2019 is quickly shaping up to be another landmark year for anime. While I still have to catch up with Shinkai's latest, Promare set the tone and Ayumu Watanabe's Children of the Sea [Kaijû no Kodomo] isn't trailing far behind. Watanabe may not be the most prestigious anime director, but when someone goes to Studio 4°C to make a film, something special is bound to come out. I went in completely blank, only aware of the studio that produced it, and once again I wasn't disappointed. Children of the Sea may very well be 2019's surprise anime hit.
Much like (niche) music labels, animation studios tend to stand for a certain style, tone or atmosphere. When you get a Pixar, Ghibli or Trigger production, you kind of know what to expect. Studio 4°C is different in the sense that it's a little harder to predict what they're going to come up with next. The only constant in their work is that they give directors more creative freedom than any other studio out there. The result is a slate of films that scream creativity, experimentation and cutting edge animation, supported by some of the best animation talent in the business. Studio 4°C made creativity its defining characteristic, and because of that it's easily my favorite animation studio.
At first, it looked liked Children of the Sea was going to be one of those films courting the Ghibli audience, now that Ghibli is no more. A young, female protagonist finds herself alone during summer break, after being shut out of the handball team. The summery vibe is ever so strong, there's a deep link with nature and there are slight fantasy elements that add to the intrigue. For the first half of the film you'd be forgiven for thinking that Watanabe was trying to feed off that particular Ghibli's vibe, only with a slightly more experimental art style. The second half though, Watanabe turns his film around and goes full eco-Akira on his audience.
The film follows Ruka as she wanders around town, trying to keep herself occupied. Out of sheer boredom she decides to visit her dad, who works at the local aquarium. There she meets a mysterious young boy (Umi), who was raised in the sea by dudongs. From that moment on the film takes a sharp turn and becomes a committed fantasy narrative, dealing with meteors, marine life, an impending cosmic festival and even the birth of our universe. It's a pretty big shift in scope that will be off-putting for people who prefer more streamlined plot or character-driven narratives, but I welcomed Watanabe's more ambitious approach.
The primary reason to watch Children of the Sea is no doubt the visual quality of the film. Studio 4°C has always been a front-runner, constantly pushing the limits of what animation can achieve. They don't really adhere to typical (anime) art styles, and they're always looking for new ways to break technological boundaries. Children of the Sea does both. The art style is rich and detailed, but it also has a rougher, sketchier quality to it, which places it somewhere in between Miyazaki and Yuasa. Watanabe also managed to put real cel shading power behind the style, creating some majestic, overpowering imagery that simply feels otherworldly. Whether you end up liking the story or the characters is one thing, but every animation fan out there should at least watch this film to revel at the beauty that unfolds on screen.
The score isn't quite on the same level, but famed composer Joe Hisaishi does deliver a selection of tracks that effortlessly match the bombast of the visuals, without becoming overly cheesy or sentimental. The music isn't as distinctive as Hisaishi's work for Takeshi Kitano, but it is recognizable and it does add to the overall vibe of the film, especially during the second half. It's definitely not a bad score, it's just that it is completely outclassed by the visuals. As for the voice acting, it seems there's only a Japanese dub for now and that's probably a good thing. The story/fantasy elements are so thoroughly Japanese that it would no doubt be an awkward translation, not the mention the potentially grating quality of the young protagonists.
The first half of the film is quite conventional still. Several important plot points are revealed and the film builds up to a somewhat predictable finale. Even so, director Watanabe makes it clear that he isn't too interested in plot and characters, as he often prioritizes mood over clarity. It's best to take these hints seriously, because the second half is anime at its most grotesque. Either you keep a strict focus on the dialogue and you risk getting swamped by some new-age cosmic birth mumbo-jumbo, or you let go completely and you get carried away by a purely atmospheric experience. I'm guessing that for most this will be the difference between a true masterpiece and an interesting failure.
I'm quite receptive to audiovisual grandeur, so I had little trouble abandoning characters and plot in favor of an overwhelming experience. Regardless of where you stand on the old style vs substance debate though, Children of the Sea is worth watching for the visual splendor alone. Animation-wise this is one of the most impressive films I've seen so far. A creative, stylistic and technical marvel that honors its fantasy elements in the best way possible. Whether that is enough is a decision you'll have to make yourself, but if you get the chance to see this film, especially on the big screen, don't let it pass you by. Studio 4°C retains its title of most creative animation studio with ease.