Kaiju no kodomo
2019 Japan/2020 USA
Directed by Ayumu Watanabe and Kenichi Konishi
Written by Hanasaki Kino (based on the comic by Daisuke Igarashi)
Spoiler alert: I feel like I'd need to have understood what happened in order to spoil it, but hey, let's say "moderate"
Announced for an American theatrical release for early 2020, Children of the Sea was one of GKIDS' big three anime "gets" for the previous year, and the one that was slated just late enough to fall victim to the global pandemic; Weathering With You and Ride Your Wave got their little American event releases in January and February respectively, I saw 'em both, loved 'em both, and each would've found a very high spot amongst 2019's best movies if I'd set aside my laziness and done a list. (Oh, and don't let me forget Promare, which rocks in its own way.) Well, Children of the Sea was scheduled for a little event release of its own in April—and, based on its stunning trailers, I had high enough hopes for it that it became one of my rationalizations for putting off a best-of list for so long—but, as you know, these screenings never occurred. This is a bummer, because whatever else, and despite my general indifference to the tHeAtRiCaL eXpErIeNcE—and my moral distaste over the insinuation that, as a "movie lover," I'm supposed to elevate the marginally greater pleasures of that experience over convenience, tranquility, and, now, human lives—I do think a theatrical viewing would have benefited it, as it's very much that kind of sensual blowout. Of course, the main thing is, if I had seen it in theaters, I wouldn't have pre-ordered it blind on blu-ray, only to discover this morning that the motherfucker was on Netflix. Oh, fuck you, GKIDS—I mean, not really, you're great, but that was fifteen bucks I didn't need to spend.
Because Children of the Sea is certainly not very good, and maybe "not good" period, despite being so visually ravishing. Indeed, it is so not good that literally the only reason I would suggest you see it is because it's another giant stride down the road toward wherever the heck it is that the Japanese are going as they maintain their place as the most distinctive national animation industry on Earth. I would not recommend it on the basis of its story, characters, or themes—Jesus, I wouldn't recommend it for the pace at which it delivers those visuals—that is, I would recommend it for precisely none of the things a more narrative-centered approach would use to determine whether it was worthwhile or not.
That story, then, was adapted from a manga series by Daisuke Igarashi, and I'd say "you can tell," but it's not even one of those adaptations where you suspect the source material was more coherent. In any event, Children of the Sea begins in a seaside town, and here we find poor Ruka Azumi (Anjali Gauld—yeah, it autoplayed the dub and I didn't stop it, but aside from the possibility that distancing myself from this film's dialogue would've helped it, I don't think this matters, especially considering that Gauld is about as good as the material permits). Ruka's a troubled 14 year old who hasn't had the best time of it, and she's just screwed up her plans for spending her summer break playing sports by smashing a rival's nose in a fit of vengeance during practice for a game I don't recognize—I shall call it "hand soccer," though "stickless lacrosse" also works. Suspended from the team, she sulks about town until the reflections off the water remind her of fond childhood memories, specifically of the aquarium her parents once worked at together; and so, avoiding her alcoholic mother (Karen Strassman), who's more-or-less quit her job, she goes to visit the aquarium and her dad (Marc Thompson). However, as she's a teenager, she winds up avoiding him, too, more interested in sneaking around backstage and communing with the creatures of the undersea realm.
One such creature catches her quite off-guard: this is Umi (Lynden Prosser), a boy her age who was orphaned at sea and raised by dugongs, and has adapted so thoroughly to the marine environment that, since being rescued, he's lived at the aquarium, where he can stay hydrated and they can monitor his bizarre condition. I'm not sure that it ever occurred to either Igarashi or his screen adapter, Hanasaki Kino, that this scenario is a pretty hard ask, but, y'know, it's cool, and we can run with it. Umi and Ruka become friends, and she gallivants around the coast with him, eventually meeting his brother, Sora (Benjamin Niedens), who is exactly like Umi but a dick. They soon recognize that they're connected by more than just coincidence, however. Something of immense cosmic importance is happening in the deep ocean—a "Festival" that the brothers seem to know more about than they let on, or possibly they are just gifted with information when the plot requires it—and this "Festival" has extended Ruka a personal invitation.
I think this could work, with another dozen drafts that cut the chaff and added fun: the institutional backdrop in particular is an immense distraction, and the matter-of-fact way the film treats the Dugong Boys after Ruka's very brief period of initial surprise winds up being bothersome for a good hour of screentime, with the script only capable of blandly repeating how curious the brothers' transformation is, while also never clarifying much about it, to the point what while I'm fairly confident that they can breathe underwater—just like a dugong!—nobody ever says so. Ruka never asks, which is just as well, since numerous sequences go by with our heroine failing to drown even though I know she only breathes air. Everything here is similarly confusing: the balance of the screenplay is slippery non-explanations and mysterious exposition. Eventually, it numbs you to whatever tantalizing appeal it initially had.
That's before we get to the more fundamental problem with it, which is that it has no use for these characters in the first place beyond sketchy cut-outs. This is even more baffling given that we spend fifteen full minutes at the outset establishing a genuine personality for Ruka—frustrated, angry, sassy, slightly narcissistic, violent, and denying her sadness—only to throw all of that work out as she becomes an astonishingly blank stand-in for unspecific yearning. (In fact, Ruka's sputtering confusion in the face of Sora's casual insults is so at odds with the Ruka of the first fifteen minutes that I don't know why we bothered with those first fifteen minutes in the first place, as they accomplish nothing else besides establishing a character who doesn't even exist by the twenty-five minute mark.) I think there's only one single scene, where Sora mocks his brother's terrestrial friend's inability to swim (for obviously, by human standards, she can swim), where it feels like they're people even by a generous definition of "person."
Instead, Children of the Sea wants to pin its emotions onto its mystical noodlings, and if the unfulfilling E.T. stuff is the film's foundational problem, it is not its biggest; that's the self-serious dumbness with which it prosecutes its magical tale. I'm even the target audience for this; mystical claptrap is my jam, even when it's clunky, but rarely is it so clunky. So much of this movie is stoner profundity from before I could even walk: it feels like something made in the 1970s or early 1980s, when the fad for being a sea hippie was at its peak, complete with the super-abstruse connections it makes between the seas and the stars, though somehow it's even more incomprehensible than that implies. (Meanwhile, whatever "conservation message" you might have expected this movie about dugongs and aqualads to have offered is deeply, invisibly buried beneath all the nonsense.) Well, at its most reductive level, anyway, it's about outer space fucking the ocean to make new universes. That's not interpretation, it's barely a paraphrase, and Children of the Sea is agonizingly reluctant to allow its mystical imagery to stand on its own.
I like to think I'm half-decent at peeling off layers of metaphor, but even "it's from a different cultural context" feels insufficient. A very abstract reading of the film's 2001-ish freakout climax, I suppose, makes it about the continuity of existence; if we wanted to apply this specifically to Ruka, it's about the inevitability of her existence, even if she didn't ask her parents to conceive her (this is an extremely tenuous read made slightly less so by a post-credits sequence of a new birth that they'd have been better off putting in the movie proper). Mostly, it's obscurantist bullcrap. More damningly, it's obscurantist bullcrap that remains largely-untethered to any emotional arc. In its place, there's the constant impulse to take pseudo-poetical pokes at the ideas it's trying to convey, the worst offenders being the adults who are even more profundity-prone than the kids. They get monologues like, I quote: "Good and evil. The universe is held together by balancing opposing forces. Indeed, all things can be seen from one of two perspectives. Just like the lifeforms from the land and sea are different. No, actually they're the same." We're now fully into "Jesus was a black man/no, Jesus was Batman/no, that was Bruce Wayne" territory, but I can't imagine contemptuous laughter (and this comes right after the climax!) was director Ayumu Watanabe's and co-director Kenichi Konishi's intention. Intention is hard to suss out sometimes anyway; in terms of storytelling, it's, bluntly, even badly "edited," frequently confusing even on the level of "weird mumbo-jumbo" that I'd be happy to judge it on.
What that leaves us with is the crazed imagery that this mumbo-jumbo exists to support (and it goes solely in that direction, mind you; their relationship is not reciprocal). On that count Children of the Sea justifies itself, possibly even surpassing my expectations. The freakout obviously recommends itself as the centerpiece, with its chalky sprays of color and backlit animation-style glows, but it's magnificent-looking throughout, starting with the hugely aggressive stylization of its characters (credited to Konishi), which feels like a throwback to the years before anime's breakthrough in America but somehow sideways of it, and they have a sense of being colored pencil drawings rather than ink-and-paint, without any of the messiness of the old xerography. If I can use Western touchstones you might be apter to recognize (and that I'm more familiar with myself), they look like Frank Quitely doing anime, but he let Maragret Keane do the eyes.
Not to all tastes—these are very radically stylized figures—but whatever emotive resonance this movie's capable of, it's down to those designs and the fluid animation used to bring them to life. More impressively, and more overwhelmingly, there's the tension that Children of the Sea creates between its animated foreground and backgrounds that are often exponentially more animated than the foregrounds. Befitting a tale of the sea, it is packed with life, the beneficiary of enormous computer trickery and even more enormous, labor-law-violating workloads for Studio 4°C's animators. When it arrives upon a meticulously pencil-drawn humpback whale, wishing to impose upon you its godlike scale, Children of the Sea accomplishes everything it set out to do. Even the scenes on land are brilliant, including a long-take run through winding, shadow-dappled streets that intends to show off just what they can do now with light and motion, and even if the code hasn't quite been cracked yet, and this winds up a little more awkward than its freer-floating ocean sequences, 4°C has pushed anime a little further towards the seamless integration of 2-D and 3-D animation, permitting breathtakingly unrestrained camera shifts and Z-axis movement while clinging tenaciously to the line-drawing-and-crazy-detailed-background heart of the traditional style. So its characters are boring, its story is dumb, it's not even well-made in a lot of respects; but the passion of the art surges through it anyway, and even at its blandest and most inaccessible, Children of the Sea still has more to offer than just a tech demo.