Children of the Sea Review

If you want definitive prove that animation is not just for children, I dare you show Studio 4°C’s Children of the Sea to any kid and see their mind slowly melt before your very eyes. What starts as a straight-forward coming-of-age story with some fantastical elements slowly transforms into a psychedelic and extremely abstract feast for your eyes. 

Adapted from the manga of the same name, Children of the Sea follows Ruka (voiced by Mana Ashida), a young girl who has always felt like the sea in calling her. Her father works at an aquarium and she keeps having flashbacks to a childhood visit where she saw a weird and glowy presence. On the first day of summer vacation, an aggressive encounter with an older girl gets Ruka kicked out of the handball team. She then decides to visit the aquarium where her father works, and sees a boy swimming in the big tank among the whales.

The boy, as it turns out, is named Umi (literally “Sea,” voiced by Hiiro Ishibashi). Umi and his brother, Sora (literally “Sky,” voiced by Seishi Uragami) were raised in the sea by dugongs. This, of course, means they can swim faster, hold their breath for so long they have trouble living on land – they’re pretty much Aquaman except they can’t talk to fish (as far as we know) and they don’t have Jason Momoa’s great tattoos.

For about the first half of the story, Children of the Sea is a fun and visually vibrant coming-of-age tale with a fantasy twist. We follow Ruka as she spends her summer with Umi and Sora, discovering the strange, almost magical connection that the three of them have to the ocean. At the same time, strange occurrences have been happening more and more frequently all over the world. Whales are spotted near Manhattan, aquarium animals are disappearing, and there’s a big gathering of all aquatic life near the site of a meteor crash. 

At first, the film seems content with exploring the day-to-day life of these kids and have their mystery unravel in the background at a slow pace, and it works. Ruka’s world is one of dozens of different shades of blue in the ever-changing skies and the vast and enthralling sea. It’s a world populated with all types of wildlife, vibrant crimson flowers and eternal sunshine. This is easily one of the most visually stunning animated films of the year – and this is a year that already gave us Weathering With You and Promare. Every scene is rich with details, from the way the dazzle of sunlight is reflected on water, the bright lights and soft tones of the vast ocean and the clear summer skies. But the film truly comes to life whenever we go under the water, as the movie shows us a completely new and mysterious world full of magical creatures and strange wonders, all while reaching visual heights that would make James Cameron and James Wan envious. You’ve never seen a whale as magnificently animated as in Children of the Sea, which gives excruciating detail to the textures of both the sea creatures and the water around them.

One easily sees the influence of Studio Ghibli films, especially in the way the animators capture the beauty and magic of nature, which is no surprise since former Ghibli animator Kenichi Konishi served as a character designer and unit director in Children of the Sea. While the backgrounds and sea life are given a vibrant art style that makes them come to life in excruciating detail, the human characters all look like hand-drawn pencil drawings taken straight from a sketchbook. Likewise, long-time Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away) composed the musical score for the film, which despite being minimalistic and used very sparingly, perfectly captures the sense of fantasy and childhood wonder that Rucka experiences when she’s with Umi and Sora. 

As the mystery of the two brothers grows more mystical, the film gives the story of the ocean gathering a more apocalyptical urgency and the plot becomes messier. Though the film makes it a point to tell us that Ruka changed over the course of the story, we never see anything that could hint at a personal growth. The film’s slow pace suddenly kicks into high gear seemingly out of nowhere and throws the audience head-first into a kaleidoscopic ‘60s acid trip that’s like a more water-filled version of The End of Evangelion, only not as depressing or angry. It’s a climax that echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey in its visual narrative, only the change in pace and storytelling feels out of place compared to what came before. Watanabe’s chance from a gloomy concern for a doomed planet that feels like a call to arms, to a cheerful and hopeful celebration of life feels unconvincing, no matter how ballsy the animation becomes. By the time the film ends, you may find yourself scratching your head trying to recount exactly what the movie was about, how and if the ending actually resolves anything. I challenge anyone to explain to me what the post-credits scene means.

If you want to see a film with a coherent story that gets tied up with a nice narrative bow, Children of the Sea isn’t for you. If you want a visually stunning animated poem that culminated with the brainchild of Terrence Malick’s “History of the Universe” sequence from Tree of Life and “The Third Impact” from The End of Evangelion, you may actually enjoy this wild ride of a movie. One thing is for certain, you haven’t seen an anime movie like this.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Rafael Motamayor (@RafaelMotamayor) is a recovering-cinephile and freelance writer from Venezuela currently based in Norway. He likes writing about horror despite being the most scary-cat person he knows.