Nagi no Asukara had a fair amount of hype going into this season, but as the weeks have progressed it’s fallen behind other Thursday shows to the point where not many people seem to be talking about it. And that’s a shame, because on balance I think it’s really damn good, and not just for the achingly beautiful P.A. Works visual poetry. To some extent there seems to be an inverse ratio between the quality and restraint of Okada’s work and its commercial success – much like with the Rozen Maiden franchise and the anime industry in general these days – and Nagi no Asukara is definitely cruising for a commercial bruising, poised to fail pretty spectacularly on Blu-ray and DVD (probably south of 2000 combined sales) next month.
It’s interesting to speculate on why a show which had considerable buzz both positive and negative going into the season should now be met mostly with ambivalence, while other less-discussed shows are drawing stronger opinions. One thing I guess we can say is that in Hollywood terms Okada, for all her clout, can’t “open” a series by herself – even if it’s a rare one of her originals. I suppose Nagi no Asukara doesn’t push any of the right buttons – the girls are too young to be abjectly sexualized, and while the characters are cute the show doesn’t obsess over moe. It’s just good, old-fashioned relationship drama and fantasy – elements that Okada is quite deft with – but the anime audience apparently isn’t much interested in that.
In a funny way I wonder if NnA might have been better off if it had been the disaster its critics were dismissing it as before it ever aired, because at least that way it would still be in the conversation. But now the ones who expected to hate it have mostly left, disappointed, and the ones who like what it portrays aren’t the right demographic in today’s anime marketplace. It’s certainly not an unusual scenario for PAW, sadly – their list of good series that failed commercially is a long one, and this show seems ticketed to join that unfortunate fraternity. I really do like it – apart from a two-episode hiccup where Bad Okada hijacked Good Okada’s brain, Nagi no Asukara has delivered complex and believable character dynamics and an interesting fantastical premise, and this episode continued a very strong run over the last few weeks in both departments.
In the first place, we see a continuation of the theme that neither Hikari or Akari has forgotten about their father, which I was very glad of. In fact I thought their reconciliation might just be the focus of the climax this week, and was a bit disappointed to see larger events intervene, though they were portrayed quite well. The fundamental issue here is that Akari is a young adult and Hikari a child, so while it makes sense for her to have done what she did (setting aside the societal question) it can be strongly argued that Hikari’s place is with his father. I like the way the difficulties between them have played out – there’s no hitting or screaming or verbal abuse (a little from Hikari, perhaps) – they just don’t communicate. And that’s a pretty realistic scenario between fathers and boys Hikari’s age.
Another continuing theme we’re seeing Okada return to is the connection between growing up and the act of putting others’ needs ahead of your own. Chisaki and Hikari are both trying to do this in their own way, and each finding it increasingly difficult. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle here – Tsumugu’s counter-argument to Chisaki (there may be a suggestion of some attraction on his part but with a sea slug, it’s hard to tell) is childish and simplistic, but he’s right in that growing up doesn’t mean abandoning who you are and ignoring what your heart wants. We’re definitely seeing the potential for heartbreak increase here, as the dynamic of everybody liking the wrong person is reminding me more and more of Ano Natsu de Matteru. Heck, even Sayu (who continues to spout mangled pop culture references) has unmistakably developed a crush on Kaname. Well, at least someone under 30 has.
I found the scenes between Manaka and Hikari especially painful (in a good way) to watch this week. I’ve been in Hikari’s camp all along, figuring he was going to have a pretty comprehensive character arc, but he’s probably exceeded my expectations in developing into a sympathetic and complicated character as quickly as he has. I think he genuinely wanted to try and be the friend he thought Manaka wanted because that’s what a good adult would do, but there are limits to how much of that an adolescent can take and Hikari reached them this week. It seems Manaka is fulfilling the clueless male lead role here in a sense, as she truly does seem to have had no idea how Hikari felt – but even so, their scene in the abandoned Shioshishio middle school is a heartbreaker. When the dam inside him broke all Hikari did was hug her – which seems a natural enough thing to do – but her reaction was a sucker punch. Why did she do what she did – an instinctive reaction out of sheer surprise? Thoughts of Chisaki – or Tsumugu? In any event she could have hardly have hurt Hikari more than she did, though obviously that wasn’t her intention.
There are bigger fish to fry, though, so that little saury will have to content itself with the back burner for now. Things have reached some sort of tipping point in Shioshishio – after a secret meeting which got the children kicked out of town early for school, the decision has been reached to ban any visits to the surface. That obviously involves the saltflake snow and the coming catastrophe, which appears to involve things getting very cold (global warming skeptics are everywhere). These painful personal feelings can be shoved aside for the moment as the crisis demands, but they’ll only fester until addressed – rest assured they will be, sooner or later. But for now Hikari and his father’s schism and his heartbreak with Manaka are secondary to the new reality, which clearly takes the larger plot to a nexus point where something has to give. At the very least, Hikari is going to have to choose for now – the surface and his sister, or Shioshishio, a father he resents and a girl who’s just broken his heart. Sucks to be thirteen and have that staring you in the face…