they spend more time together, the pull of the water increases within Ruka as well, enjoining her on the brothers’ journey into the deepest depths of the ocean.
The screenplay crafted by first-time screenwriter Hanasaki Kino covers the 42 issues making up the combined five volumes of Igarashi’s story into a rather tight 110-minute aquatic adventure. Even in the more esoteric moments, Kino’s script and Watanabe’s direction invite the audience to lean into every bit of Ruka’s adventure that’s as much a coming of age story as it is grander exploration of connection. At the core of Children lies a girl who blames others for her troubles, unable to recognize her own part in the trouble she finds herself in. This is put forth directly near the start of the film when an altercation with a teammate leads to her summer-long benching, and more discretely in a brief argument between herself and Sora. Ruka is so internally disconnected that she’s unable to even acknowledge her own shortcomings, something which the story forces her to face. What’s fascinating about this aspect of Children is how it’s exploring subtextually, enabling the audience to see Ruka evolve over time versus offering monologue after monologue beleaguering the point until the end. Her journey, though, is not the only one that matters within Children as Umi and Sora are integral, as well. The difference between Ruka and the boys is that the boys already understand why the ocean calls to them, why a new whale’s song is being heard by oceanographers, and how Ruka fits into it all. That last bit is only the beginning of the questions that go unanswered within Children, and it’s this abstraction which may prevent audiences connecting with the film. The question is: why? The answer: up to you.
Much of Watanabe’s direction bids the audience to join in, going so far as to use several perspective shots to show us what it is that Ruka sees as she experiences something. It could be something as small as her view of being dragged by the hand by Umi as they run toward the water or something more significant such as Ruka’s view of learning to navigate the pockets of pressure within the water so that she can swim faster than before. Offering a first-person perspective would be gimmicky if it weren’t so necessary to the overall message of interconnectedness which Kino’s script explores. Ruka becomes more than a character the audience follows. She becomes their avatar as the shift in perspective implants the notion that we, the audience, are the ones propelled through the water, exploring the areas of the ocean unknown to man. Interestingly, as the story more concretely explores the philosophical connection between the ocean, life on Earth, and celestial bodies, the locations of events become more murky. It’s never stated whether the dark parts of the ocean are in the Mariana Trench or the Japan Trench, though it is still quite fun to see the various types of aquatic animals not regularly seen in aquariums. This side bar’s point is that as Ruka explores, so does the audience, and further into the story she goes, the more the line between avatar and audience blurs. It certainly helps that the animation from Studio 4C (The Animatrix (2003); Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)) is designed as a mixture of traditional hand-drawn and 3D animation, so that the every frame appears tangible instead of flat, emitting a sense of life, even as a creation of various inks. This style of animation, in concert with Watanabe’s direction consistently maintains the notion of a larger mystery that the audience is only privy to due to their connection to Ruka. This becomes profoundly important to understanding Igarashi’s premise that life on Earth can be understood only if we examine the ocean without disturbing the inhabitants. This is a lesson that comes front as center as Children’s climax erupts literally and metaphorically.
Whether you’re dipping your toes into Children of the Sea for the first-time or you’ve decided to take another plunge, Shout! Factory has amassed 11 bonus features, totaling nearly three hours. There’re over 30-minutes of storyboards, 16-minutes of art, a rather fun featurette wherein members of the Studio 4C team recreate the cooking scene within Children, and plenty more. Fans of Studio Ghibili will enjoy the featurette interview with Children of the Sea composer Joe Hisaishi (Spirted Away) who not only discusses his thoughts on the lovely score within the film, but which also offers a behind the scenes look at the recording and discussion of the score. For those curious about the science from which Children borrows, you’ll want to zero in on the 80-minute Studio 4C film “Tureo — Looking for Children of the Sea.” It’s structured around a set of six tapes and a copy of the Children of the Sea manga found by a woman among her mother’s things sent by the woman’s estranged brother. It’s as much a device to explore the inspiration for the animal and environment designs depicted within the film as it is its own narrative mystery. If this curio doesn’t totally sate your wonderment, make sure to watch the brief interview with Watanabe and CGI Director Kenichiro Akimoto. Here, they discuss the difficulty in adapting the manga for cinema, creating the animation to capture the story, the integration of Hisaishi’s music, and far more. What is a particular treat for fans of Children of the Sea is to recognize Watanabe’s desire not just to capture what Igarashi created but to make it come to life. Not all animation makes a story feel lived in or, honestly, necessary. Watanabe’s Children of the Sea could not have been done in live action and felt as tangible, as real, or as alive as the completed animated film.
Children of the Sea Special Features
- Studio 4C Makes a Meal (4:30)
- Selected Storyboards (34:42)
- Japanese Cast Interviews (10:24)
- Making of the Poster (2:13)
- Intro at Animation is Film (2:04)
- Art Gallery (16:22)
- Trailers (6:19)
- Interview with Director Ayumu Watanabe (12:45)
- Interview with Composer Joe Hisaishi (4:00)
- Tureo – Looking for Children of the Sea (80:59)
- Animatic Sequences (3:48)
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital September 1st, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.