Season aired: Summer 2021
Number of episodes: 24
Genres: Drama, Slice of Life, Supernatural
Thoughts: PA Works as a studio is famous for producing anime originals, but many of its recent anime have fallen flat due to bad storytelling and characters. The Aquatope on White Sand is their newest anime for Summer 2021 and is an original like its predecessors. How does The Aquatope on White Sand stand in comparison to PA Works’s recent releases? Fortunately, Aquatope does not make the same mistakes as its predecessors and moves confidently forward to deliver a solid anime with good emotional arcs and development.
Aquatope tells the story of two girls — Kukuru and Fuuka. The former is a Okinawan native who grew up taking care of an aquarium called Gamma Gamma. Owned by her grandfather, the aquarium is responsible for many of Kukuru’s childhood memories, and she works tirelessly to keep the aquarium from going under as the building runs close to its expiration date. Fuuka is an aspiring idol from the city who lost her way in the industry, and, in a stroke of spontaneity after a stressful phone call, flees to Okinawa. The two girls meet there, and their lives change forever in the backdrop of a mystical aquarium and whimsical yokai.
The first thing I appreciate about Aquatope is the staff’s dedication to research marine biology, general aquatic life, and the business of aquariums in Japan. The animation of the aquatic life accurately portrays real life organisms, and the story includes interesting facts about the many specimens in the aquarium. Most importantly, the story seamlessly weaves actual business workings of an aquarium into the two main protagonists’ character arcs. Fuuka’s arc actually surprised me the most. While her journey starts off as a predictable “find yourself,” it’s her final destination that caught me off guard. I applaud the anime for finding a way to still surprise me when coming-of-age stories tend to follow a specific formula and flourish more by letting the audience grow attached to the characters, rather than letting the audience guess the plot.
Which isn’t to say that the characters are bad. In fact, the majority of characters are all likable – including an antagonist that I originally swore would never respect or forgive. Aquatope has a gentle touch in examining the motivations behind each character, and it unveils them through visual special effects of watery magic when emotions run high and requires the assistance from an invisible, but kind yokai. Even better, of these motivations, they have something to say about society and people. Whether it’s processing grief, struggling through an unforgiving workplace and past prejudice, or simply wishing to be more helpful, Aquatope knows the pain behind individuals and emphasizes how even the less dramatic insecurities can have just as serious of an effect on people’s emotions and happiness. There’s love in the way the anime treats its characters and the journeys they take to become better people and adults.
If there’s one criticism I have for the story, it’s the second cour’s lack of magical realism. The drop of supernatural lent perfectly into the atmosphere and story of the first cour. Normally, when the watery sheen of ripples and reflections appear on screen, I instinctively ready myself for the emotions that would soon surface for the characters, and despite knowing what will happen, it still gets me feeling for them every time. Unfortunately, the second cour drops the involvement of the local yokai to focus on the daily grind of working for a business. I miss the interference of the yokai, not just because of the animation that accompanied the scenes of magic, but because it provides much-needed relief from the realistic and emotionally tiring narrative of struggling and working full time.
I also find fault with certain dialogue choices in portraying the relationship between Kukuru and Fuuka. Neither two female characters have actual male love interests nor have shown interest in any guys, and the anime’s development of the two is heavily layered in romantic undertones. Aquatope is written by Yuuko Kakihara, whose two other original anime, IRODUKU: The World in Colors and Tsuki ga Kirei, are delicate romances between two main leads who find each other at low points in their lives and help each other grow stronger and better. Her romantic style in her two aforementioned works is found all over Aquatope, but the dialogue opts to insist of sisterly love, despite the two characters holding each other’s faces, hands, and leaning against each other while rubbing each other’s arms in comfort on the regular – all emotionally intimate actions that do not strictly speak to a sisterly bond. As such, the actions of the characters not matching with the dialogue takes me out of otherwise emotionally charged scenes. I wish the anime either kept it vague between the two or committed to a relationship where the actions matched the dialogue.
Despite my critique of the disparity between the girls’ relationship and the writing, I find that there is perfect chemistry between the two voice actresses. Miku Ito and Rikako Aida are perfect for their roles as Kukuru and Fuuka respectively, but it’s only when they’re interacting together do the voice actresses shine in conveying the emotions and intonations, consequently selling the girls’ closeness.
Additionally, Aquatope soars on the technical aspects. The music enchants me in the magical scenes, and the piano score makes me feel melancholy when the characters discuss emotions, trauma, and struggles. The visuals in Aquatope are stunning with wide, gorgeous shots of Okinawa with dazzling colors and brilliant lighting. There’s also a constant watery sheen that ripples and shines on screen that calls back to the importance of the ocean and how it ties into the lore of the land, importance of the aquarium, and the personal connection of the characters.
I sing a lot of praises for the anime, but I cannot deny that there’s a level of predictability to the story alongside its flaws. Slice-of-life anime tend to rely on conventional plot devices to move the story along, but ultimately sell the show through its character development arcs. In that regard, Aquatope knows that and succeeds by delivering a visually gorgeous anime that guides us to understand, care, and grow with the characters against the backdrop of an ocean with a little magical nudging of a yokai who wants the best for everyone.
Plot: 7 (Multiplier 3.5)
Characters: 8 (Multiplier 3.5)
Voice acting: 7
FINAL SCORE: 75.5