If you’ve ever wondered what it might look like if Terrence Malick pivoted to a career in anime (and, let’s be honest, who hasn’t), Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea provides a pretty solid answer. This gorgeous but baffling animation capture’s Malick’s fascination with nature, higher powers, the act of creation, and universal mothers, finding in this wild ambition a sense of genuine wonder, though fails to find a balance with the human emotions of its story.
Set across one long, eventful summer, Children of the Sea starts out as a coming of age story, as Ruka (Mana Ashida), a schoolgirl still finding her place in the world, meets Umi (Hiiro Ishibashi) and Sora (Seishu Uragami), two brothers who spent the vast majority of their childhood living at sea. Ruka feels an instant connection with them, though whether it’s the beginnings of a first love or a more supernatural bond, caused by the recent landing of a meteorite in the ocean, is unclear. There are a lot of mysterious moving parts in Children of the Sea, and the result can be a chaotic and muddled plot.
A lot of the side stories fizzle out, or introduce questions that the film has no interest in answering (a subplot involving the Japanese navy is particularly egregious in its pointlessness), all the while sapping energy from Ruka’s journey. She gets to know the brothers, and they guide her through the calls of the ocean as it prepares for an explosion of new life brought by the meteor, but there’s an urgency missing and a flatness to the character work. When the finale arrives in all its cosmic weirdness, genuinely bonkers in both concept and execution, it’s undeniably compelling, but could have been truly staggering if the emotional stakes had been more clearly defined beforehand.
Though these are significant issues, Children of the Sea’s visuals earn it a lot of good will. It’s one of the most beautiful films of the year, animated or live action, Watanabe blending animation styles within single scenes, sometimes even within single frames, and the underwater sequences are dazzling. Light and colour dance across the screen, and the animals are magnificently rendered, from adorable seals to majestic, glimmering whale sharks. Even the smallest fish are sublime, and as a pure lesson in animation, Children of the Sea is pretty much unimpeachable. Watanabe is also unafraid to go for broke with his imagery, which becomes increasingly womb-focused as the film progresses, granting a more visceral, sensual charge than one might expect out of what initially looks like a family-oriented animation.
It’s just a shame that this impressive ambition and surplus of style couldn’t be matched by the writing, as the collision of cosmic beauty and solid storytelling has produced such anime masterpieces as Your Name and Mirai in recent years. Children of the Sea can’t match the magic of those films, and feels overlong at just shy of two hours, but is still an easy recommend for anyone who wants to see 2020’s best looking animation (at least until Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers comes out).