After finally being released from Netflix jail, Children of the Whales turned out to be a much muddier viewing experience than anticipated. This week, Nick and Steve discuss what went wrong for this ambitious fantasy series.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead. Not Safe For Work warning for language.
Steve, tell me. What does sunlight feel like? I've been trapped in the Binge Watch dungeon for weeks and I can't remember the warmth of light not provided by a TV screen.
Well I'm pretty sure my skin would immolate the moment I stepped into it myself, so I can't help you there. Such is our lot in life. Too Much Anime.
Netflix has decided that March is when the weak will be culled from the herd, and I honestly don't know if I can make it. Though in the case of Children of the Whales, I'm more likely to to die of boredom than anything.
The belly of this beast is sadly wanting.
And I'm kind of upset by that! Because this show had so much going for it, and on the surface it's full of stuff that I should love. I mean, it's a shoujo adventure series, and how often do we get anime adaptations of those? Also it's full of meditations on life and death, weird eldritch aliens, stunning cinematography, and hot boys. Where could it have gone wrong?
It easily has my favorite aesthetic of any show so far this year (even if it technically came out last year), and it's an all around stellar production. While it's not huge on animation, everything from the art design to the color work to the soft linework on the characters is just a treat to look at.
The best of the worldbuilding is done through the visuals alone, painting a picture of the Mud Whale that is both serene and utopian, while also sad and sinister. The aesthetic is definitely the strongest thing the show has going for it.
It's also got really solid direction. Kyohei Ishiguro brings the delicate, emotionally charged tone that made Your Lie In April work so much better than I expected from its story. The characters are all really expressive and distinct, which is good when half the cast is just sad boys.
We got yer Smol Sad Boys
We got Tol Sad Boys
We even got Chuuni Sad Boys
Also Maniacal Sad Boys, but more on him later.
The OP and ED also both slap, so even if you have no plans to watch the show, look those up on YouTube.
They're both really great! And I sure hope one day they make a show good enough to warrant them.
It took me significantly longer to finish this show than I should have, and that's because I often ended up playing the ED on repeat rather than continuing on to the next episode. Again, not a great selling point for the show, but a great selling point for the artist, rionos.
Y'know, for all the complaints about Netflix dumping a metric ton of anime at my doorstep, I managed to make it through Kakegurui, B: The Beginning, and A.I.C.O. -Incarnation- pretty quickly. Whales took over a week and felt like a chore by comparison.
Man I feel you. I'm sure some of this was simply Netflix fatigue, but it was indeed a slog. Despite everything it had going for it, Children of the Whales is largely a dull mess, due to its disappointingly sloppy writing. Conceptually, Whales is rock solid, and I could sink my teeth into a lot of the weird and unsettling ideas and conflicts it presents. But none of it is executed in smart or organic ways, so it all falls apart like a castle made of, well, mud. Or sand. However that expression goes. The show is full of both mud and sand.
Yep. The show's playing in the same genre space as From the New World, or the book everyone had to read in middle school, The Giver. Teens in a highly-controlled society that's actually full of perilous mysteries just beyond their reach, which they must unravel as they come of age. It's solid stuff to work with, but the show fails to establish anything about the world concretely before pulling the rug out from under us. It spends the first two episodes hurling exposition at us through narration and As You Know dialogue while trying to introduce its cast, only to kill off half the named characters in an attempt at a shocking plot shift by episode three.
Foreshadowing is so transparent that it comes off clumsy. Those girls were only two days away from retirement.
Hey you barely know this girl's name, but she's dead now so the protagonist can be sad. Don't you LOVE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS?
And it's especially disappointing because all of that exposition, which needs to happen because the world of the Mud Whale is strange and fantastical, could have been so much better integrated via the introduction of Lykos. Like, she's an outsider who's never set foot on the Whale, so obviously she's gonna have a lot of questions, and she could have easily functioned as an audience stand-in. But we get a lot of narration and hamfisted explanations instead. All we needed was to spend a couple episodes with mostly Chakuro and Lykos. That would have given us the chance to settle into this world and bond with these characters. But due to the pacing and writing, this settling-in never really happens. And that's bad.
It's a shame, because these are perfectly fine characters on paper. Chakuro is a sort of nebbish kid who wears his emotions on his sleeves and tries to look out for those around him. Lykos is an outsider who has to slowly relearn how to express and process emotions, thanks to some magical shenanigans. But Chakuro is frankly a dull protagonist because he's almost entirely an observer. His job as society's record keeper is a good excuse to have him show up for anything, but he rarely has any direct effect on what happens, so we're left with a lot of screen time where he's just hanging around the fringes of conflicts, scribbling notes or reacting to other people doing important stuff.
I mean, having a bland anime protagonist is hardly a unique sin. But when the narrative doesn't give you much else to latch onto, it's especially tiring. So instead of feeling invested in the fate of the Mud Whale's citizens, I just kept getting frustrating at the incompetence of its leaders.
What, you didn't feel sympathy for the old dude who tried to kill the entire island the moment he had an excuse?
Dude, same. But don't try to sink the whole whale-town just because I'm an awful anime sinner.
That was probably where the show lost me completely. The conflict revolves around the Mud Whale's elders trying to sink the whole island-ship as retribution for their ancestors' crimes out of some sense of guilt, but it's portrayed as just misguided mercy instead of, y'know, mass murder-suicide. This gives way to a ton of very basic philosophizing about whether violence is good or bad and why do we live in such a cruel world can't we all get along and blah. By the halfway point, I was sick of seeing the cast stare forlornly into the middle distance and feel super sad about the concept of violence.
I honestly thought that the show was establishing the Mud Whale as some kind of creepy death cult that Chakuro and friends needed to rebel against. But everyone just moves on from this and there are no consequences for the Elders. And THEN they decide the best course of action is to train child soldiers.
And these aren't just your typical hot-blooded teenage anime warriors. We're talking five-year-old children.
This bothered me SO MUCH. Obviously the show agrees that child soldiers are an awful thing, but it also never directly confronts that? There aren't any serious consequences for the Mud Whale when they use children this way, they just end up winning the battle. I'm not saying that I need to see these children die in battle (because wow I really don't), but for this serious a topic, I need more than the adults to feel sad. They need to be punished. Best case scenario, this is just a can they've kicked down the road that'll be addressed in full later. But it's still a shitty way to handle this development.
Yeah, it's a pretty icky detail that sadly falls into the show's habit of bringing up interesting conflicts only to shrug them off and move on to the next monologue about emotions or whatever. Like when Chakuro, in his singular moment of plot significance, is confronted by the Nous, who are essentially eldritch beings that offer humanity supernatural powers in exchange for either their life or their emotions. They're hinted to be playing a much larger game with the entire human race as pawns.
Like that is some cool shit that basically dwarfs the show's other conflicts. But it's brushed away in a few sentences with Chakuro just saying people should have their emotions. Then it's back to child soldiers and invasions like nothing ever happened.
Or how about even earlier when Chakuro and his friends discover that the thing powering the Mud Whale, the ONLY HOME any of them have ever known, is a decrepit elder god slowly decaying in a giant rocking chair. And then he either forgets or doesn't care, because nobody talks about it afterwards.
Seriously that thing is spooky as hell and nobody flinches about it.
That's a cool scene and a powerful image. But it doesn't spur our characters to do anything. They're all too docile.
Put a health bar on it and you have a fucking Bloodborne boss.
Falaina, the Moldy Grandma
But yeah, that's basically the heart of Whales' problems. It's got an intriguing world inhabited by characters who seem totally incurious about anything around them. Nobody seems to care about any of the revelations that ensue, and when they do care, things gets solved so quickly that they might as well not have bothered. Like when it turns out that Falaina has been draining the life of the Mud Whale's people for generations and everyone just shrugs it off.
There's an entire alien conspiracy that's been manipulating humanity for untold generations, and nobody seems to care except maybe the villain.
Y'know it's a real bad sign when the most engaging characters in your cast are the crazy assholes trying to slaughter people for the hell of it.
Okay, finally we can talk about Ryodari. (Or Liontari, since Netflix can't decide how to spell his name?) He's my favorite character in the entire show, because he actually has things like goals, a personality, and a backstory. Y'know, just like a real character!
I'll admit his backstory episode was the best part of the show. It's bonkers, but the kind of bonkers I can process.
Sure, his goals are "murder people," his personality is "I like to murder people," and his backstory amounts to "this is why I like to murder people," but it's something!
He's the only person having fun in the entire show, and who am I to deny him that?
The dude has a tangible goal to strive for, the motivation to attain it, and takes direct action in pursuit of it. Which is more than anybody else.
also he has those Good Fangs
Sadly it's all downhill for him after that, and he ends up in the world's weirdest Mindbreak Doujin.
Do not send in those clowns. Send out those clowns. Get those clowns as far away from me as possible. But I am at least glad that the author backed out of killing him off. Even if he's a creepy jester now. I'll take as much of this soft murder boi as I can get.
Gotta say I'm not very impressed with the new Insane Clown Posse album.
What is with these Netflix Original Anime and clowns?
Is Netflix banking on anime clowns being the next big cultural obsession? 2008 was all pirates and zombies, so 2018 has to be clowns? Is this what the youth wants?
Or maybe we're the real clowns for sitting through everything they send our way.
Either way, Children of the Whales mostly serves as a good example of plain ol' spoiled potential. It's a gorgeous show with a ton of care and craft put into its presentation, but it's constantly weighed down by a half-baked script.
so basically this image for 4 hours
I can't call it a bad show. It's just disappointing. But if you're intrigued by what you've heard, check it out! At the very least, I'd love to see more contemporary shoujo adventure series adapted into anime, so I'll selfishly encourage you to give it some viewing numbers for that goal alone. I'm sure the right audience for it is out there somewhere.
And hey, you could always just watch it without the subtitles on and make up your own story!
Oh! And one last thing, because I forgot Children of the Whales' most egregious, unforgivable shortcoming, and I'd hate for our readers to go in unprepared.
NO MALE NIPPLES >:[
We can all send our complaints to JC Staff later. In the meantime, we've got another two full shows dropping on Netflix, then premiere week with almost 50 new shows to watch in the span of 10 days...
On second thought, maybe Whales had the right idea.
Save a coffin for me, guys!