It’s been one heck of a Thursday for anime, and I haven’t even made it through the backlog yet. But the shows that have become my Thursday A-list (a necessity since there are simply too many shows to cover in a day) all delivered big-time with stellar efforts. Samurai Flamenco and Golden Time’s place on that roster are solidly entrenched, but Nagi no Asukara was wavering a bit after the somewhat overwrought fourth and fifth episodes – it rebounded a bit last week but this was easily the strongest episode of the entire series, a genuine home run for me.
The is the blessing and the curse, the maddening reality of Okada Mari. Occasionally she has a series that pretty much delivers non-stop like True Tears or AnoHana, and occasionally the genuine clunker. But usually even her decidedly uneven series like Hanasaku Iroha and Sakurasou (an adaptation though it is) occasionally deliver episodes that are truly great (often directly before or after awful ones). This makes it hard to drop her shows outright, because you don’t want to miss when she hits – and while Nagi no Asukara is for my money better (so far) than HanaIro or Sakurasou, it definitely falls in that uneven category.
This episode, though, was anything but uneven – Okada the surgeon at work with a scalpel, not a chainsaw. There are certain things we’ve come to expect from this series through highs and lows, like beautiful animation with a few stunning moments every week (I’d rank Hikari and Akari being caught in Uroko-sama’s ice storm as one of those). But this one delivered on story as well, as Okada revealed once again that she has a gift for emotional clarity that few anime screenwriters can match. When she doesn’t bury her own emotional lead in a lot of ponderous wailing and gnashing of teeth, she really gets to the heart of the matter literally and figuratively – and in this case proves why the premise of this series is one that can really pack a punch.
If Okada continues to trust the story – and the audience – I think Nagi no Asukara has a chance to be really good (and doesn’t need a timeskip to do it). The fundamental conflicts in the story are quite powerful, both in terms of the conflict between the land and sea people (which is really the story of the decline of the latter as a society), and the personal side. The stakes were perfectly clear this week, both for Shishishio and for the Sakishima family. The writing was pretty much firing on all cylinders here, starting with for my money the most understated and authentic moment depicting Hikari’s agony at (as he sees it) losing Manaka to Tsumugu. The romance angle has been heavy-handed at times, both with these three and with Chisaki, but not here – we got a simple “That hurt a lot more than I thought it would” thought from Hikari, and a lot of letting the characters’ faces tell the story.
More important this week (and probably overall) is the matter of Akari’s affair with Tooru and how it impacts both her family and her culture. As a framing device we have the plucky kids trying to get the feuding adults to agree to hold the Ofunehiki – which could have been corny, but was handled really well. We see a true friendship forming between Hikari and the his two former foes, Takeshi (Kawanishi Kengo) and Ku (Matsuoka Yoshitsugu). This means Hikari trying to convince his father, and a group of adults from each side sitting down to negotiate (I loved the little detail that the sea people wrap their kimono right over, left, the opposite of the landies – this is an extremely important rule in Japanese society). This is where the elephant in the room is finally acknowledged – after a promising start breaks down over whether the landies should apologize, the men of Shioshishio lay it right out there: you’re stealing our fish and our women. It doesn’t get much more fundamental than that – the ability to eat and the ability to procreate. Women are leaving the village because of a lack of eligible sea-men (sorry) but this is going to have an inevitable result, and that seems to be what the Sea God and his Priest are trying to prevent.
All that is why Akari’s situation so perfectly lays bare all the fault lines, personal and societal. Tooru has already stolen one sea girl – now he’s about to steal another. But aside from that, her family is breaking apart. Hikari is pushing her to go, and in doing so taking the first huge steps towards adulthood – but the fact is he still needs her whether he’ll acknowledge it or not, and he’s effectively losing his mother for the second time. And both of them are increasingly estranged from their father, who’s caught in the middle because it’s he who’s tasked with trying to keep Shioshishio from fading away to nothing. Hikari’s anger and Akari’s regret are plain to see here, of course, but so is Tomori-san’s pain – he loves his children and he’s about to lose not just one but both of them because he’s trying to keep his culture alive. And of course he’s already lost the woman he loved. It’s a very sad situation for all concerned, and no easy answers are readily apparent.
The culmination of all this is Akarai’s resolve to go to Tooru, and Hikari’s decision to go with her – which prompts Uroko-sama’s icy attempt to prevent them from leaving. He says in doing so that he’s sworn to protect them “because they’re His descendants” – clearly a significant moment even if the exact meaning isn’t clear (the implication is that “He” is the Sea God). It’s Tomori’s plea for mercy that seems to prompt Uroko-sama to release the siblings, but this surely can’t end here. It’s a very sad situation – Shioshishio is losing yet another breeding-age citizen, and Tomori is losing his entire family. I don’t think the latter can be underestimated as an important point, though it’s not been emphasized much so far – can Akari and Hikari easily live with the fact that their father has been left alone under the sea? There’s more than enough conflict and emotional volatility to power Nagi no Asukara for two cours without a timeskip – and if (a huge “if) it manages to tell its story with anything like the power and dexterity it displayed this week, the series has a chance to far surpass the expectations of the skeptics who’ve dismissed its chances since before it aired.