There are a few things on my mind as regards Nagi no Asukara, apart from the simple fact that I like it very much and find it consistently entertaining. There are elements to the show’s reception that have proved quite predictable, and it seems quite fitting that the discussion of an Okada series almost always follows the same pattern as the series itself – annoying as hell at times but hard to look away from. I find the equation a bit more slanted than usual in favor of Okada this time, though – it seems as if a sizeable portion of the Western audience has really turned on her with a vengeance, and pre-judged this show as a failure before it aired. There’s also the laughably hypocritical character assassination of Hikari, who’s being crucified by most of the audience despite the fact that he’s actually behaving far more believably for his age than most anime characters (and the fact that cute females endlessly get away with far worse).
If the discussion of the series is even more grating than usual, the flip-side is that the show itself is better than anything original Okada has done for quite some time (again – for now, at least). Somehow, perhaps not even intentionally, I think in the combination of very young teenagers and this fantasy setting Okada has found a formula that really suits her muse – her sense of drama and flamboyantly emotional behavior actually fits beautifully with hormonally-infused pubescents and a fanciful premise. In moving out to the very edge of magical realism Okada has found a more realistic voice than with her more conventional series of the last few years, and while I don’t know if she can keep it up for two cours, for now at least it’s really working.
There’s also the fact that Nagi no Asukara continues to be, in a word, beautiful. Somehow the Buriki character designs in concert with P.A. Works art have created something that has an almost Ghibli feel to it, while still maintaining the essence of the P.A. Works aesthetic. While the nuances would certainly be different I could even see this as a Ghibli story, too. I have to hand it to Okada for the notion that Ena is, effectively, amniotic fluid – it’s a very clever conceit, for of course in the womb human babies effectively breathe under water. There’s a certain poetry to the notion that the sea people symbolically never left the womb, and it quite neatly explains the crucial element of why the sea people are so adamantly against cross-breeding with landies. If the children are, by nature, unable to return to the sea because they’ve lost their Ena, every intermarriage is effectively another step in the decline of the tribe. It’s a serious problem if you look at it from their perspective.
I think that theme is a major part of where Okada is trying to go with this story, in fact – “if you look at it from their perspective”. It applies both to the characters and the audience, in terms of something as simple as the fact that Hikari’s behavior is quite understandable considering his age and circumstances – and so is that of most of the cast. But so far they’re mostly seeing things from their own perspectives, and the romance of Akari and the land dweller Tooru (Majima Junji) illustrates quite well. Tooru, in fact, has no idea that Akari will be banned from the village if she marries him, or why. She fancies him at least in part because there are so few marriageable men in the village (this is obviously a vicious cycle for the sea dwellers).
The flip-side of this is the way Hikari sees his sister, and the way her romance with Tooru makes him feel. The issue is that Hikari has always seen his sister from a selfish perspective – I said last week he likely saw her as a kind of surrogate mother after their mother died, and that indeed was illustrated here. Akari took it on herself to become a mother to Hikari, even abandoning her dream of becoming a mangaka (in anime themes don’t stop at the water’s edge) in order to start work so Hikari might someday go to college. Hikari is now – as a sign of his maturing process, I might add – starting to realize how much his sister has sacrificed for him, and in addition to the guilt this makes him feel it also makes a part of him want to see her pursue her relationship with Tooru, even if it means she leaves the village. This is a highly significant part of the maturation process – the development of empathy, and the dawning realization that what we want for ourself is not always the right thing. Some people never get there – Hikari, at least, seems to be on the path to not becoming one of them.
Okada delivered the goods in the sibling scenes, which were excellent. Another part of Hikari’s education comes in the way his view of Tsumugu is changing (and ultimately, that may mean accepting his relationship with Manaka). “He’s a good guy” Hikari admits to himself, and by all accounts it seems to be true. But there’s another reason why Tsumugu is both so knowledgeable and sympathetic to the sea dwellers – his father – or possibly grandfather – Isamu (Kiyokawa Motomu) appears to be one of them. I suspect Tsumugu is aware of this, and laments the loss of his own Ena. There’s also the rather shocking revelation that young Tooru is apparently already a father – of one of the two girls that have been harassing the Sakishima siblings, Miuna (Komatsu Mikako). She apparently decides that she and Hikari have a shared goal, namely breaking up Tooru’s relationship with Akari – and how Hikari responds to this development is going to be yet another test for his character.
The last major point I want to make is that I am aware that there’s a certain manipulative quality to the writing here, as there is in much of Okada’s work. I’m not blind, and I can see when she’s pulling my strings – but it doesn’t so much matter because the way she’s pulling them is pretty artful. There are big emotions at play here – dead mothers, forbidden West Side Story romances, losing one’s first love – it’s broad, yes, but these are effective themes to pursue. I like Nagi no Asukara because it isn’t afraid to operate in the realms of strong emotion, and while it’s been pretty heavy so far there have been some deft comic touches (like Miuna’s friend trying to chloroform Hikari with a dry rag and then decrying “The media has me dancing to their tune!”). I like imperfect characters who actually grow, and I love the truly incredible job P.A. Works is doing with the visuals here, even by their lofty standards. This is just a good show, plain and simple, and it’s a shame if many viewers bring so much baggage with them that they can’t enjoy the journey.