When I need to cite an anime that started strong but became bogged down by frustrating amounts of cod-philosophical rambling, my mind immediately goes to the last couple of episodes and feature-length conclusion of ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’. Rumours abound that the anime series went off the rails after getting too close to a deadline, having no budget, that director Hideaki Anno was suffering from depression, and that his thoughts evolved - particularly influenced by a psychology textbook a friend had given him.
‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ is widely known for being not logically comprehensible. No moment randomly appears where you connect the dots. Rocks fall, everyone dies, Freudianism ensues. Depending on your outlook, either you are just supposed to enjoy the experience and try to theorise as much as possible as to what happened, or it’s a bunch of nonsense and more about the aesthetic of trying to be deep and meaningful instead of actually being deep and meaningful.
Which brings me to ‘Children of the Sea’ (in Japanese 'Kaijū no Kodomo', literally "marine mammal children"), which recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival. Directed by Ayumu Watanabe (his credits include ‘Mysterious Girlfriend X’, an anime about a high school boy who drinks his girlfriend’s drool), the film adapts the Japanese seinen manga series written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi and serialised in Shogakukan's monthly seinen manga magazine Monthly Ikki from 2006 to 2011.
After falling out with her alcoholic mother Kanako (Yu Aoi) and breaking the nose of a mean girl at school, junior high school student Ruka (voiced by Mana Ashida, ‘Pacific Rim’) finds herself with nowhere to spend her days during summer vacation in her coastal town outside of Tokyo. She ends up hanging out at the aquarium where her father Masaaki (voiced by Goro Inagaki, ‘Thirteen Assassins’) works. While there, she meets a mysterious pair of brothers, the energetic Umi (“Sea”, voiced by Hiiro Ishibashi) and the sickly Sora (“Sky”, voiced by Seishū Uragami), who her father tells her (in a ludicrously straight delivery) were "raised by dugongs". The three teens share some sort of connection to a series of supernatural phenomena that have been affecting the world's marine life, such as a comet falling into the sea and aquatic life from around the world gathering in Japan.
The themes and mood of ‘Children of the Sea’ are strongly reminiscent of Luc Besson’s live-action 'The Big Blue'. Besson’s film centres around a young freediver with an unusual physiology, scientific research on a human research subject, and man’s relationship with dolphins. Its world-spanning, ocean diving aesthetic is nearly peerless in its visual appetite. Nature took on a sublime, dreamlike quality in cinematographer Carlo Varni’s hands; and Besson didn’t concern himself too much with a story. The best way to watch the film is to let it wash over you.
Igarashi’s award-winning manga series features first-class artistry paired with an extremely slow-moving plot, littered with mundane events and superfluous scenes that gradually unspools over the five years it was published. By the third fat 300-plus page volume, the mysteries begin to converge and coalesce. Things that seemed unrelated or completely opaque in volumes one and two slowly begin to make sense. Strange things happen regularly, like a young boy dissolving in a shower of light. It is ultimately left up to the characters - and the readers - to divine the meaning of what they have seen.
It's not enough to overcome a confusing rendered and tedious script, culminating in an unbearably long psychedelic sequence inside some kind of multi-eyed psychic alien whale. I checked my watch many times during this sequence.
The Japanese animation studio behind ‘Children of the Sea’, Studio 4°C, is no stranger to twisty narratives and ambitious animated projects, notably the classic science fiction anthology ‘Memories’; the action-packed manga adaptation ‘Spriggan’; and ‘Berserk: The Golden Age Arc’, a trilogy of films that attempted to adapt the Golden Age Arc of Kentaro Miura's 'Berserk' manga series.
Most of the dialogue in the anime adaptation of ‘Children of the Sea’ is taken wholesale from the manga, as is the narrative flow. What is missing is the glacial pacing, the gradual reveal of the mystery and depth of the characterisations. We are left with a film with a disjointed plot and thinly-etched characters who speak exclusively in pseudo-philosophical mumblings.
There's no question that ‘Children of the Sea’ is visually awe-inspiring. The extremely detailed environments, colour choices and sound design immediately communicate the temperature and humidity of each scene, making for an incredibly immersive environment for its distinctly designed characters, particularly the shimmering, otherworldly underwater sequences. The Kenshi Yonezu theme song and Joe Hisaishi’s score are also terrific. Unfortunately, all of this is not enough to overcome a confusing rendered and tedious script, culminating in an unbearably long psychedelic sequence inside some kind of multi-eyed psychic alien whale, where Ruka shouts Umi's name a dozen times and then battles a shadowy Jungian Id creature. Or something. All I know is that I sighed and checked my watch many times during this sequence, wearily counting down the minutes.
This film epitomises the risk that filmmakers (both live-action and animated) take with adapting a long-running or ongoing manga - a vast amount of material has to be peeled back to the core essentials to make a film with a feature-length running time.
Sometimes you can shorten the plot of the manga considerably, add in scenes and motifs and end up with a timeless piece of art like Katsuhiro Otomo’s ‘Akira’. Chop out too much or pick the wrong elements to keep, and you can sink even a film as visually rich as ‘Children of the Sea’ beneath waves of turgid storytelling.