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Children of the Sea Review: All Style, Middling Substance

Before Children of the Sea’s announcement, it had been a while since there’s been a genuine air of excitement surrounding the newest projects coming from Studio 4°C. This isn’t a suggestion that the company’s output is bad, yet ever since the release of Genius Party, you haven’t really heard the studio’s name brought up with much excitement.

Many of their projects in the decade since that film’s release have been on a much smaller scale or haven’t captured the imagination of anime fans in the same way, and I honestly had forgotten about the studio for a fair few years. Children of the Sea put Studio 4°C back on the map for me, and every trailer I saw genuinely blew me away with its stunning animation, so I knew I had to review the film once it released in Japanese cinemas last week.

I just wish this movie was as good as it looked.

To catch people up on what this movie is supposed to be about, the film tells the story of a schoolgirl named Ruka; an outsider who has few friends. Although she is unfairly targeted by the other girls on her handball team, when she reacts to the treatment, she is banned from the team, leaving her alone with no plans for the entire summer. She decides to visit Wonder Aquarium, where her father works, and it is there she meets Umi-kun, a boy raised by sea creatures with an affinity to the water who struggles to adapt to life out of it. With that, these two outsiders quickly become friends. Under the realization that Umi and his sickly brother, Sora, may not have much time left, and with the mysteries of a disappearance of the sea’s fish and the appearance of giant whales near the land of various major cities around the world, it appears as though the world itself may also be in trouble.

The movie has been a long time in the making, enlisting a prominent roster of talented staff for its creation. The film itself was being directed by Ayumu Watanabe, a man who has been involved in many Doraemon films in roles all the way up to and including director, alongside his work on some incredible anime series like Space Brothers. Kenichi Konishi is the animation director on the film while also handling the character designs, and you have music from the legendary Joe Hisaishi.

The result of such a talented group of people in lead roles means that the movie both looks and sounds absolutely incredible. There are moments of animation, especially in the more esoteric moments near the end of the film that are genuinely some of the strongest pieces of animation I’ve seen in years. The distinct visual style and character design for the film are lifted almost directly from the manga, the art of Daisuke Igarashi seamlessly replicated for the silver screen. The thick lines and detailed style he often goes for within the manga translates well to the large real estate of the cinema screen and is fluid in motion without a single dip in quality.

What makes 2019 so exciting when it comes to anime film is how much of a range of styles are on offer between the huge array of films releasing this year. You have the photorealistic style of Makoto Shinkai contrasting with the loose and fluid style of Masaaki Yuasa, and the art of this film is easily able to stand alongside and stand apart from these two as something wholly unique.

Moments where the characters swim through the ocean or where the fish weave in and out of one another, subtle and large facial animations, as well as motion, are each animated flawlessly and I can’t fault anything about the animation side of this film. As Ruka’s relationship with Umi and Sora changes, the visual style also evolves and remains fresh, and the more unique visual style of the film’s ending sequence should be kept free from spoilers but are also the film at its peak.

It’s why I find it so painful to say that I didn’t really enjoy the film all that much.

I was impressed by Children of the Sea’s animation, and for that animation alone I would say that, if you get the chance to see it on the big screen, the film is worth seeing. At the same time, however, I came out of this film feeling that the script and plot of this movie could have done with receiving the same amount of care and attention to detail as that side of the film did.

As a slight betrayal to some of the advertising used to promote the film, which puts the film out to be a rather accessible story about the friendship of three young characters, the reality is that this is very much an experimental arthouse project more focused on the emotions it wants its audience to feel and the message it wants to share with viewers about the wonders and mysteries of the sea and life in general over telling a complete story. In fact, after an ending sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, much of the story remains unsolved, and the after-credits scene just left me with even more questions than I had before they began rolling.

The thing is, this would, in theory, be fine. It certainly wouldn’t be a film I would recommend to everyone, not by a long shot, but I could definitely praise the film in what it was attempting to achieve and what it was trying to say. The issue I have is that its true meaning seems muddled and unclear, as though the creators of this film (although with how closely the film follows the manga it is based upon, you can potentially say the creator himself too) weren’t sure what exactly they wanted to say. If the people making this film didn’t know, how is the audience expected to know?

I have to be honest, this film did disappoint me. Not from an artistic standpoint, admittedly, and it’s through this lens I can still recommend this film to some audiences willing to work through the issues with its story, but its lack of a clear message or resolution left me feeling unsatisfied. Reiterating, from a musical and artistic standpoint, it is a triumph, but as a film, it’s rather weak, and I would struggle to be able to wholeheartedly say it’ll be worth your time.

And as someone who walked into the cinema excited for what I was about to see, that is genuinely heartbreaking.

Children of the Sea is in cinemas now and will be released by GKids in North America later in 2019.

©2019 五十嵐大介・小学館/「海獣の子供」製作委員会

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