Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
Children of the Sea
Ruka is a young girl whose parents are separated, and her father works in an aquarium. When two boys, Umi and Sora, who were raised in the sea by dugongs, are brought to the aquarium, Ruka feels drawn to them and begins to realize that she shares their same supernatural connection to the ocean. Umi and Sora's special power seems to be connected to strange events that have been occurring more frequently, such as the appearance of sea creatures far from their home territory and the disappearance of aquarium animals around the world. However, the exact nature of the boys' powers and the abnormal events is unknown, so Ruka gets drawn into investigating the mystery that surrounds her new friends.
It's hard to review Children of the Sea, because I can't even begin to explain what I just watched. It's dense with imagery and symbolism, and the events of the plot don't seem to connect upon first viewing. I can describe the overall themes but I can't describe the plot, because I didn't understand what was actually happening on that level. It's an arthouse film, through and through.
So here's my best guess. I think this filmis about the ephemeral quality of adolescence and those moments when you experience a powerful connection to the natural world. Ruka is a young girl experiencing a summer that can only happen once in her entire life. She encounters two boys who are literally called the Sea (Umi) and the Sky (Sora) in Japanese, and through them she comes to know the aquatic world on an intimate level. But she soon realizes that they are dying, and the planet alongside them. After that point, the plot becomes muddled, as Ruka's desperate search to find the boys after they've vanished takes her on a trippy journey through the sea, complete with psychedelic visuals and metaphorical happenings.
I haven't read Daisuke Igarashi's award-winning manga, which this film is based on, but I suspect that manga readers will have a better grasp of the plot, as the impression I got from the film in its second half was that it was trying to cram in more of the strange events that the manga is famous for, but with less of the buildup. At least the first half is straightforward and emotionally grounded. The opening scene makes clear that Ruka feels alienated from her peers, and it's not hard to see why she immediately clicks with Umi and Sora, who have been raised by dugongs and therefore struggle to understand life on land. When abnormal things started to happen, I had enough emotional investment in the characters to want to see how things turned out for them, even when I didn't understand exactly what was happening. But by the end, I have to admit that this film lost me.
Children of the Sea is expertly directed and beautifully animated, which I'm inclined to credit to former Ghibli animator Kenichi Konishi, who served as character designer and unit director. The film has the feel of a sketchbook come to life, perfectly capturing the appeal of Igarashi's lush artwork. Even before the visuals take an experimental turn, every scene is rich with details, from the subtle nuances in characters' body language to the vibrant natural world around them. The visuals reach new heights when the action shifts to the sea. Any scene with a whale has immense impact thanks to all the detailed textures on its body and in the water around it. The ocean is full of mysterious creatures and strange wonders, and the film does an excellent job of conveying the majesty of the underwater world. Special mention also goes to Joe Hisaishi's soundtrack—the Ghibli music legend captures the ambiance of the sea perfectly.
Animation fans will definitely want to note the film's second half, because that's when the visuals get downright weird. Although it's not quite as experimental as Mind Game or Genius Party, which were also produced at Studio 4c, the style changes drastically over a number of scenes, especially when it comes to the color work. The film covers the entire spectrum from cool colors in most scenes to a monochrome palette and bright kaleidoscopes in others. There's some Stanley Kubrick influence too, in a certain scene that's reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's depiction of the interconnected nature of the universe. It occasionally feels like too much to take in, but as an animation showcase, this is some of Studio 4c's best work ever.
In the end, however, I couldn't help but be disappointed by how the story never came together in a satisfying way. The film concludes with more questions than when it started, and even the coming-of-age element of the narrative feels muddled because of that. At what point did Ruka begin to change and grow up? It's hard to look back on any particular moment in the film as a turning point, but the ending insists that Ruka did in fact grow. I think it happened somewhere during one of those non-verbal psychedelic sequences, which were open to multiple forms of interpretation but had no obvious meaning in context.
It's a pity that I have to be so down on Children of the Sea, because it's a beautifully crafted film. This movie will probably reward those who watch it more than once. But for the purposes of a review, I think it's best to go with my gut feeling after an initial watch, and my conclusion is that this film will alienate most first-time viewers. You might want to check out the manga to decide if this is your kind of thing before diving into the film adaptation.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Breathtaking animation and depictions of the underwater world
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