I’m still very much in Nagi no Asukara’s camp – I like the straightforward emotions at play here, which are all too rare in anime as a medium. And I continue to believe that in crafting a story about middle schoolers in a fantasy setting, Okada Mari has found the perfect vehicle for her larger-than-life interpersonal dramas. But this episode was definitely my least favorite of the four so far, largely because for the first time it seemed as if we were seeing drama for its own sake.
I found the best moments of this episode to be the quiet and even silly ones, of the type that Okada can brilliantly deliver but all too rarely attempts. Two especially stand out for me, the first being the conversation between Kaname and Tsugumu – a quite serious one between too serious little boys (perhaps abnormally so for their age). Tsugumu’s take on Hikari is a clever one – “I don’t want Hikari to be misunderstood by everyone just because he misunderstands them.” Kaname gets a little half-smile on his face and asks, “Could you repeat that one more time?” It was very natural and authentic, both in terms of Kaname’s reaction and the statement itself. It’s a clever sort of thing a child would say, and Kaname’s response was exactly how another bright kid probably would, a rare moment when his facade was lowered and he acted his age.
The other moment I especially liked was a tiny blink-of-an-eye one indeed, which came when Manaka followed Hikari home after he’d been sent home for “chesting” the boys he thought had defiled their Ojoshi-sama. As she follows him an octopus swims between them and she exclaims “Oh – an octopus!” and “Chi, chi, chi…” calls to it like a land-dweller would to a dog or cat. What I love about this is it’s a wink at the audience, effectively saying “Yes, I know this is silly and totally unrealistic – but I bet you’re sort of buying it.” Of course Manaka then goes on to compare Hikari to an octopus, but that mostly works too – it’s one of the less tense and dramatic moments those two have shared since the premiere.
It’s with that Ojoshi incident where the ep sort of lost me though, as I thought the whole storyline with Miuna and especially Sayu, the one who actually defiled the statue, was pretty hackneyed. There is in general too much crying in Nagi no Asukara – though not to the point where I’m usually bothered by it – but I really don’t care about Sayu and her breakdown and apology just felt like forced theatrics. The stuff between Hikari and the two guys he thought had trashed the idol was better, largely because it showcased both the good and bad sides of Hikari. He was quite right to be furious at the two boys for treating Manaka’s kindness with racist scorn and pushing her to the ground, and quite wrong to assume they were guilty and to physically assault them. Hikari continues to be driven by his passion, literally to a fault – his instincts are generally good but he never pauses long enough to give himself time to figure out the right and wrong way to pursue them. That’s not entirely uncommon for a kid his age, and he does seem to be showing the ability to learn from his mistakes – and even more importantly, to act based on empathy rather than selfishness.
If there’s a dominant thread running through these four episodes, it’s that coming-of-age element where a child learns to see the world from the perspective of others. In Hikari’s case it’s most profoundly through Akari’s eyes, as he’s coming to understand all she’s sacrificed for her family, especially for him, and to want what’s best for her happiness rather than his own. This is a process she’s gone through herself, as it’s revealed that she originally knew Tooru while Miura’s mother, Miori, was still alive – and that Miori, too was a Sea Dweller who left for the surface (Tooru clearly has a bit of a complex here). While the relationship between Hikari and Manaka is the nominal center of the series, it’s actually the one between he and Akari that’s been the most powerful so far for my money. Chisaki still seems mostly to define herself through her unrequited love for Hikari, to the point where she compares herself (unfavorably) to Manaka and is actually unhappy in the end that Hikari manages to work things out with both Sayu and the bully boys – because she wasn’t the one who helped him to do so, Manaka was. She, too, is still living in a child’s world where her emotions form the boundaries.
As for Kaname and Tsumugu, while there scene together was their best of the series, they both remain largely enigmas. What we know of Tsumugu is that he has an intense curiosity and affection for the Sea Dwellers – likely because he knows the truth of his lineage – and while we don’t know whether he has feelings for Manaka as a person or just what she is, that still puts him a leg up on Kaname. We might infer that he has feelings for Chisaki – but that’s strictly based on the formula, not on the character or anything he’s said or done. While Hikari remains the most developed by far and Manaka had her best episode this week, the other three are still largely rough clay – and if Okada is able to mold it into something interesting, that will certainly expand the territory Nagi no Asukara can mine for dramatic gold as it continues its run.