OP: “lull ~Soshite Bokura wa~” by ray
This intensely front-loaded anime season continues with another of the most hotly-anticipated premieres, P.A. Works Nagi no Asukara. Let’s be clear up-front – this show features three elements that tend to be love/hate – P.A. Works, Okada Mari’s writing, and Buriki’s character designs. As such it’s going to be entertaining to watch the discussions at the very least, especially as there’s been a mad rush to dismiss this series as trash before it ever premiered.
For me, I love P.A. Works animation, I like Buriki, and – though I’ve been wrongfully accused of hating her – I’m hit-and-miss with Okada. Yes, she drives me crazy too often and she has some incredibly annoying habits as a writer, but my year-end best show lists are often littered with Okada series. With a two-cour original to work with, just about anything seems possible from her. She’s paired with Shinohara Toshiya here, a director with quite a bit of experience and a restrained sensibility (I liked his unusual choices with Red Data Girl) and history tells us that Okada shows are usually most successful when she’s paired with a strong director who can help keep her excesses in check.
There’s usually one show per season I really hope succeeds just because it’s been pre-judged by so many viewers, and this is the one for Fall. And so far, I’m quite pleased – the negativity has been so relentless than even I was starting to worry, but I found the premiere very engaging. And I won’t lie, I found it absolutely beautiful too. P.A. Works marks an interesting contrast with Kyoto Animation in that they always produce interesting-looking shows, but are far more willing to experiment with content and visual style. The animation itself isn’t on KyoAni’s level, but unless the latter is at their peak (as with Hyouka) I actually prefer the look of P.A. Works shows in general. Uchouten Kazoku was a gorgeous change-of-pace for them, and NnA gives them a chance to apply their trademark scenery porn to underwater scenes. The premiere is just beautiful, in that heartbreaking mono no aware way P.A. shows often are. And Buriki’s hyper-pretty designs are a good match for the look of the show.
I’ll get to the drama in a minute, but it’s interesting that the premise of Nagi no Asukara is so outlandish yet gets almost no role in the conversation. In this world, mankind is divided between land and sea – and the underwater clans aren’t mermaids but true humans, with some adaptations (special skin and gills) that their land-based cousins have lost since they left the water behind. It isn’t made a big deal of – it’s just the way it is. Everybody knows about everybody else and while there’s clearly some tension and discrimination (the sea people are the oppressed minority in the equation) it’s more akin to social commentary than fantasy. It actually makes a sort of interesting twist on the whole transfer student/clash of culture theme, and I’ll be interested to see where Okada goes with it.
But this is Okada (to dispel any doubts, she tosses in some gender-bender manservice in the very first shot), and the relationship angst is what folks will surely talk about. The impetus of the story is that the middle school for sea people has closed, forcing the four kids at the center of the story to go to the landies’ school. The narrator and central character is Sakashima Hikari (Hanae Natsuki), who takes a protective role with Mukaido Manaka (Hanazawa Kana). Their friends are quiet Isaki Kaname (Ohsaka Ryouta) and gentle Hiradaira Chisaki (Kayano Ai). On their first day at land school, the hapless Manaka gets swept up in the net of a local fisherman (overfishing by Landers is a bone of contention here) where she catches the eye of his son, Kihara Tsumugu (Ishikawa Kaitou). Let the drama begin.
There are a lot of groans at what looks like a straight-up teen romance kerfuffle brewing, but those can work – the relationship dynamic seems a bit like that of Ano Natsu de Matteru (which was likewise a teen romance dressed in the clothes of fantasy/sci-fi) and that show certainly worked. Hikari loves Manaka, who’s quite taken by the gallant Tsumugu. Chisaki silently pines for Hikari, and confides her pain to Kaname – whose own romantic inklings are not yet explored, though it might be expected that he likes Chisaki. Hikari is the one at the center of the storm, and he fills many roles here that are more commonly the domain of female leads: he’s the osananajimi and clearly tsundere for Manaka, at the very least.
Hikari is a tough kid to like at first glance, I admit. It’s a pretty radical departure for Hanae Natsuki, who’s more associated with sweet and borderline moe boys like Wien from Tari Tari. He’s hot-tempered, pushy and possessive – though he certainly does love Manaka. She’s more or less playing the damsel-in-distress role here, a crybaby girl constantly getting herself into trouble that Hikari sees it as his job to get her out of. That makes it a very sore point for him when Tsumugu is the one who rescues Manaka after she flees the school in shame after her dirty little secret (a curse placed on her by undersea Demi-God Uroko-sama (Toriumi Kousuke) which takes the form of a farting fish on her right knee) is revealed. I suspect Hikari is going to show a more vulnerable side as he’s forced to grow up over the course of the series, and that will make him more sympathetic, but we’ll see.
I see plenty here to keep things interesting, though with Okada disaster is always lurking just beneath the surface (pun intended). The visuals are gorgeous, we have a very strong cast indeed, and I think the standard premise is tweaked just enough to make it seem fresh. There’s the issue of the culture clash and the spiritual side of things for the sea people to keep the romance from monopolizing the narrative, and there are some moments that feel very authentic to me – such as when Chisaki reacts exactly as she should to Manaka’s suggestion that she apologize to Hikari for not welcoming his pushy assistance – “You didn’t do anything wrong. But when he apologizes, make sure you accept it.” I liked what that says about the dynamic – Chisaki says “when” because she knows Hikari will apologize, and indeed he does, and she’s thinking of Manaka despite her own interest in Hikari. That gives me hope that Nagi no Asukara won’t descend into tortured angst but rather be a friendship story with complications – and if nothing else, I have full confidence that it’s going to be absolutely gorgeous to look at.
ED: “Aqua Terrarium” by Nagi Yanagi