The aquatope on white sand – 22 – Dearly beloved

As last week’s transcendent finish showed, Fuuka doesn’t have to actually do anything to cheer Fuuka up, clear her head, and ultimately make her decide to return to Tingarla and get back to work. Whether it’s when Kukuru first spots her at the hatching, takes Kukuru’s hand and shakes her head when Kukuru says she’s only causing trouble for everyone, or just sleeping peacefully beside Kukuru, being there is what matters.

The next afternoon, Kukuru is with Fuuka on the ferry home, but not before thanking Misaki for taking care of her. During this time, Fuuka learns that sea turtles are endangered, in large part due to man-made harm. Considering I learned about this stuff when I was still in school, I was a little surprised by Fuuka’s ignorance, but it’s never too late to learn.

Back at the office, Kukuru’s boss Suwa responds to her deep bow of apology by thrusting the marked-up wedding proposal into her hands and telling her if she finishes this, deal or no deal, he’ll recommend her for an opening in the attendant department, allowing her to do what she’s always loved and come naturally to her. Karin wants that attendant job too, and Kukuru doesn’t really seem to dread the possibility of losing!

That’s because learning more about Misaki’s conservation efforts inspired Kukuru to do her part—not as an attendant, but as a marketer—to spread the word about how things are and what can be done about it. If she needs to make compromises to the wedding planner Miura, so be it: the more people walk through Tingarla’s doors, the more people will fall in love with it, and do more to help protect it.

That includes the curt and impatient Miura, who initially cuts Kukuru’s tour short to get down to business. Kukuru and Suwa show her the wedding venue, and this time Kukuru has more quick (and satisfying) answers to Miura’s rapid-fire questions. The first meeting wasn’t a failure, because it gave her the knowledge she needed to make the second presentation successful.

After accepting Kukuru’s “Wedding Under the Sea” proposal, Miura’s demeanor softens considerably, and she’s eager to continue the tour. She even leaves with a big jellyfish plushie, having enjoyed herself much more than she thought she would. And what do you know, Suwa finally praises Plankton! Sure, all he says is “Well done” and walks away, but for this guy, it’s huge.

Kukuru’s mood thus immensely improved and the job done, she finally gets to relax with her friends at Ohana, and is all smiles and laughs. But she has to be reminded that she’s in the running for an attendant position, because she was so focused on the wedding task before her. There’s a scene where she also makes Kai take a rain check on talking about something, and it’s here at the restaurant both we and Kukuru learn what: Kai’s dad collapsed, and the attendant opening is due to his departure.

Kukuru bails on the celebration, tries to call Kai, then lucks out to find him still at the aquarium. Kai confirms his dad needs surgery, so he won’t be able to work for a while, but doesn’t want to see Kukuru make sad faces. He’s not leaving permanently, after all; just going on leave until his family’s alright.

Ever since getting her drive back and then knocking the wedding proposal out of the park, Kukuru has no doubt considered simply staying in marketing. Will she reconsider now that she knows Kai will feel most safe knowing she’ll be tending to the animals in his place? If it’s just a temporary thing, then why not?

The aquatope on white sand – 21 – Don’t wallow…struggle!

The way Kukuru simply disappeared last week was extremely worrying, but it turns out she simply needed to get away. Asking herself over and over “What am I doing?”, the answer is clear: work got to be too much, so she needed a break. She takes the ferry to sleepy Yamenura Island, where she soon runs into Umi-yan’s wife Misaki, a professor specializing in sea turtles.

Kukuru did the right thing by eventually responding to an understandably worried Fuuka by telling her she’s safe and everything’s fine, she just needed time off. Fuuka tries to cover for Kukuru like a good friend and co-worker, but Suwa sees right through the ruse, and tells Fuuka not to interfere with matters that aren’t her job. The way Suwa phrases it makes Fuuka so mad she starts shadowboxing like Kukuru, and almost accidentally slugs Kai in the face!

While there’s always a measure of underlying worry and stress one gets while playing hooky, it’s largely neutralized by the extremely chill vibes of Yameruna. Misaki, a wise woman, tells Kukuru she’s going to get yelled at later, but no point being sad about it now. She should enjoy the time she’s taken…and she does, by sleeping in, taking a leisurely stroll to the tiny island aquarium, and watching one of her gramps’ protégés in action.

Even if she knows Kukuru is fine, a part of Fuuka still wants to be with Kukuru during this time. When she learns from Gramps that Choko will be joining Tingarla soon, she wants to text Kukuru, but hesitates, worried the timing of such a text would be wrong.

She’s distracted, and shortly afterward an overly curious penguin gets badly pecked and scratched up by territorial peers. Fuuka blames herself, but both her boss says penguins fight all the time. The vet tells Fuuka not to wallow, but struggle. There’s no time for regretting when you’re carefully watching over living things.

The night arrives when Misaki’s quarry, a huge nest of sea turtle eggs, finally hatch, and it’s probably the event of Yameruna, which I may have mentioned is usually super laid back and tranquil. Much like the baby penguin’s first dip, the tension of this event is extremely nicely built up, then released when the adorable baby turtles emerge from the sand in droves.

Kukuru looks both awed and honored to be present for such an event, then overhears someone behind her saying “It’s amazing.” She recognizes the voice, because it’s Fuuka, who learned through Umi-yan that Kukuru was on the same island as his wife.

Instead of running into each other’s arms, Kukuru and Fuuka stand apart and continue to quietly observe the magic of nature. The hugs, tears, laughter, and scolding will come later. For now, they’ll keep a close eye on the animals.

The aquatope on white sand – 20 – Outside the tank

Kukuru has hit a wall again. There’s too much work to do, and not enough time to do it with the organizational skills she currently possesses. Her boss Suwa remains as unfeeling as a Vulcan. He doesn’t say it, but it’s implied every time he barks his catchphrase “That’s all from me”—which he didn’t actually say this week! What he’s really saying is “If you can’t cut it, I’ll find someone who can.”

Kukuru’s a free spirit, and being wound up so tight in that fish-less office is wearing on her. She seeks any relief, whether it’s pressing her face against the main tank (her sole interaction with Kai. Sorry Kai!) or going out to a lagoon to observe a lost baby dolphin, whom she names Ban-chan. She doesn’t just love how cute Ban-chan is, she also envies his freedom.

This is one of many excellent images that show rather than tell how things are going for Kukuru this week…she’s behind literal bars! She wakes up from a dream that she’s drowning! On top of all the other projects that keep her in the office well past office hours, Suwa orders her to prepare a presentation for a wedding planner for ceremonies at Tingarla. Kukuru gets to it … but is never into it.

Back home, her Gramps and Tingarla’s boss Hoshino discuss things at Udon-chan’s mom’s restaurant, which Udon-chan’s mom has to run instead of drinking because Udon-chan ain’t there. Hoshino says Kukuru is doing her best in marketing…no “but”! Gramps knows Kukuru and so knows how hard it must be, but still believes being “outside the tank” she grew up in will ultimately prove to be a “good experience.”

Perhaps it’s because Kukuru has no mom or dad to guide her during this crucial time when she’s just started adulting that he believes tough love is the solution. Kukuru gives it the old college try with the wedding presentation, but the show wasn’t fooling anyone. I knew she was going to bomb, and that Suwa wasn’t going to console her. That said, he seems neither mad nor disappointed in Kukuru’s first big presentation. I just wish we could have gotten something from the guy…maybe hear about his first presentation.

The wedding project isn’t ruined, it just needs a fairly substantial redo. But the cost of the presentation (whether it went well or not) is much steeper for Kukuru. She misses out on Fuuka going diving with Ban-chan, and she returns to Tingarla too late to see Airi, the girl in the hospital who came to visit. Karin tells her not to feel bad; she had work. But now work is taking up so much time and energy it’s denying Kukuru a lot of the things give her joy and happiness.

While working overtime again, Kukuru snaps—but softly; more like a stalk of kelp than a hard branch. As her eyes blur, she asks herself Why was I trying so hard again? So she could get more work and see less of the things and people she loves? That can’t be right!

Then she remembers her Gramps telling her Gama Gama was going to be demolished soon, so if she wanted to see it one last time, she’d better hurry. But work kept her from saying goodbye to Gama Gama while it was still whole. When she arrives by taxi late at night, it’s just a pile of rubble.

Kukuru’s already tattered spirit shattered into a thousand pieces at the sight of that rubble. There’s no melodramatic tears; I was reminded of Titus Andronicus when he said “I have no more tears to shed.” She just looks…defeated. Spent. The next day, Kukuru skips work, but work goes on without her.

There’s a parallel between Kukuru’s arc and Ban-chan’s. Both have been set loose—the dolphin got separated from his family, Kukuru got thrown out of the tank to either succeed or fail. Even though I know the show is not going push Kukuru to suicide, she is definitely not having a “good experience”.  Her absence from the office is frankly chilling, and I just hope she’s somewhere safe and close to loved ones.

The aquatope on white sand – 19 – The white dolphin in the red pumps

Fuuka’s not-to-distant past life catches up to her, as a film crew from Yona Productions intends to film a tv show at Tingarla…with Fuuka’s idol kohai Shiori Ruka as the co-host. They’re also very keen on Fuuka being the other co-host. Fuuka’s immediate, unhesitant response? “But I’m done with TV…”

As Karin gives Ruka and the crew a tour to familiarize themselves with the aquarium, Kukuru ducks out of work (and she’s got a lot of work) to make sure Fuuka is okay having remnants of her old life around. Fuuka assures her she’s fine; she’s going to turn down the co-hosting role. She’s an attendant now.

Fuuka intends to take Ruka out for one-on-one dinner, but Udon-chan ends up inviting everyone else (except Kukuru, who is working overtime). Ruka is up for the liveliness until she isn’t, and goes out onto the deserted patio to sit and reflect.

Fuuka comes out to give her some less intense company, and truly does look like a capital-S Senpai in the way she confidently counsels Ruka. She knows Ruka is working as hard as she is in part for Fuuka’s sake, so Fuuka tells her not to forget to work for Shiori Ruka’s sake.

It’s only later Fuuka learns why Ruka is so down aside from having not “made it” yet: she’s been being harassed online by her detractors, saying she’s getting unfairly promoted relative to her talent or some such nonsense. As Umi-yan puts it, the fans don’t see how hard she’s really working.

After a few awkward moments during filming, Ruka joins Fuuka for a break where Fuuka often comes to relax and recharge during a stressful day. She offers Ruka her pair of red pumps she intended to wear on stage one day, but never did.

Fuuka no longer needs them as a talisman of encouragement, as she’s found the place where she belongs and the thing she loves to do. So she gives them to Ruka, hoping they’ll be a source of strength for her too. If nothing else, they’ll remind Ruka of her dear senpai Fuuka, whom she clearly, genuinely admires and loves.

That admiration and love only grows during the final climactic scene in the tv show, when the new baby penguin jumps into the pool for the first time and immediately takes to it like…well, a penguin to a pool! Nervous and timid, the little one needs a little push in order to make that leap into the water, and Fuuka is there to give it.

It’s such a little gesture, and yet so meaningful and affecting both for the film crew, Fuuka’s co-workers, and the huge, rapt audience. Seeing Fuuka be the best damn aquarium attendant she can be literally brings tears to Ruka’s eyes…genuine ones, not forced ones.

That unforced sincerity ends up on film, and just may be one of the things that brings Ruka more fans going forward.  Like the little push she gave the adorable baby penguin, Fuuka may have given the little push—and red pumps—Ruka needed to take the next step in her fledgling career.

The aquatope on white sand – 18 – How to Raise a Boring Office Worker

The gang is back to work at Tingarla (fine, that’s what the sign says), and all are encouraged to come up with big event that will increase enthusiasm for marine life.

The winning idea comes from Akari, a part-timer who has been very upfront about this being Just A Job and not having any particular passion for aquariums. When Kukuru pushes for Akari to lead the way on her fish cosplay event, Akari declines.

After work Kukuru and Fuuka share another lovely waterside moment together, with Fuuka letting Kukuru rest her head on her shoulder and vent ever so briefly about something she’s needed to come clean about: she really misses being an attendant.

Fuuka also reminds Kukuru that like Akari, she wasn’t that into aquariums either until the beauty and wonder of the sea life, the smiles of the guests, and the enthusiasm of Kukur and the others caught her hook, line, and sinker.

Fuuka’s point is that not everyone ends up in a job doing what they love, and whether its marketing or tending penguins, you can’t argue that there’s nowhere Kukuru’s better suited to be considering her lifelong passion for the sea.

It’s not “too late” for Akari to become enamored of it, but even if she never is to Kukuru or Fuuka’s extent…that’s totally okay! Everyone’s different and it’s okay! There; that’s the thesis of this show.

Akari still feels a bit bad about how relatively harshly she shot down the notion of taking charge of the cosplay event, even if she was simply being honest. This job isn’t her life, at least not at the moment. She’s got college and other friends.

We get a really nice pairing with her and Karin having dinner at the restaurant where Udon-chan works—and has made improvements to the menu based on the feedback at the party—Karin tells her she didn’t invite her to talk about Kukuru, but to enjoy some tasty food with a friend. No need to sweat anything!

Akari and Udon-chan actually build a lovely little bond as two people outside the whole Fish Thing. Akari initially thought people like them were always having fun doing what they love all the time, and kind of envied that, since she just…wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about anything.

But seeing Kukuru work so hard and sometimes crash against Suwa, or Kaoru often worrying about her fish dying on her because she couldn’t tell they were in pain…Akari learns that sometimes doing what you love can be miserable.

When Kukuru realizes too late she hadn’t sent the email order for the fish stickers (rewards for the kids who identify the fish they’re cosplaying), but left it in Drafts (something I sometimes have nightmares about), the clock strikes five; Akari’s time to clock out.

But it’s not even a clock out that causes Akari to decide to return to the aquarium to help Kukuru and Karin make their own stickers. It’s because her friend had to take a rain check on their date. That, and Akari had nothing else going on, so why not help two people she likes as people, even if she doesn’t quite get their aquarium obsession?

The three work overtime to get the stickers done, and the next day, we get a day at Tingarla that’s very appropriate considering Halloween was just last Sunday: not only does the staff dress up as specific fish species, but also mermaids (in the case of Fuuka, Marina, and Chiyu) and pirates (Karin and Akari).

But nothing is more heartwarming and sweet than Kaoru dressing up as one of her favorite fairy tale characters: Urashima Tarou…with Kuuya as the sea turtle and Umi-yan as the comely Otohime. The fact that Kaoru loves the tale with a passion and has dreamed since childhood of being Tarou…it’s just the tops.

And hey, what do you know, the festivities even lead to Akari correctly identifying her first fish—the four-striped damselfish Kukuru is cosplay as. Kukuru notices the way Akari looks into the tank at the fish…it’s just a more subdued version of how Akari saw Kukuru look at the tank.

No longer apathetic about her workplace, Akari is well and truly charmed by it, but in a subtle, Akari-like way. Yasuno Kiyano really nails that breezey subtlety just as she does as the heroine from Saekano. I’m glad she got almost a whole episode in which to shine.

The aquatope on white sand – 17 – Pure bliss

Who could have predicted that one of the most fun, heartwarming, and overwhelmingly joyful episodes of Aquatope would come after Gama Gama closed down? After Kukuru reached détente with Kaoru and Chiyu in short order, it was only a matter of time before they had an opportunity to hang out on their time off. When Fuuka, Kukuru, and Udon-chan’s days off align, they decide to throw a hospitality party for their co-workers.

The three pull out all the stops. Fuuka gives Marina and Akari some skincare treatment tips she got from her idol stylist. Udon-chan whips up a varied menu of tasty dishes, and gets the constructive (and sometimes excessive) negative feedback she asked for. Kuuya comes over with Karin, drinks some plum wine, loosens up…and vanishes!

But nothing tops Kukuru luring Chiyu in to Fuuka’s apartment and giving her a back massage, which Chiyu is happy for, even if Kukuru sucks at it! Chiyu ends up giving Kukuru a proper back massage, noting that Kukuru’s lack of muscle knots is a sure sign of someone ill-equipped to remove them from others.

Kaoru came with Chiyu and her little boy Shizu, then Kai and Eiji arrive, having collected a still-plummy Kuuya who had passed out on a nearby bench. A takoyaki party breaks out, with Kuuya and Eiji having a friendly blind-sea life-takoyaki filling competition that eventually devolves into just everyone stuffing themselves with delicious takoyaki. Note Kai’s look of distress masking his delight that Kukuru sat next to him.

When lil’ Chizu does that typical little kid thing where they make a big stink about not wanting to go home, Fuuka and Kukuru break out the fireworks to put a sparkly capper on a perfect day. Everyone has fun, with no exceptions. Drunk Kuuya even scores a ride home with Umi-yan! It’s just so nice to see everyone outside of Tingaara, together, taking a break from all their troubles.

When Kukuru and Fuuka return to their adjacent apartments, two delectable mango parfaits are waiting for them in the fridge, courtesy of Udon-chan. The two best friends savor the treats on the balcony, talking about all the fun things that happened. I can’t tell you how much it swells my heart to see both of them so content. They’ve come a long way, baby!

The aquatope on white sand – 16 – Can’t help but relate

I’ve never disliked Haebaru Chiyu. When she first showed up at Gama Gama, it was clear she was trying her hardest to excel in what was established to be a very exclusive industry. Nor did I ever particularly side with Kukuru in their many spats; Chiyu is absolutely right that Kukuru was, in many ways, spoiled and privileged by being the granddaughter of a aquarium legend.

But this is the episode where my feelings about Haebaru Chiyu shifted from mere understanding to affection. Because, you see, all along, Chiyu has been busting her ass at both Gama Gama and Tingaara…she’s been doing that while being a single goddamn mom. When the attendant team has to take on overnight shifts for a pregnant penguin, she can’t do it, because she’s got a damn son named Shizuku.

They say context is king, and all along Kukuru has had it all wrong. Chiyu isn’t simply some arrogant go-getter looking down on her, she’s a desperate mother trying to balance her lifelong passion of marine life with ensuring her child has sufficient attention. That’s why, when Kukuru takes the shifts Chiyu would have had, Chiyu gets extremely upset with her. When Chiyu yells “I want to work too!”, I teared up, because I knew she was being brutally honest.

Once Kukuru learns Chiyu’s deal, she’s understandably, as she puts it, “torn”. Here she was, hating on Chiyu for being so ambitious and imperious, but all along, Chiyu had this whole other life completely outside the aquarium. It makes Kukuru want to try to experience something like what it means to be responsible for another human life. So she asks the vet Takeshita (who has also joined Tingaara) if she can babysit her son.

Fuuka, ever the peacemaker and moderator, pays Chiyu a visit at her home, and learns from Chiyu the strife she experienced. She was once married, but when she first tried to balance having a kid and working at an aquarium, she was eventually fired and her husband left her. Considering all that happened to her, it’s not surprising she’d want to keep her parenthood a secret at Tingaara. But Fuuka says there’s no need for that, nor is there any need to scorn Kukuru or Gama Gama.

After all, rather than press forward with her shallow hatred of Chiyu, Kukuru committed to learn a little bit more about what it’s like to be mother. Takeshita’s little boy never stops crying for the half-day Kukuru is taking care of him, and nothing she does can calm him until his mama comes home. Even so, Kukuru feels she’s learned something precious about loving all living things—including little humans—as her gramps wanted.

Last week, Kukuru reached  détente with Kaoru, and I said it was fine if she couldn’t do the same with everyone she butted heads with, most of all Chiyu. But leave it to Aquatope to find a way for even Kukuru and Chiyu to drop their antagonist act and admit that they do in fact share common ground, namely a love of aquariums and a desire to protect the life within them.

When the penguin’s egg finally hatches and brings forth a new life, Kukuru, Chiyu, and her son Shizuku are all embracing, rapt by the awe of watching a new life enter the world. Shizuku did her due diligence to understand Chiyu better, and in return, Chiyu opened up to Kukuru and her other Tingaara co-workers about the fact that she’s a kickass single mom. Character growth all around!

The aquatope on white sand – 15 – Seaslugfest

Buoyed in part by the return of Fuuka, Kukuru has found her rhythm in the marketing office, and is starting to show her competence. Of course, this means her boss Suwa just foists more work upon her. But it’s not done out of malice; it’s a sign that he trusts her to get it done. While having a relaxing lunch outside, Fuuka reminds Kukuru of that.

As such, when Suwa gives Kukuru her largest responsibility yet: a two week exhibition. Kukuru gives it her absolute all preparing a variety of proposals, not merely so she can silence Suwa’s doubt in her (though that’s part of it), but because it’s a golden opportunity to nerd the ef OUT over sea life. She ends up knocking it out of the park with her proposal, which is accepted on the spot. Mind you, Suwa doesn’t offer “Plankton” any praise…but it’s still a huge victory!

Kukuru decides the exhibition will be exclusively sea slugs, the jewels of the sea. I have to admit I hadn’t given sea slugs much thought up until this episode, but I have to admit they’re as gorgeous as they are weird. Kai gets all excited about Kukuru asking him to join her at the shore to collect the creatures, only to find Kukuru invited Fuuka too. His romantic fumbling doesn’t go unnoticed by Eiji, who suggests he try to be a bit more bold.

Like her earlier projects, Kukuru is constantly having to butt heads with people with whom she simply has a lot of trouble getting along besides the minimal professional cordialness. One of those figures is Kaoru, who granted comes of as pretty prickly and inflexible anyway. But Kukuru has gained more spine since joining Tingaara, and one thing she will not countenance is exhibiting the sea slugs without feeding them.

The vast variety of sea slugs doesn’t just pertain to their looks, you see, but also their diet. One species likes one kind of sea sponge or moss, the other ignores it completely. Eventually she finds the right food for all but one of the species to be exhibited, but in the process of obsessing over that eighth, Kukuru completely forgets her tour duties. Chiyu, another one like oil to Kukuru’s water, doesn’t let her forget she messed up, while all Fuuka can do is try to keep the peace.

On the eve of the exhibition, Kukuru is working late hours, and she’s got bags under her eyes. Who should press a cool canned coffee against her head but Kai, perhaps trying to be a bit bolder as Eiji advised. Kai asks if he can do anything for the clearly overworked Kukuru, and she says yes there is: he can put up his hands so she can punch them! In the heat of the stress-relieving spar session, Kai wraps his fingers around her fist, kinda-sora-unconsciously seeking gentler contact than the usual punches.

No sooner is this contact made than Kai apologizes and the drew draw back. But even if Kai’s courtship doesn’t pay off, a different kind of ritual takes place between Kukuru and Kaoru…they come to a détente! Over, what else, their mutual passion for all things living in or near the sea! I’m not sure why Kuuya misgendered Kaoru, but I for one am elated to see her and Kukuru put aside their differences and focus on the common ground they share.

Kaoru even invites Kukuru to the shore! At the same time, she and Chiyu may never get along, nor will Suwa ever give her a break or crack a grin. But that’s okay! Just as not all sea slugs eat the same food, not all people can get along. It’s just surpassingly gratifying when it suddenly, unexpectedly happens.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The aquatope on white sand – 14 – Nunca te rindas

I don’t know about you, but Fuuka’s sudden appearance on the beach and her and Kukuru’s warm embrace are romantic as all get out. Just look at that shot: Fuuka is basically Kukuru’s valiant prince, drying her eyes strained from tears of frustration and filling them right back up with pure unbridled joy. Even better: Fuuka is back for good. She’ll be working at Tingaara…and even moved next door to Kukuru.

That’s a lot of surprises, but Kukuru is fine with all of them, because if ever there was a time she needed Fuuka close by, it’s now, when she’s feeling totally unmoored in her marketing job. Thanks to Gramps, Fuuka was able to get a job at Tingaara, and Chiyu is clearly not okay Gama Gama nepotism. If she’s going to accept Fuuka as a colleague and not a up-jumped hanger-on, Fuuka must memorize all 20 of the cape penguins.

“There’s no ‘Gama Gama Faction!'”, the Gama Gama Faction protested as they all went out to eat together. Though replacing Kuuya is Eiji, who is tastefully intrigued by the former idol-turned-penguin attendant. Rumors of cliquery aside, I like how the Gama Gama exiles still hang together after work, lay down their troubles, and enjoy Udon-chan’s widening culinary repertoire.

Kukuru admits after dinner that a part of her felt jealous that Fuuka got the job she thought she’d get at Tingaara, but fully admits that kind of thinking is childishness she wants to grow past. With  Karin, Chiyu, and her fellow marketeer Akari (voiced by the Saekano heroine herself, Yasuno Kiyano!) an now Fuuka, she has plenty of girlsboss to emulate. She even discovers she does have a knack for making people care and fall in love with aquariums, as she takes the aquarium-indifferent Akari on a rehearsal tour and wins her over.

This week Kukuru does indeed work harder and smarter than her first bumbling/arrogant days, staying meek and formal on the outside, but keeping that burning fire in her belly stoked. She learns the value of forming little alliances with others to make things easier, and figuring out the precise way to deal with people. Take Chiyu’s second-in-command Marina (Touyama Nao—this cast is stacked): since Kukuru is Fuuka’s friend and Fuuka is cool, Marina will go to bat to change Chiyu’s mind about including the penguins on the tour.

Speaking of intricate social patterns, this week was a low-key cape penguin documentary, as we observe along with Fuuka how to tell the twenty penguins apart not just by their colored wing bands, but how they behave. And while Fuuka was only at Gama Gama for a month, that was enough to know when the birds are agitated due to their sudden new environment (mirroring Kukuru’s own difficulties).

Kukuru believes it was not only Fuuka acing the name-that-penguin test, but recognizing and acknowledging the emotional state of the birds that impressed Chiyu enough to give the go-ahead for their (limited) exposure to tour groups. Kukuru only manages to get a family of four in her first tour, but she ends up nailing the tour just as well as Fuuka nailed her test, showing that the director didn’t throw her into this new environment willy-nilly. He knew she’d eventually figure it out and thrive.

Is Kukuru’s anhedonic ass of a boss Suwa pissed she only snagged one group of four? Absolutely. Does Kukuru let him get her down for long? Nope! She walks out of that office ready to keep up the fight. The episode ends as it began, with Kukuru and Fuuka looking like a particularly happily married couple, this time cooking dinner side by side.

Kukuru gives Fuuka the credit for changing Chiyu’s mind by proving she not only knew about but cared about the penguins. But that’s not entirely fair to herself…who helped Fuuka study for that penguin test? More to the point, Fuuka makes it clear that while she feels she belongs in an aquarium now, the main reason Fuuka is back is to be with Kukuru. Kukuru just so happens to also belong in an aquarium, so it’s allll sea gravy!

The aquatope on white sand – 13 – #aquadulting

We return to Aquatope with Kukuru in a new apartment, in a smart pantsuit, saying her usual prayer (this time to her parents’ shrine), starting her very first day at the brand-spankin’-new Aquarium Tingaara. Umi-yan and Kuuya are already working there, while Kai is in the same group of new hires as she is. But while Kai is assigned to the fish team, Kukuru is assigned to…marketing.

The director has high hopes for her in PR, where Karin is already working. Have you ever, due to various circumstances, ended up in a job you had no idea you’d be doing? Well, that was me about five months ago, and it’s Kukuru here.

Working at an aquarium, but not tending to the marine life? It almost seems like a cruel joke, and Kukuru doesn’t get it. That said, when Karin frees her from the mountains of manuals her director Suwa gave her and takes her on a tour of the modern, impressive facilities, the little kid in Kukuru immediately resurfaces. (This still, by the way, is my new desktop wallpaper, the previous one being the sky after the typhoon).

But she gradually learns that kid has no place at Tingaara. Here, not even Umi-yan can keep ice pops in the feed freezer. Gama Gama was loosy-goosy, and a lot of outsiders like Suwa and Chiyu (who is magnificently smug throughout this episode) believe that had a lot to do with its failure. Tingaara is a strict, by-the-book, professional enterprise, perhaps wound a bit too tightly.

Even so, after dinner at the restaurant where Udon is now working and training, Kai reminds her that Fuuka dove into the world she knew nothing about when she started working at Gama Gama. He himself didn’t originally really want to work there, but did so because he wanted to help her, and eventually came to like it. He thinks if she tries something new and sticks with it, she might have a change of heart.

Reinvigorated by his words, Kukuru goes back to work with her head held high, doing the work that’s in front of her. It seems like preparations are ready for a behind-the-scenes tour Suwa assigned to her, but as he puts it in a very public dressing-down in the office, she really only did the work she knew how to do. He suggests she cease relying on experience working at a failed aquarium and nicknames her Plankton…smaller than small fry.

After getting chewed out and again having her commitment and seriousness questioned by Chiyu, Kukuru leaves the aquarium exhausted and discouraged, declining Karin’s dinner offer and instead sitting on the beach alone. She starts to cry, not knowing how much more of life at Tingaara she can take.

Then, out of nowhere, Fuuka arrives, precisely when Kukuru needed her the absolute most. While they were still together in last week’s episode, the way Aquatope totally turned Kukuru’s life on it’s head and everything she endured made it feel like months had passed…which indeed they did! All of that also makes their reunion that much more heartwarming.

Kukuru has had a rough couple of days, but there’s a reason Tingaara’s director assigned her the role he did. Hopefully seeing Fuuka will remind Kukuru of how rough she was on her in her first days at Gama Gama, and how Fuuka didn’t give up, and ended up thriving.

Tingaara may seem like a cold, cruel, nasty, grown-up place—or at least most of the humans who aren’t Kukuru’s circle make it feel that way—but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Kukuru may struggle and fail a lot more before she finds the right wavelength in which to thrive, but I’m excited to watch her find it!

The aquatope on white sand – 12 – Everything becomes the ocean

It’s the last day of Gama Gama, and admission is free. The place is packed with people, which has Kukuru asking why they didn’t come earlier. But even so, she understands that Gama Gama has gotten too old to properly care for its sea life. The logic doesn’t make the last day any less melancholy, but there’s a hint of hope, as Kukuru is offered a job at Tingaara when she’s done school.

Once the last visitors head home and the doors close for the last time, the staff plus Karin and Udon-chan have a little party celebrating 48 glorious years. When everyone learns Kukuru has a job at Tingaara if she wants it, and that Umi-yan and Kuuya are also taking jobs there, a tipsy Karin urges Kukuru to go for it. But Kukuru just isn’t sure, and that’s understandable: the offer came on the day she believes her dream to have ended.

Gramps makes a very awesome and tearjerking speech, and then Kukuru and Fuuka spend some time on the moonlit beach. After the emotional roller coaster of the typhoon, they’ve fully made up. In fact, Kukuru believes it’s now her turn to support Fuuka’s dream, by urging her to take the lead actress job in Tokyo. Fuuka books a flight there for tomorrow.

The next day, Gama Gama is “hollowed out”, as all of the sea creatures are placed in portable tanks bound for either Tingaara or other aquariums that requested them. Kukuru is shook by just how lonely it is with the lights on and the tanks empty…until she goes into the room where all the visitors left notes on the wall.

It’s a room full of warm gratitude, and Kukuru can’t help but smile and feel grateful for everyone who came to Gama Gama and were changed forever. Then, while walking past one of the empty tanks, Kukuru experiences another illusion, once again involving someone who looks like her sister, who gives her a loving pat on the head as if to say “you’ll be alright.”

Back home, during Kukuru and Fuuka’s last meal together for some time, Kukuru mentions the illusion she experienced, believing she’d met her “doppelganger”. This is when Gran finally decides to tell Kukuru something they were going to tell her when she grew up.

As she’s already been an aquarium director for a summer and then lost that aquarium, Gran decides she’s grown up enough. Kukuru had a twin sister…but only Kukuru was born.

I understand Gran not wanting to keep Kukuru in the dark any longer, but the timing couldn’t be worse when it comes to Kukuru and Fuuka having to say goodbye so soon. At the airport, Kukuru tries to put on a brave face, as she feels she owes it to Fuuka, who supported her dream for so long.

Airport goodbyes always get me, and Aquatope really nails it, from the awkwardly formal handshake to watching from Kukuru’s POV until Fuuka disappears into the terminal.

But that is not goodbye, because before she boards her plane, Fuuka thinks about how she only cried when she was alone after her dream ended. She thinks about how Kukuru must be crying alone right then, and decides she can’t board the plane; not now. She runs dramatically through the airport, calls Kukuru and asks where she is, and meets her out on a patio where she is, indeed crying alone.

The bottom line is, making sure Kukuru didn’t have to cry alone was far more important to Fuuka than a movie role in Tokyo. She had to be in the position where she had to choose to learn that the job wasn’t really a new dream. You could say she’s torpedoing her career simply because Kukuru’s gran got talkative about things past at the worst possible time.

Still, Fuuka simply couldn’t let the person who helped her find strength and happiness after losing everything cry by herself. After sharing some big ol’ sobby hugs like two close friends should (seriously, WTF was with that handshake earlier guys!) Kukuru decides she’ll work at Tingaara after all.

The aquarium and its fragile micro-ecosystems taught Kukuru over the years that life can be difficult, and being alive isn’t a given. It was basically a coin toss that Kukuru got to live and her sister didn’t, so she now feels doubly motivated to make those who love her proud; that includes Fuuka.

Fuuka ends up on a plane back home to Iwate as planned, but as she settles into the cozy night flight she reads the poem Gramps read during his farewell speech, about how everything eventually becomes the ocean, which is probably why whenever someone peers into “the ocean within”, they find peace. Kukuru joins in, and they finish the poem in one voice, telling each other see you tomorrow.

It’s a bold and gorgeous way to end the first half of Aquatope, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what new innovative ways the show will cause me to bawl my eyes out when the second half comes around.

The aquatope on white sand – 11 – The storm

All the color and light of previous episodes is sapped from this one, both fitting Kukuru’s mood and due to a nasty typhoon rolling into Okinawa. It’s in this dim, gray, gloomy soup that we watch Kukuru go through the Five Stages of Grief. First up is Denial and Isolation. The handmade sign says it all—NO CLOSING!as Kukuru shuts herself in Gama Gama.

Ironically, this means closing the aquarium, but due to the typhoon there won’t be any visitors anyway. Gramps decides to let Kukuru be and give everyone the day off. Fuuka goes home with him, but during lunch, decides she’s not going to leave Kukuru to endure the coming storm alone—either the literal one or the emotional one. Just as she gets up to leave, Grams has bento ready for Fuuka to take to Kukuru.

From there, Kukuru goes into the Anger stage, though to her credit she puts the energy that comes with the anger to good use, going about the daily business of feeding, maintaining, and checklisting. She enters a kind of utilitarian trance, losing herself in the work, until suddenly snapped out of it by Fuuka rapping on the door.

Not long after Fuuka arrives at Gama Gama, the typhoon arrives in force, totally blocking out the sun, and bringing sheets of diagonal rain and vicious winds to the battened-down island. These establishing shots—and the white noise of the storm—really capture how dark and spooky a really bad storm gets. Day becomes night, and the outdoors themselves become a threat to life and limb.

Kukuru’s anger re-surfaces at the arrival of Fuuka, as she’d prefer to do all of this herself. But Fuuka is as obstinate as she is, and wants to stay by Kukuru’s side to help her with her dream like she promised. Her movie role doesn’t matter right now. Before they can get deeper into their discussion, the power goes out, leaving the aquarium with only seven hours of generator power before the more sensitive sea life starts to die en masse.

Just as Kukuru can’t turn Fuuka away when the storm is at its worst, she can’t turn down her help when there’s so much to do to save the fish and creatures they can. With two pairs of hands, they can do double the work. When the wind breaks a window, Kukuru’s Bargaining stage officially begins. If she can just bar the window, just Do What’s Right, everything will work out, as her daily prayer to Kijimunaa goes.

But it’s not enough. She can’t hold back the storm from causing the power to go out, the roof to leak, the windows and pipes to break, and the sea life to gradually die in the suddenly unfavorable water conditions. Her only memory of her mom and dad was here at Gama Gama, but now, just as they were taken from her, so too is the aquarium, in slow and deliberate fashion, piece by piece.

When Fuuka sees Kukuru giving up on bargaining and entering the Depression stage, she runs over and holds her tight, telling her that even if it’s the end of Gama Gama, and of her dream, it’s not the end of the future. And if they get back to work, there’s still a future for the marine life. Only they can protect them and save them from oblivion.

Kukuru snaps out of it just as Gramps, Kai, Kuuya, and Umi-yan arrive onces the winds die down. Gramps goes into Legendary Aquarium Keeper Mode (if only whatsername was here to see it!), as he knows exactly what to do in what is clearly not his first (or fiftieth!) typhoon. Now six strong, there’s enough manpower to do what needs to be done to buy time until the power comes back on. As far as we know, they don’t lose a single fish.

That said, Gama Gama took a beating, and really showed its age. Gramps promised the man who build the aquarium that he’d close it if it ever got too old, and that time has surely arrived. Having gone through the emotional and meteorological wringer, even Kukuru realizes that it’s probably beyond token repairs or improvements, and can’t keep the precious marine life safe anymore. It’s time has simply come, as it does for all things. Thus she arrives at the final stage: acceptance.

There are few skies more beautiful than those you see after a bad storm. For one thing, you’re relieved the sun is back, while the swirling remnants of clouds and other various optical effects  give the sky a more dramatic look. The color and light slowly returns by the end of the episode. In this light, Fuuka comes to realize she wasn’t just helping Kukuru achieve her dream. By letting Fuuka help her, Kukuru was giving Fuuka strength.

Fuuka doesn’t hate working hard for someone else…especially Kukuru. So when Kukuru turns to Gama Gama’s façade, again admits it is closing, and then bursts into tears, Fuuka is all too happy to be her shoulder to cry on. What comes after acceptance? Catharsis, adaptation, struggle…and maybe—Kijimunaa willing—new dreams, and happiness.

RABUJOI WORLD HERITAGE LIST

The aquatope on white sand – 10 – You can’t go home

Only a damn week left in August. A week of Summer Break. Until reopens, the aquarium closes, and Fuuka goes back to Iwate, among other things. After staring at the downtown monstrosity that reminded me of the Olympic Stadium in AKIRA, Kukuru is staring at that damn calendar with only seven days left.

Kai, whose first memory of Kukuru is watching her back tremble as she wept in her front yard, sees that back again. It’s not trembling, but he knows it’s troubled. But he can’t, because he’s just a little too slow and Kukuru is so distracted by her problems she doesn’t even notice Kai is there, and certainly doesn’t see him as a potential source of healing.

Kukuru isn’t really seeing Fuuka either. Fuuka did commit to supporting Kukuru’s dream when her own dream ended, but thanks to the call from Ruka, that dream is suddenly alive again if she wants it: a goddamn starring movie role. Of course she can’t share this news with Kukuru, who has no time or headspace for anything but her beloved Gama Gama. Seeing how Kukuru flails near the finish line really accentuates just how grown up and mature Chiyu was by comparison last week.

Chiyu can see her future and she’s lunging forward and grasping at it with everything she has. Kukuru is trying to keep her past her present and future. She’s so desperate, she resorts to asking Udon-chan’s mom to see if there’s a way to exploit the inscrutable magical realism moments she, Fuuka, and others have experienced. She thinks if she can put it out there on social media that Gama Gama is a “place of miracles” and a “healing power spot”, she can save it.

But just look at everyone’s faces. Kukuru’s desperation is clear to see. Udon-chan is the only one humoring her with a half-hearted, almost patronizing smile. Fuuka is quietly neutral. Karin is like this girl is going off the deep end.

During what was without doubt the most depressing watermelon-eating scene I’ve ever seen committed to the screen, Fuuka can’t hold in what’s bothering her anymore, even if it only adds to Kukuru’s problems. When Fuuka doesn’t enthusiastically say she’ll turning the movie role down, Kukuru cant stomach any more watermelon, or Fuuka’s presence.

In a way, it’s not fair. Fuuka has pretty much had to couch all of her issues while August has worn on and Kukuru’s various ideas to save Gama Gama have come and gone with the same middling success. But Fuuka isn’t sure what she’s doing anymore, which means she’s not committed to helping Kukuru salvage her dream. There’s no point in lying, and I’m glad Fuuka doesn’t, nor does Kukuru hide her disappointment.

Kai, who it’s clear has been working himself way too hard just so Kukuru has an extra strong back at the aquarium, finally gets a chance to spend some time alone with Kukuru, but it’s strictly business: she needs him to be her guinea pig to see if the “illusions” will occur for him. Kukuru’s obsession with saving Gama Gama is flattening all of her relationships. She only noticed Kai when she needed him.

Why she thinks sitting three feet away and leaning towards him with a notebook will put him in the right state to see said illusions…but like I said, Kukuru is desperate…almost as desperate as Kai is to help and console and comfort her. But once again, he’s a little to slow to call her name and reach out, as she buzzes off on her motorbike after their failed illusion session. He keeps getting so close! 

Back home, Kukuru’s Gramps gives her a talking-to about how it was wrong to try to lure supernatural otaku to the aquarium with promises of miracles and illusions. In effect, this week is when Kukuru’s illusory world finally comes into focus. Everyone but her isn’t saying Gama Gama is doomed because they’re being assholes. It’s because Gama Gama is doomed. Barring some serious Kijimunaa divine intervention, of course.

I don’t know of Kijimunaa is directly responsible for the illusions, but the reason for them is made plain (if it wasn’t already) when Kai, distraught over his inability to reach present-day Kukuru, finds himself behind the shoulder of his younger self when he first met her. Audio is added to this scene and it’s brought into context as one of countless times young Kukuru ran out of her grandparents’ house declaring through tears that she’s going home to “mommy and daddy.”

This was, predictably, the point at which I broke down in tears, and basically unconditionally forgave Kukuru for all of her transgressions both this week and in previous episodes. Kukuru lost her parents at a tender age, but not so tender that she was shielded from the weight of the loss. She was old enough to know, but wasn’t ready to accept, that they were gone. The home she knew and loved was gone too.

Past Kai hesitates just like Present Kai did three times prior, but Present Kai is there to give Past Kai a push towards Kukuru. He whips out a big, gorgeous fish he just caught, and Kukuru’s tears stop almost immediately.

Kai comes out of his illusion to a Kukuru hopeful she just witnessed him experiencing what she experienced. But to both her dejection and my own, Kai softly shakes his head. It was a beautiful memory, but just a memory. It was the past, and just the illusion of it. He doesn’t want to feed her any more illusions. Instead, rather than gathering her into a big hug, he puts up his hands so she can punch them and yells “Come!”

Kukuru cries as she punches, but Kai tells her to keep punching, as hard as she can, into his palms. I’m sure if he had a big beautiful freshly caught fish, he’d give her one to cheer her up. We later see that Kukuru posted a retraction on social media, so even that last-ditch plan ended in failure.

If I were her, I’d also be grateful for a friend willing to absorb my punches, my failures, my despair—all of it, for my sake. And when my fists (and their palms) were sufficiently red and stinging, I’d feel better, and maybe even be ready to take a step forward.

RABUJOI WORLD HERITAGE LIST

 

%d bloggers like this: