4 out of 5
Directed by: Toshiya Shinohara
covers season 1
Kukuru works at the soon-to-be-closing Gama Gama Aquarium in Nanjō, Okinawa. Fūka has lost her position as an idol and, traveling back home in defeat, gets off the bus at Nanjō, and winds up securing a position at Gama Gama. The Aquatope on White Sand is the story of these two girls, but it could be said to be just as focused on the business of running Gama Gama, and on aquariums. And when we extend to include Kukuru’s (and eventually Fūka’s) network of friends, it’s also about the tourism industry, and running a restaurant. It’s very female-centric, but it doesn’t really ship the two lead girls too heavily, nor does it make their forming bond the end-all be-all of the series: they meet and confer on what they’re experiencing – with Kukuru struggling with what to do with herself with Gama Gama’s closing, and Fūka uncertain of the path her life she take without being an idol – but we’re not subject to emotional rollercoasters and heart-rending decisions; rather, the two tend to come to fairly logical conclusions, and put things into reasonable action. We watch them succeed and fail, get upset and get happy, and go on.
This might called “coming-of-age” or somesuch elsewhere, but it’s not even that. I don’t think we get a single voiceover, for example; the show’s soundtrack is often the buzzing of the nighttime air or the bustle of the aquarium or the burbling of its marine life; we watch people going through their daily motions and thinking about (or not) what they’re doing and what their moment-to-moment interactions result in. This kind of open-ended style is tricky – without good character investment, there’s no reason to watch; without tell-tale animation, there’s nothing to watch; and without solid writing and acting, there will be no subtext to any of this.
And Aquatope pulls it off. While the first cour can very much be said to be about something – Kukuru’s attempts at saving Gama Gama from closing – that also, as suggested above, isn’t necessarily building to cliffhanger endings, or last-minute turnabouts. The show doesn’t like to leave things especially precariously at the end of any given episode – momentous things might happen, but we get their denouncement within that same episode; the payoff is generally in following up with the characters. With its rather casual approach to that, Aquatope doesn’t force out alignment to or preference for any one of its cast. Kukuru and Fūka are certainly the leads, but it feels like we know a fair amount about everyone who works at the aquarium; as soon as they step into frame, they become real people. All of the actors are responsible for this Miku Itō’s Kukuru and Rikako Aida’s Fūka leading the way by finding balance in their tones to make their characters approachable, but also independent; bold and yet fallible – but it’s surely also sourced from Yūko Kakihara’s writing; Toshiya Shinohara’s artful direction; P.A. Works’ realism+ animation.
Though praising the show’s patient pacing, and audience-respecting story-telling, there is a minor downside to this: I’m also not positive what the point of the show is. I’d mentioned the first cour having an “about” concept; the second cour doesn’t really have that. That’s not to see it’s not an outright joy to watch week-to-week – it is – but it really does take that open-ended vibe and just soak in it. And, bizarrely, there’s this touch of magical realism in the first cour – Kukuru offers prayers at the opening of some episodes, and we see what might be a water spirit hanging around, leading to guests at Gama Gama sometimes having a flash of a mystical experience – that is completely absent in the second, as though the creatives decided to slightly redirect the tale they were telling at the halfway mark. This is all kind of what necessitated the roundabout way I reviewed this – I very much enjoyed the show, but beyond saying it’s about two girls working at an aquarium, I’m at a loss to describe it.
So I’ll go with a lame comparison: if you enjoyed the character deep-dive of something like Fruits Basket, but could do without the overly-complexicated cast and mythology, and like your drama dialed down a few notches, Aquatope is right in your wheelhouse. But also, if you just want strong acting, writing, direction, animation, don’t need fight scenes, like penguins, and like a light mix of pleasantness, comedy, and coming-of-age drama – then, there ya go. Join me in loving Aquatope, while maybe being unable to effectively describe it to someone else.