You have to hand it to Okada Mari – she really is the straw that stirs the drink. There are few – maybe no – writers in anime today who can equal her ability to factionalize, rile up and generally piss off an audience. Whatever else you may say about it that’s undeniably a talent, and she’s undeniably a talented writer. It also means that the audience reactions to her shows – especially originals – are usually at least as entertaining as the shows themselves, and Nagi no Asukara appears to be no exception.
There are a number of ways to measure one’s interest in a series, but one of the most important – especially this early in the season – is how much you find yourself anticipating the next episode. On that score NnA was very high on my list – I was looking forward to this episode more than most of the shows I liked in the same general range at the time of viewing the premiere (which is quite a large group this season). That’s a testament to Okada’s brainworm qualities, I think – she can draft a scenario that elicits a strong reaction, even if it’s not a positive one, and there’s a natural desire to be stimulated that way again. That can certainly wear off in her case, but for now I’m quite invested in this premise and it appears Okada may be aiming a little higher than usual in terms of the story she’s trying to tell.
What jumps out for me in the always-entertaining fan backlash this time around is the ridiculously overplayed hatred Hikari is getting. Yeah, he’s annoying – news flash, 13 year-old boys often are annoying. In a medium that so often gives us high-schoolers acting (and often looking) like 13 year-olds, I find it sort of refreshing to have actual 13 year-olds do it. That applies most to Hikari and Manaka, and while it can make them irritating I don’t think it’s at all unrealistic. The first thing I take issue with is the oft-stated notion that Hikari somehow “made Manaka the way she is”. Well, not only do I call BS on that but I think it’s a damn sexist way of thinking. Are girls so weak and deferential that a pushy and overprotective boy can turn one into a simpering crybaby? Manaka is how she is because of Manaka, not because of Hikari – sure, the way he acts bossy and seems to take it as his responsibility to watch over her can exacerbate the problem, and this has led (IMHO) to a kind of codependency that isn’t healthy. But he didn’t make Manaka the girl she is.
Truth is, I find Manaka to be more annoying that Hikari because she bursts into tears at the drop of a fish and seems to crave the protection of not just Hikari, but Kaname and Chisaki too. But that’s a matter of preference – they can both be a pill. More importantly, unlike in many shows where teenagers act like jerks we actually have a little background as to why that is, especially in Hikari’s case. And not only that, we actually see him face consequences when he acts like a jerk – his friends tell him off – and that’s even more rare in anime. That’s why we have character arcs, because characters can change and grow as they learn – especially adolescents – and in a two-cour series a lot can get done on that front.
As to why Hikari is the way he is, it seems clear that the society the four “sea kiddos” grew up in is a mess. There’s a rule – only Kaname seems to have known about it – that any villager who takes up with a landie scum is banished. This hits especially close to home for Hikari when he sees his big sister Akari (Nazuka Kaori – may I be struck by an IFO for not mentioning her last week) making time with a surface guy. When the truth comes out it’s especially awkward for their Dad (Amada Masuo, who seems to play an inordinate number of big guys with beards) given that he’s the Chief Priest of the village. I can see a real breakdown coming for Hikari here, because he’s seeing the underpinnings of his life collapse beneath him. He thinks he’s losing the girl he’s in love with, and now he thinks he’s losing his sister as well – a sister who probably took on a sort of surrogate mother role, given that the mother of the Sakishima family seems to have passed away at some point.
Okada, as usual, is playing the relationship dynamic very well. Given the confused nature of the feelings involved there’s a tension in the air in every scene involving this group of kids, especially when Tsumugu is around (you can practically hear the fizzing of the hormones). The romantic inclinations of this fivesome are a huge mess and the kids are acting exactly like middle-schoolers normally would – totally unable to handle it (with the possible exception of Kaname, who’s a tad too precocious in his maturity so far to be believable). It seems Okada is working towards a larger drama too, as we’re seeing a share of ugliness on both sides. From the surface people it’s mostly petty bigotry, but you can sense in the villagers a sense of desperation – they’re the ones on the defensive, the ones whose civilization seems in the course of being worn down by the overwhelming numbers of the surface people the way the ocean slowly whittles down a rock into sand. When things get really ugly – and they may just have already started to – I think it will be from their side that it begins.
There’s a predictable course this series could take – the next generation finding mutual understanding and trying to salvage the peace as their elders succumb to hatred, even as their personal feelings come into conflict. But that could be quite an interesting thing to watch, and there seems to question that it’ll be an interesting one to see – Nagi no Asukara continues to be a beautiful series in terms of visuals. I’m not going to join the Statler and Waldorf’s in the audience carping about the undersea physics not making sense – seriously, given this premise that’s what you’re worried about? Both the land and the sea are beautiful here, especially where the two meet. It’s no secret that I adore P.A. Works’ aesthetic and it’s fantastic to see them apply it to a different sort of reality, just as they did in Uchouten Kazoku. I’ll never write off Okada’s ability to drive me away from a series, but so far I’m fully on-board with this one.