The aquatope on white sand – 01 (first impressions) – A strange place still near home.

First of all, kudos to Aquatope for starting out so cleanly and crisply, with a series of shots of Misakino Kukuru’s quiet Okinawa hometown that were so summery and relaxing that they gave me goosebumps. It was literally a slice of life in this place, and this episode’s full of ’em. It seems inconceivable Kukuru would be unhappy in what looks to an outsider like paradise, but maybe paradise doesn’t feel like paradise to its embedded residents.

I’m sure at some point Miyazawa Fuuka felt she was in paradise as a member of a popular idol group in Tokyo. But then suddenly it became a dreary slog, leaving her with nothing but shit-talking co-workers and an empty apartment. Her final interaction is with one of her former groupmate, who for all we know puts on just another performance, lamenting Fuuka’s departure.

Weary of an big embarrassing welcome home party in her own sleepy rural hometown, Fuuka hops on a plane to Okinawa on a lark. The tropical heat hits her like a ton of bricks, and she’s quickly scooped up by a fortune teller who turns out to be pretty nice, following as she does the local saying “meet once, and we’re siblings.” She tells Fuuka to follow Sagittarius.

Fuuka ends up nodding off on the beach, and wakes up the next morning surrounded by neat circles of washed-up coral bits. Was this the work of the cheeky looking deity to whom Kukuru offers fish heads every morning? Speaking of, Kukuru is a total fishophile, far more interested than the creatures of the sea than humans on land or their math.

When a tour guide happens to spot Fuuka suffering the onset of heatstroke, she stops her car, offers her water, and gives her some brochures. One of them promotes the Gama Gama aquarium, to which the guide, Kudaka Karin, gives her a lift. It’s here where’s I’ll admit I’m a sucker for aquariums too.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a city with one of the best in the world, and though I don’t visit nearly as much as I should considering I’m still not far, it always felt like you were crossing a threshold into an entirely new world: a world of endless, captivating blue, where the air was water and full of creatures “flying” in it.

It’s at this aquarium, which is understaffed and suffering cratering attendance and yet still absolutely magical, where Fuuka has what you might call a spiritual experience. After spotting her undersea counterpart—a little guy who hides in the corner but works the hardest, like she did in her idol group—and Fuuka starts to cry pent-up tears.

Those tears and the accompanying despair are soon washed away when the tanks start to expand out towards her. She tries to run, but is soon surrounded by water, yet is able to breathe. She becomes one with all of the fish, turtles, and even a particularly badass whale shark. Then she snaps out of it, and suddenly there is Miyazawa Fuuka.

Our two protagonists have finally encountered one another. Their stories have intersected, thanks to the otherworldly allure of the aquarium. Kukurui has a knowing look on her face; she knows that Fuuka saw “it”, as in experienced what it means to be temporarily tricked by that local deity, Kijimunaa. Apparently Kukuru has experienced something similar.

Such strange phenomena are nothing new to the aquarium or its ancient environs. It’s called “Gama Gama” due to the coral formations that make up part of the building’s architecture; thought to be the gateway between the world and underworld. And yet, as Kukuru remarks, as strange and enchanting as it all is, it’s still close to her home. It still feels like “your grandma’s living room.”

Kukuru needs staff. Fuuka needs a fresh start in a new job. These two are perfect for one another. Perhaps it was Kijimunaa’s will, fueld as it was by offertory fish heads, to point the wayward former idol to the struggling aquarium director. I foresee great things from this auspicious meeting.

As focused as the episode is on its two leads, it’s also ever contemplative of the state of Japan’s cutthroat idol culture (where a well-meaning girl who did everything right still lost) or the worsening crisis of an aging population. And while daydreaming in class, Kukuru recalls a memory of having  a “parenting journal”.

Whether kids her age are encouraged early to have babies or she actually got pregnant and either lost it or gave it away, there was such trauma and pathos coursing through Kukuru and Fuuka’s lives. Whatever wounds they both possess, perhaps they can start healing them together at the aquarium—the gateway between worlds.