Buried Treasure
Glassy Ocean

by Justin Sevakis, Jun 25th 2009

Glassy Ocean: Leap of the Whale
(Glassy Ocean: Kujira no Chōyaku)

It's hard to know where to begin with a short film like Shigeru Tamura's Glassy Ocean. Like most experimental animated shorts it's ostensibly a children's piece, one with such nuance and beauty that perhaps a child would connect to it in a way that an adult simply wouldn't know how to. It's reflective of how a child sees the world in his or her mind's eye, a visual flight of fancy that traps a moment of imaginative splendor and preserves it as if in amber.

A boy on an ocean liner stands at the railing with binoculars, looking out upon the vast ocean. A man (presumably his father) asks if he sees anything, and he does... but just some flying fish. "I'll bet there's a really big fish with his eye on us," his father muses.

From there, the ocean turns into a vast sea of green glass, suspended in its perpetual motion. The idea of the ocean as glass isn't a new one; rather it's something of a cliché at this point, but I've never before seen the idea taken quite so literally nor so far. The first thing we see on this vast, solid expanse is an old man going fishing with his cat... and a pick axe. The old man carefully picks a flying fish out of the sea and gives it to the cat, who scratches away the scales excitedly. (For all the ways cats love fish, they sure hate getting wet. Surely, this method would be preferable to them.)

Setting up camp for the night, the old man lights a fire, which brings out the water people who serenade him to sleep. The man's thoughts wander to his past, working small waterways (all of them quite liquid) among sunken cities and now-useless robots. "What a sad scene this is," he remarks as he stops at a half-submerged giant clock, pulls out a giant key and winds it. The man travelled the world on that boat, he recalls, but the name of the vessel eludes him. That night he dreams of his old hometown, which springs from the sea and wanders in search of a desert, where it intends to make an oasis.

No matter. The next morning he happens upon a sight: a whale, about to jump. Since the ocean is solid, this is a process that takes several hours, and is a much-loved spectacle. Word travels quickly about the event, and for a while the man is no longer alone: a sparse ad-hoc festival has sprung up around the jumping beast, as it slowly suspends itself high overhead. The man is joined by his painter friend, who busily gets to work, inspired by the sight in front of him. The old man thinks of his old professor, Sir Lime, now lost, who might have enjoyed the sight.

And so it goes, as the mind flickers past all these recollections, wrung through the fantasy world of a child. These novel visual concepts are not enough to sustain a long running time, and the film wisely limits its meanderings to 23 minutes. Any longer and the film would become an exercise in tedium.

I first heard about Glassy Ocean not from another fan, but from the director of another artistic short anime. While working at CPM I was able to shoot an interview with Tatsuo Sato, commenting on his film Cat Soup (Nekojiru-so). He mentioned Glassy Ocean as a particular influence on the project, most notably in its sound design, which uses subtle and delicate cues to quietly assemble a mood. Between the dream-like visuals, the warped sense of time and space, and the moody music, it's certainly not hard to see similarities between the two films. But where Cat Soup goes for the shock of combining the cute with the incredibly disturbing, Glassy Ocean is going for sense of relaxed calm.

Director Tamura Shigeru is known mostly in Japan as a children's book creator, and all three of his animated works (of which this is the most recent) are adaptations of his published stories. That this is originally an illustrated children's book should come as a surprise to no one; the freeform narrative, the emphasis on childlike wonder and flights of fancy, and the sheer imagination of it all would seem quite at home in that medium. Watching the animated version, I was reminded of some of my favorite children's books of my earliest days.

Tamura works entirely digitally, which was a viable way of working in print back in the mid-to-late 90s, but in terms of animation things tended to look a bit rough back then. (His first animated film, Phantasmagoria, didn't look much better than your average computer game of the era.) By the time the Glassy Ocean anime came about, 3D modeling was just starting to look impressive. It goes without saying that impressive CG in 1998 is not at all impressive today. Luckily, Glassy Ocean maintains a sense of timelessness by limiting the CG to simply glass and water effects, and its warm green gradient lighting. Since there's no advanced techniques required in rendering such things (texture mapping, shadows and the like), the amorphous blobs of 1998 still hold up pretty well.

Like most experimental films, Glassy Ocean is challenging viewing. If you're not ready to submerge yourself it its world and float there, simply observing, there is little you will get out of the experience: the film will likely not take you on a trip or get you excited in any way. But sometimes I find it nice to simply observe, to try to imagine life from the point of view of others'. When another person's imagination is willing to go such lengths to invent a world simply for the sake of its own fantasy, the experience of sharing that world can be quite rewarding on its own.

Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it:
Aside from a pricey Japanese-only R2 (over ¥6000 for a short film!) there's really no way to get Glassy Ocean other than fansubs. One does exist, though god knows if you can still find it.

Due to Anime Expo and several other reasons, Buried Treasure will be on hiatus until July 16.

Screenshots ©1998 Tamura Shigeru/MMF • Bandai Visual


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