“Bugs and animals, too. They shine because they want to be found,” says Umi, one of the protagonists of the 2019 animated movie Children of the Sea. But his words are so much more than just a lesson in biology: What he’s really saying is that all living things, including humans, instinctively seek to find and connect with each other because we’re all part of the same universe. It’s a complex message that the movie doesn’t try to put into words. Rather, it allows viewers to feel it as it takes them on a visually stunning journey that not only shies away from explaining things explicitly, it almost seems to say that, sometimes, not knowing is the most important thing of all.
Children of the Sea is based on the hit manga by Daisuke Igarashi. Originally released between 2006 and 2011, it was nominated twice for the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, the Pulitzer Prize of Japanese comic books. Both the comic and movie tell the story of junior high school student Ruka as she is banned from her school club for causing trouble right at the start of her summer vacation. Not having much else to do, she visits a local aquarium where her father works. There she comes across Umi, a peculiar boy who, together with his brother Sora was apparently raised by dugongs in the Philippines and now possesses a strange ability to communicate with sea life. But what looks like the prelude to a wildlife adventure is just a red herring and is not at all what the movie is about. It’s also not about the numerous simultaneous, odd events happening around the world that we see in the movie: say, a comet crashing on Earth or all of sea life gathering near Japan for something called a “Birth Festival.” Those are all just excuses for the movie to discuss the profound bond between all living things.
This is signaled early on when Ruka, Umi, and Sora come across a researcher who was part of the team studying the two brothers, and who owns a boat named the “Rwa Bhineda.” The phrase is a Balinese philosophical concept which states that the universe is held together by a balance of seemingly opposite forces that are, in fact, interconnected. It’s somewhat similar to the better known Daoist concept of yin and yang that is present throughout the entire movie — for example, where the vast ocean, with its glowing, sparkly sea life, is compared to the endless, star-studded sky, showing that these two immensely different worlds are very similar. So much so that the movie suggests that our oceans and its inhabitants can offer a clue as to how life might develop outside our planet — because, be it the deep sea or outer space, all things are ultimately part of one great whole.
The idea seems to be enforced by the characters of Umi and Sora themselves, two outwardly opposite individuals (one energetic and dark-skinned, the other quiet and fair-skinned) who are nonetheless brothers that came from the same place and share the same mysterious goals. The fact that their names mean “Sea” and “Sky” helps get the point across further.
But while all of the universe might be one big organism where all is one, each individual life also contains endless worlds within it. This is what the movie seems to be hinting at during its psychedelic finale. After Ruka arrives at the Birth Festival with a piece of the fallen meteorite inside her, she encounters many illusory things with shapes, sounds, and forms melting into each other in a grand symphony of emotional symbolism.
It’s where the movie’s unique art style elevates the production to new heights. By employing what looks like a mix of extremely detailed hand-drawn animation and 3D computer-generated images, the film achieves a uniquely realistic, stunning look. The illusory finale, bizarre as it may be, still feels like an extension of our reality, including images of Umi, or something representing his essence, made up of infinite galaxies swirling within him. At least, that’s what appears to be happening in that scene, but trying to analyze the dreamlike finale wouldn’t only be a herculean task, but would also miss the point of the film — that all of it needs to be felt and not understood with logic — entirely.
So when, in the end, Ruka returns to the “real” world and says that she didn’t understand what had happened to her, that’s not a sad thing. That’s the entire reason for the movie’s existence. It doesn’t have any answers for us, not the ones that could be put into words, at least. All it can do is use the poetry of images and sounds to take us on a destination-less journey within ourselves accompanied by the at times grand, at times minimal soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. And that’s more than enough.
Featuring an impressive cast, including child actors Mana Ashida, Hiiro Ishibashi, Seishu Uragami, veteran actors Yu Aoi, idol Goro Inagaki, and dancer/actor Min Tanaka, and with Kenshi Yonezu behind the film’s theme song Umi no Yuurei (Ghost of the Sea), Children of the Sea has a profound message for all of us — but you’ll have to watch, and perhaps even rewatch to know.
Cast: Mana Ashida, Hiiro Ishibashi, Seishu Uragami
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
Text by Cezary Strusiewicz