The Japanese animated feature, “Children of the Sea,” or 海獣の子供 (Kaijū no Kodomo) is the adaptation of a youth (read target market men in their twenties) monthly manga magazine series that was published from 2007 to 2012. Written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi, the series is a mystery that isn’t resolved in the film that features some odd jumps in the narrative and seems to focus on both the wonder of the sea as well as the unifying wonders between outer and inner space.
Although the action attempts to ground this perspective in science it is, in the end, more metaphorical. Fans of Godzilla and Japanese creature feature movies, will no doubt pick up that the title plays on words: kaijū can be either 怪獣 for “strange beast” or 海獣 for “sea beast.” The title font includes the figure of two humans over the “no” or “of” (Literal translation is “Children of Sea Beast”).
“Go ahead, they told me, so I opened my eyes,” a young girl remembers. What we see is young girl dwarfed by large and wonderful sea creatures behind the glass with one great animal sliding past the glass and moving upwards. Can it be a whale and what aquarium would contain such a huge specimen (outside of Star Trek’s version of Monterey Aquarium)?
And there is a song, one that is being generated by the whales and that other whales and all manner of sea creatures are responding. A large humpback whale breeches from the water against the background of a golden nights cityscape that we later learn is Manhattan.
A research ship, the Rwa Bhineda, is in a sunny clime and the crew is listening to the song from a transmitter underneath the surface of a calm sea. It is still far, but approaching. You might ask just where are we when suddenly the film goes for a cosmic reality:
This is the story of the seeds of the stars,
The children of the stars, and the birth of stars.
From the stars, from the stars,
The sea is the mother.
The first person we meet, is one who we met before: Ruka. It’s the same girl, but older. She dresses in her school uniform running to practice where we’ll see her flying in the sky to score. She scores again, but the person guarding her, number 13, trips her. “My bad, That’s what you get for trying too hard, shorty,” Number 13 says, unapologetically.
Next we see the results, but not the actual incident. The other students report that Ruka elbows Number 13 and breaks her nose. We never know if Ruka did it on purpose or not, but in her defense Ruka whines, “She did it first.”
Although her knee is scraped from the fall, no one attends to it, leaving Ruka a bit bitter and the teacher informs her, “If you’re not gonna apologize no need to come to practice tomorrow.”
Ruka (voiced by Mana Ashida) runs home, down the streets, but falls on the street. “Today was only the first day,” she thinks, but “my summer break is over.” She hides as other girls pass by and hears them talking about their plans–from traveling somewhere to just going out to the movies. Ruka is left out of that world. Looking for a place to go, she ends up at Enokura Aquarium, which, we learn is where her father, Masaaki Azumi (Goro Inagaki), works and her mother, Kanako Azumi (Yu Aoi) once worked.
You’ll figure out that Masaaki and Kanako are separated if not divorced. The Ryu of Ruka is the same as for Ryuku or the Ryukyu Islands, the largest of which is Okinawa. The climate ranges from humid subtropical to tropical rainforest and as islands they are all highly susceptible to typhoons.
At Enokura Aquarium, a staff person recognizes, gets her a guest pass and takes her to the employee only backrooms. Once in the staff area, a place of pipes, open water aquariums, staff jump suits, gloves and rubber boots, she hits her head on a large pipe and meets a mysterious boy, Umi.
Part of my disconnect was that I didn’t know that dugongs had once lived in areas of Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Umi was, discovered ten years earlier being raised by dugongs in the Philippines. Umi was not alone; he had a brother, Sora, who is sick. Because they were raised with dugong, their skin is sensitive to being dry and their physical bodies are weakening. They do not have long to live. Like the pearl divers of another era in Japan, Umi and Sora can dive long and deep.
Ruka and Umi becomes friends and Umi (voiced by Hiiro Ishibashi)mysteriously finds Ruka at her school. She has been taking refuge in empty classrooms, but can only apologize quite to herself. Although Ruka is at first grumbling to herself about why she has to explain things to Umi and buy him an ice cream, he takes her to see what Umi calls “Will-o’-the-wisp,” a ghostly light. But it might be more than that–a comet or a shooting star or even, as the newspapers later report, a meteorite.
Umi and Ruka see not one, but two. Umi explains that he knew it was coming and because Sora (voiced by Seishū Uragami) couldn’t see it, he came looking for Umi. He reasoned such a phenomena was meant to be seen because it was bright. “Bugs and animals, too. They shine because they want to be found. ”
A world has been opened for Ruka who also wants to shine, even as she cycles home in the rain. The drops turn into the shapes of small fish, schools of small fish is a frequent image in this film, breaking in at times when no fish are near (such as the classroom).
When we meet Sora, we see that Umi and Sora are not real biological brothers. Sora has pale skin, blue eyes and straight yellow hair. Umi has dark skin, curly short black hair and dark brown eyes. Sora and Umi can both hear the whales’ song that is summoning the creatures of the sea to the site of the meteorite crash.
When another researcher Jim, listens to the song, Ruka hears it and remembers it, too. “A whale’s song is a dense wave of information.”
The threesome, Umi, Sora and Ruka, steal a boat. Once out on the deep sea, the two boys dive in, unafraid. Ruka joins them, holding a rope attached to the boat, but she loses her snorkel mask and tube. She sees a school of whale sharks and the boys have to save her. From above on the boat, they see the whale sharks’ skin patterns start to glow. The two boys called it an ocean yūrei.
Other strange things are happening that the people on shore easily recognized. A relative of the megamouth has washed up on shore during a typhoon. Her father goes to investigate. Further down, Ruka discovers several long ribbonfish have washed up. Walking down the beach, Ruka sees Umi unconscious, lying on his back with his head underwater. She rushes to save him, but he’ll soon run into the water, holding her hand, seeking Sora as the typhoons change direction.
Together the three explore the water and a world held together by a balance that is swaying. Ruka’s own life is unbalanced. Her father feels that he should be back together with Kanako. The friendless Ruka has friends, but they will soon die and she will be alone again. The mystery of the gathering of sea creatures doesn’t have any cataclysmic meaning other than “the world is held together by a balance” and that “outer space and humanity are similar” and that “lifeforms are all made from the same matter.”
You might be disappointed in the resolution of “Children of the Sea,” or you might be inspired to read the actual manga or consider the importance of our environment. With characters named Umi or Sea (海) and Sora or Sky (空) is is hard not to think of the imminent death of either through pollution. Azumi which is close to the Japanese surname of Azuma (East or 東）is written using the character for peaceful and ocean: 安海.
The attention paid to the aluminum cans read to be recycled made me think of the trash we make and where it will go, particularly if we think of life as an islander.
The animation varies from detailed portrayals of sea creatures, to the ultra-big-eyed threesome at the center of the plot to the more realistically drawn adults to the metaphorical transformation of Umi. The transitions are not always smooth.
Certainly the ocean is as mysterious as outer space, and a place to explore, but it is also vital to the well-being and balance of the planet we live on. Islanders can only be more acutely aware of the limits of land and their need to draw resources from the sea that surrounds them. We are then all children of the ocean.
“Children of the Sea” screens today, 18 October 2019, as part of the Animation If Film festival in Hollywood at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood (6801 Hollywood Blvd.), but the screening is sold out.