The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
The aquatope on white sand
How would you rate episode 1 of
The aquatope on white sand ?
What is this?
The anime takes place at Gama Gama Aquarium, a small aquarium in Okinawa, an hour's bus ride from Naha. Kukuru Misakino is an 18-year-old high school student who works there, and she knows about the "secret" of the aquarium: sometimes you can see mysterious things. One day Kukuru meets Fuuka, standing in front of a water tank with flowing hair and a tear rolling down her cheek. Fuuka has given up on her dream of becoming an idol and she has run away from Tokyo to Okinawa. Wanting to find a place to belong, Fuuka earnestly asks to work at the aquarium. The anime follows Kukuru and Fuuka as they deal with the issues of the secret of the aquarium and a looming crisis of its possible closure.
How was the first episode?
At its most basic level, The aquatope on white sand is the story of two girls: one who has failed to realize her dream and one who is struggling to realize her own.
Fuuka is an ex-idol. She truly gave her all but in the end failed to find success. However, what truly makes Fuuka interesting as a character isn't that she failed to achieve her dream but rather why she failed at it. Fuuka was standing on the precipice of success as the lead singer of her group's sure-to-be hit song. Yet when she overheard a different member of the group begging for the part, she went to her managers and asked that they do so. It's not that Fuuka didn't get her shot—it's that she gave it to someone else. Fuuka's empathy, as we see throughout the premiere, is both her biggest failing and asset.
On the other side of the story we have Kukuru, a high school girl who is obsessed with ocean life and works at a struggling aquarium. She is the exact kind of person Fuuka would be drawn to in her life right now. After all, if Fuuka can help Kukuru keep her dream afloat, that would be like doing the same for her past self—avoiding the situation she now finds herself in. It's a solid thematic connection between the two girls and one rife with the potential for self-discovery and interpersonal drama.
The only real issue I have with this episode is the magical aspect of it. While the surreal collapse of the aquarium and Fuuka swimming with the fishes is visually stunning, its superfluous to the story being told. We don't need magic or a cutesy sea god to make the story work or the emotions involved understandable. It already speaks directly to the human experience. Magic makes it seem less relatable, not more. Still, I'll be the first to admit, this is a minor complaint in an otherwise fantastic episode.
I find myself caught between two main takeaways from this new original outing by P.A. Works. On the one hand, this first episode is a serious slow burn – to the point where our subtitular “two girls” don't even meet until seconds before the end credits – and is decidedly less concrete than what I prefer from an introductory episode. We get a decent idea of Fuuka's state of mind and what leads her to her impromptu vacation to Okinawa, but only the vaguest clues about deuteragonist Kukuru's deal. There are several hints of magical realism and supernatural happenings throughout, but they're mysterious and indistinct. After a full episode I still don't really have a grasp of what this story will be about, besides a lot of teenage emotion and fish. Hell, I still don't know what in the world an "aquatope" even is. In general this is an episode that gets by entirely on vibes; good vibes, to be sure, but that's generally the type of storytelling I'm most suspect of for the beginning of a show.
On the other hand, Preview Guide can do weird stuff to your brain, and after a half dozen new shows that ranged between insultingly lazy to passably mediocre, my eyes and cerebral cortex absolutely lit up just looking at this premiere. It's not necessarily amazing – though I'd say on the high end of P.A. Works' past TV offerings – but by god this thing has active, motivated direction! Events take place in locations that feel like real places, inhabited by actual people! Characters move with believable weight and have facial expressions that convey complex emotions at a glance. There's some honest to god Mise-en-scène at play and details communicated solely through the visuals. After sitting through Drug Store to Another World, watching Aquatope was like finally breaking the water surface and gulping down two heaping lungfuls of fresh air.
That's not to say this is a slam dunk of a premiere, but it's a solid and quietly confident one that introduces its characters, world, and general ideas at its own pace. I like the various tidbits we get from the extended cast, like her run-in with a shady fortune teller who really just needed someone to vent to. (Though I did have to laugh at a literal tourism agent helping Fuuka at the midway point.) There's a palpable charm to the whole affair, and while I still have a lot of questions about where the series is going or what it's aiming for, that also means there's plenty of potential. And in a season where “passable” has so often been the bar to clear, it's nice to have an introduction that doesn't need any qualifiers or caveats.
It's not surprising that The aquatope on white sand shares staff with IRODUKU: The World in Colors – not only are they both from P.A. Works, but they both share an ineffable something in the way that they use magic realism to tell their stories. Whereas the earlier series used dreams and time travel as its themes, this one looks set to rely on Okinawan mythology and the overall lure of the sea, both things that are admittedly right up my alley. The main folkloric element right now are the kijimunaa, a small god or spirit native to Okinawa. We see one prance his way through the entire episode, and one of the protagonists, Kukuru, has a shrine directly opposite her front gate dedicated to the partial tricksters. Legend says that if you befriend a kijimunaa successfully, their friendship lasts a lifetime (as long as you don't fart in their presence; they hate both that and octopi), and since Kukuru is apparently diligent about leaving their favorite food, a fish head, in the shrine, it looks like she's very much in their favor.
That may also be the case for Fuuka, the other protagonist. Fuuka moved to Tokyo to be an idol, but when we meet her, the dream has crumbled, and her junior Ruka has taken her place, quite possibly by design. Fuuka's ready to go home when she abruptly decides that she doesn't want to deal with the (false) sympathy of family, so she follows a poster to Okinawa, where a fortune teller directs her go towards Sagittarius. Fuuka falls asleep on a beach, waking up in the morning in the center of a coral circle almost like a fairy round, her hat missing and coral carefully placed over her body. Since we see the kijimunaa wearing her hat later, it seems he may have taken it and offered his protection and/or friendship in return, something borne out when Fuuka eventually makes her way to the aquarium run by Kukuru's family.
How all of this is going to come together isn't clear yet, but Fuuka is plainly lost and hurting, looking for a way out of the dead-end street she feels she's on. The soothing, almost mythical quality of the aquarium and the glimpse into the undersea realm it offers take on elements of the aforementioned magic realism when the water surges through the glass and envelops Fuuka – something that has almost certainly happened to Kukuru at some point as well. The entire underwater scene is beautifully done in all aspects, too, with the muffled quality of the sound just nailing the feel of lingering beneath the surface, and that feeling of otherworldliness that Kukuru mentions in relation to caves' original meaning in Okinawan folklore.
If you're looking for a solid reason why I loved this episode, I don't think I can give you one. This definitely touches on a lot of things I'm interested in, but it's also beautifully put together and enchantingly ephemeral. If you liked IRODUKU, give this a try.
Iyashikei anime aren't really my thing, at least most of the time. They serve a specific purpose, and I absolutely see why so many people love the genre as a whole, but I usually need some kind of hook or clearly defined stakes to get me invested in a story, even one that isn't strictly about high-stakes action or drama. Character conflict, an exceptionally unique setting, a clear sense of mood/tone, or visuals that are strong enough to make the viewing experience rewarding on a purely aesthetic level — these are the sorts of things I need to sink my teeth into when a story is intentionally avoiding any rigid narrative structure or episodic story beats.
All of this is to say that The aquatope on white sand seems like a fairly strong iteration of the iyashikei formula, though my appreciation for it is mostly academic. The art and animation from P.A. Works is solid, and the direction is more than willing to take things slow in order to get us into the same melancholy mood as its ex-idol protagonist, Fuka. In running away from the pain of watching her dreams of being a pop-star entertainer, she eventually makes her way to the beautiful shores of Okinawa, and there's a dreamlike mood to her journey that eventually borders on magical realism. At first, I was confused as to the purpose of the strange, out-of-place looking forest kid that the show kept cutting over to, but once Fuka is told that a forest sprite called a kijumunaa may be the source of her otherworldly visions, I started to catch on to what the show was up to.
Our other deuteragonist, Kukuru, helps keep the energy up to balance out the ponderous nature of Fuka's scenes. She's a spirited and likeable kid with a passion for aquariums, which makes sense given that the whole premise of this show is going to be about the two leading ladies pursuing their dreams and finding inner-peace by way of oceanic tourism — I don't know if Okinawa needed even more travel advertisements, especially these days, but you can bed I'd be booking my tickets to the island right now if I could afford them. And also, you know, if we didn't have the whole COVID thing to worry about, still. All in all, I think I get what The aquatope on white sand is going for, though I'm not sure that I get it, if that makes sense. I don't find anime like this particularly fun to watch, even if I can appreciate them on an aesthetic level, and recognize that they're well-written enough to get the audience from Point A to Point B. Maybe I'll check in with someone who decided to stick with this show when the season is done, and see if it ever does anything interesting with the magical realist flourishes that we get in this premiere. I've only got so much summer vacation left myself, though, so I will probably spend my precious free time on some of the other new series that are more my speed.
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