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

 

The aquatope on white sand – 09 – Compassion for the unfamiliar

Two very common ways anime deal with an interlopers is by either turning them into friends or putting them in their place. Aquatope does neither, opting for a far more nuanced, multifaceted, and ultimately more satisfying and enriching experience. In the complexity of emotions it expresses (and elicits), Aquatope is as diverse and colorful as its sea life.

Haebaru Chiyu is the interloper, and immediately an interesting choice was made to have Ishikawa Yui voice her. Ishikawa has one of the most charming and likable voices around, even as she voiced Mikasa Ackerman, one of the toughest motherfuckers in all animedom. I automatically like everyone she voices, even if they’re not easy to like otherwise.

Despite the only reason Chiyu agreed to go to Gama Gama for training was because of the “Legendary Aquarium Keeper”, Gramps pairs her up with Kukuru. Kukuru doesn’t know Chiyu, but hates everything she represents, and cannot mask her disdain and hostility.

It quickly becomes clear that beneath her polite façade Chiyu masks a similar contempt, but for an aquarium she believes (not without good reason!) to be a failure. The place is mostly empty and the equipment is falling apart. Not only is it a depressing place with which she has no emotional ties, it is to her the antithesis of a properly run aquarium.

Gramps and Fuuka are in the middle of the ensuing rivalry of passive aggression and pointed barbs; Gramps tells Kukuru it doesn’t matter what building an aquarium occupies; what matters is that people get to enjoy and come to love the creatures of the sea. Gran backs him up by telling Kukuru it would do her well to occasionally think outside her proverbial seashell.

To her credit, Kukuru does take a look at why exactly she’s trying so hard to save Gama Gama, and if she’s just selfishly clinging to her memories rather than facing reality and coming to terms with it. Fuuka tells Kukuru that she’s chasing her dream, and she’ll keep supporting her.

In response to this loving gesture, Kukuru brings up the possibility of having a sibling to someone for the first time. As the omniscient audience we’ve seen her look at those two maternity books, but now we know why: they’re in her parents’ shrine, but she’s never had the courage to ask Gran why there’s a second one.

Before going to sleep while holding hands, Kukuru promises she’ll be more civil to Chiyu tomorrow, but Chiyu has already had her fill of a teenaged assistant director, and basically demands that Gramps train her from now on. Gramps does his rounds, and Chiyu is suitably unimpressed with the “Legendary Aquarium Keeper.”

And why is that? Because with her outsider’s perspective she can’t quite see what he’s doing, and what he’s done, with Gama Gama. To him, an aquarium is more than just the building, but also more than just the fish. He knows and greets everyone, asks them how they’re doing. It’s a vibrant community of people young and old.

One could castigate Chiyu for so thoroughly missing the forest for the trees, but as we learn in her private moments, she has a dream too, and she’s not going to let what she regards to be a half-assed failing aquarium to hurt her chances at gainful employment.

That night in her Western-style hotel room—another sign she’s not interested in straying too far from her established world—she demands that her boss assign her somewhere else, and he agrees. She can’t afford to waste time…not when she’s come so far on her own.

Honestly, as much as she clashes with Kukuru and simply doesn’t “get” the appeal and value of Gama Gama, I can’t fault Chiyu for feeling or acting as she does. When Kukuru asks her what deficiencies she found there, Chiyu doesn’t hold back, and also makes the very good point that at the end of the day, Kukuru isn’t doing this for a living.

She may be slacking in her studies, but Kukuru is still young enough to do anything with her life. That’s less true for Chiyu, and because she desperately wants to work at an aquarium, she has to work that much harder in a country of 126 million with only about 100 aquariums.

Kukuru needs to use an unwitting Kai as a stress-relieving punching bag (a wonderful moment between the two old friends) not only because Chiyu pisses her off royally, but because Chiyu is right about a lot of what she said. For someone who earlier questioned her motives about saving Gama Gama, Chiyu adds salt to that wound.

The previous day, Fuuka overheard Chiyu remarking how no one at Gama Gama is actually looking at the fish. But as Fuuka learns, Chiyu was wrong: theyu have looked at the fish, over and over, with their cheap annual passes they’ve memorized most of them. They’re past that “tourist” phase of aquarium visitor. Now, Gama Gama is their living room, their lounge, their game room, their parlor….their home away from home.

Oh, and one of the kids mentioned he once say his dead dog, which means there’s something even more inscrutable and intangible about Gama Gama at which Ciyu turned her nose up. Between that kid’s comment and the brief look at Fijimunaa, the show wants to make it clear it hasn’t forgotten its magical realism elements.

Lest we forget Fuuka has her own baggage, she finally picks up when her old group-mate Ruka calls her. She eventually had to face her mom, and so it only made sense she’d have to face her very different past life as well. Unfortunately we don’t get to learn what exactly Ruka has to say to Fuuka, but it’s a great hook for next week.

Fuuka only gets this chance in part because Kukuru doesn’t go home with her, instead riding out to the big city to see the great nemesis itself. And just as her nighttime ride reminded me of Akira, seeing her behold and be dwarfed by the towering behemoth, still under construction and looking like a great sleeping beast.

This episode defly introduced a new character who was both likable in her own right while also providing a welcome thorn in the whole Gama Gama kubaya environment. Not everyone needs to be friends, and sometimes that makes for great, sometimes downright thrilling  anime, as it did here.

It also marked what looks like the beginning of some significant growth and soul-searching for Kukuru. She’s faced the beast…but what does she make of it, and what will she do next?

Kageki Shoujo!! – 07 – The Curse of “Never”

Summer Break is upon Kouka’s hundredth class, but Ai’s version of giddiness over getting to spend it at Sarasa’s is somewhat tempered by how the semester ended: with Sarasa taking a major hit from Andou-sensei. As I suspected, perfect replication of other actors isn’t going to cut it if you’re going to be a Top Star in the Kouka Revue. This doesn’t mesh with what Sarasa learned about kabuki growing up, where succeeding generations of actors do their best to embody their predecessors as closely as possible.

But that’s Kabuki; and this is Kouka. Sarasa and Ai also get a little education on Andou-sensei and why he’s nicknamed “Phantom”, courtesy of the two top Kouka stars who happened to be seated in the row ahead of them! Apparently Andou was an esteemed actor with a musical troupe, most famous for his Phantom of the Opera, but due to a stage accident he had to retire, and decided to teach instead.

I’m glad he did, because as I said, as painful as it was to see Sarasa’s reaction and ensuing gloom, she was straying from the path to Lady Oscar, and needed a course correction. Fortunately, there’s plenty of family and friends waiting for Sarasa to take her mind off being “Sara-sad”, if only temporarily.

Ai insists on sitting formally for the duration of the gathering downstairs, even though she’s mostly ignored and suffering the agony needlessly (gramps told her to sit however she likes). Then Sarasa then goes to see her grandma at her grave, suggesting Ai can hang with the cat while she’s gone.

Of course, we know even when Sarasa and Ai don’t that it’s not just the cat waiting in her room, but Akiya. Ai, who is not good with people, comes off as curt with Akiya, who misinterprets it as intentional rudeness, but when Ai profusely apologizes and hides behind a wall, Akiya’s stance softens.

When asked about his “girlfriend” Sarasa, all he’ll tell Ai is that they were childhood friends since forever, and they took traditional dance classes together. Fortunately, we get to learn a lot more about both Sarasa and Akiya’s past, and Sarasa comes out even more amazing for having enduring what she had to endure.

Basically, the famous kabuki actor Kouzaburou was always very close to Sarasa, so much so that rumors floated around of her being his illegitimate daughter. Illegitimate or not, had she been a boy, she would have been the heir apparent to the venerable Shirakawa Kaou name…which Akiya is expected to assume instead. He’s far more loosely related, but he’s a boy.

It didn’t help matters for Akiya that while he liked Sarasa a lot for her strength and cheerfulness, she also happened to be a better natural talent than him when it came to Kabuki. Unfortunately, Sarasa was never sat down and told that grown women aren’t allowed to perform Kabuki.

That said, when another actor is ill, Sarasa is chosen to fill in during a performance of Sukeroku, since she memorized all the lines and movements (even back then, she was amazing). Young girls are allowed to perform, so there was no problem.

But while performing beside her, Akiya could tell how goddamn good Sarasa was, and how goddamn unfair it was that Sarasa’s Kabuki career would reach a harsh dead end due to tradition. After the performance, he first hears the rumor that Sarasa is related to Kouzaburou, which he shares with his mom/grandma/aunt/guardian (I forget her exact relation to him).

Tossing that pebble in the pond causes all kinds of drama, including his mom* chewing out poor Sarasa at the front door, telling her for the first time she’ll “never” be able to be something—in this case, Sukeroku. As soon as Sarasa runs off crying she’s immediately ashamed and regretful, but the damage is done.

Sarasa’s gramps comes to Kouzaburou’s house and chews him out for traumatizing Sarasa, and declares that she’ll have nothing to do with him or Kabuki ever again. That said, gramps softens considerably upon seeing a scared Akiya in the hall, and asks him if he’ll continue being Sarasa’s friend. He’s only cutting her off from Kabuki, he says.

Shortly after Sarasa stopped coming to dance classes, her grandma died, and Akiya and Kaou pay their respects from a distance. When Akiya sees Sarasa’s raw eyes, he starts to cry too…and Kaou tells him to hold on to the pain…it will make him a better actor.

Fast-forward to the present, and Akiya and Sarasa remain friends despite having been kinda-sorta rivals in the past. The rivalry never happened because the institution of Kabuki never let it. I’d say it’s for the best, since I have every confidence Sarasa will be okay in Kouka, but if ever there was going to be a first woman kabuki actor, it would be her!

After giving Sarasa her present of another bizarre figurine she’s super excited about (which is also see-through, for reasons), he also invites both Sarasa and Ai to a performance of Sukeroku he’ll be in. He already got clearance from her gramps.

That night, Ai learns about Sarasa’s performance in Sukeroku when she was only six. The two girls are transported into space as Sarasa beautifully, poetically describes what it was like being on that stage, feeling the audience like heat on her skin, feeling like the stage was a different world; feeling she had transformed into someone else.

It was clearly one of the most amazing moments of her life, making it doubly tragic that she was later deprived of pursuing a future there despite how much she loved it and how good she was. Even so, hearing Sarasa’s words makes Ai want to go see Sukeroku with Sarasa all the more, if only to catch a glimpse of the stage Sarasa once stood upon.

During the performance, Ai notices Sarasa crying, and isn’t sure whether it’s due to fond memories or “something else entirely.” Uh, why not both? From there, the episode abruptly cuts to the train platform where Sarasa and Ai are heading home. Akiya gives Sarasa some words of support and assurance from his heart.

He reminds her they’ve only just started down their paths; it’s okay to lose sight of what they want sometimes; and all they can do is keep moving forward. Sarasa still wants to play Lady Oscar, and she’s going to make it happen—”nevers” be damned!

She also wants Akiya to play Sukeroku. After a firm handshake (throwing Ai off a bit, as she assumed they’d at least hug), the two part ways, both feeling better than before they’d seen each other. They may not be a lovey-dovey couple, but they’re a couple where it matters.

The aquatope on white sand – 05 – We only have august

Fuuka’s mom arrives, but she’s not a bitch, nor a force of nature. If anything, she’s apologetic towards Kukuru’s gramps for making him board a stranger for so long, and ashamed by how long she didn’t know where her child was. Despite her stern look that served as last week’s cliffhanger, she is someone whose position you can totally understand and respect. there’s no “bad guy” here.

That being said, Fuuka’s mom’s initial position is quite clear-cut: Fuuka is to come home to Iwate with her at once. Fuuka isn’t ready, so Kukuru and Kai aid her escape. Her mom could turn the corner at any moment, so they have to act fast—so fast, there’s no time for a proper goodbye between two friends who have only just begun to know each other.

Fuuka replicates the long, hot, sweaty walk she made upon first arriving there, making her wonder if she’s ended up right where she started. The major difference is, a friendly stranger in Karin saved her the first time; this time, she seeks refuge at Udon-chan’s family diner. Udon serves her up a quick and tasty lunch, along with this excellent nugget. When you’re busy, you don’t have time to think about things that don’t matter

Also, Udon’s mom is the fortune teller who told Fuuka she’d make a fated encounter. But that can be said not just of Kukuru, but the Gama Gama Aquarium, as well as the first creature she connected with: the shy little coral blinny. Udon’s mom offers to drive Fuuka to a free room in Haha, but when she remembers the blinny wasn’t looking so swell last time she saw it, she suddenly asks Udon’s mom to turn around and head back.

Unfortunately, Fuuka is too late, and Kukuru admits that when you’re dealing with living things every day, eventually you’re going to have to deal with death. As soon as she first remembered the little guy while in the car, I was just as emotionally invested in the poor doomed blinny as Fuuka was, resulting in this episode’s Goddamn Tearjerker status.

Fuuka’s mom happens to come into the back room just as her daughter is cleaning out the blinny’s tank, looking both pained and diligent. Kukuru steps up to the plate to tell Fuuka’s mom how much Fuuka means to her and the aquarium, but Fuuka stops her, and tells her mother directly that she wants to stay. Having been charmed by this place and its warm and generous people and seeing that Fuuka is serious, her mom agrees…but only until the school year starts in September.

Fuuka’s mom spends the night, lamenting at dinner to Kukuru’s grandparents how between Fuuka going off to be an idol and now, she’s barely been able to be a mother. Udon’s mom says letting a child go when they’re old enough is part of a parent’s job, while Kukuru’s grandparents assure her that everything will work out…even as the shrine of their daughter, Kukuru’s mother, sits in the corner.

Fuuka and her mom end up having a nice mother-daughter moment later that night as they sleep in adjacent futons, with her mom admitting she looked pretty good in those red boots. So the immediate threat of Fuuka and Kukuru being separated has passed, but they only have one month to achieve Kukuru’s dream (not to mention be together). I wonder if the remaining nineteen episodes will cover only that August, or the months of separation that follow.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

The aquatope on white sand – 04 – The girl with the red boots

Aquatope continues to meld stories of personal pain and growth, hints of romance, and slice of life in a unique setting with aplomb. This week we meet another employee of the aquarium, the gentle giant Umi-yan. He’s the first to realize that Fuuka is the Fuuka formerly of Yona Pro, and soon spreads the word to Udon-chan and Karin.

After work when Kukuru stops by Udon’s, she and Karin tell Kukuru while Fuuka sits in awkward silence with Kai, who just happens to flip to a channel on TV showing Yona Pro at an event. Just seeing the girl she let usurp her causes a visceral reaction in Fuuka, and Kai, also in on the big secret, quickly changes the channel.

The next morning, three old ladies are drawn into the aquarium before opening time to bask in Fuuka’s youthful beauty. The next day is a big one; the “Touch Pool” where kids get to touch sea creatures rather than just look at them.

Kukuru decides to give Fuuka more responsibility by being an attendant to the pools. While gathering creatures for the pool, Kai asks Kukuru whether Fuuka, who entered their lives so suddenly, will leave it just as suddenly some day.

Fuuka takes to her new job like a fish to water, taking voracious notes and adding her own cute little touches to make it a more colorful and fun experience. She even upgrades to bright red boots, surprising the rest of the staff. But considering they all knew she was an idol, should they be surprised?

When the day comes, things go swimmingly…at first. The kids love Fuuka and she crammed enough knowledge of the creatures to back her charm up with helpful knowledge. But then some older kids spot her, recognize her as the fallen idol, and prepare to snap pictures. Karin steps into their shot just in time, asking that they please not take non-consensual photos of the staff.

Umi-yan takes over the pool while a visibly shaken Fuuka, who tried so hard to buck up, is taken to the back by Kukuru to calm down. Kukuru apologizes profusely for getting so caught up in making the touch pool a success that she didn’t consider how Fuuka would feel.

But Fuuka doesn’t want her to apologize. She chose to be an attendant, and was happy when Kukuru put her to work and praised her. It’s here when Fuuka realizes that she wants to do a good job because she wanted to get to know Kukuru better and get closer to her.

Kukuru, in turn, realizes she wanted to give Fuuka more work so she’d fall in love with Gama Gama even more, so she could become closer to her. Pracicing what they preach to the kids about how touching a sea creature is worth a hundred words about it, Fuuka takes Kukuru’s hand and places it on her face, and Kukuru does the same with Fuuka’s hand.

Like Karin and Udon, I was absolutely slain by this scene, as it was surpassingly adorable and heartwarming in equal measure. It’s also to date the most overt expression of the show’s shoujo-ai overtones. Kai seems to have a thing for Kukuru but they’re old old friends; it’s different. Fuuka, on the other hand, inspires passion in Kukuru, and the feeling is mutual. They make each other better while helping each other heal from their wounds.

Fuuka returns to the touch pools with heightened confidence and poise, looking the older kids head-on and welcoming them to ask her anything…provided it’s about sea creatures. They look suitably chastened…how would they like it if someone took pictures of them when they were working?

After a long, exhausting, but ultimately successful and immensely fun day, Kukuru and Fuuka ride home, and before hitting the hay exhibit a far closer and more comfortable rapport, with lots of smiles and laughs. No doubt due to the exertions of the day, they end up oversleeping, but don’t sweat it. In fact, Kukuru decides to start the day by pouncing on Fuuka.

Naturally, someone had to piss in this blissful bowl of Cheerios, but thankfully the dread I felt as they approached the aquarium that those loan sharks had committed some kind of vandalism was mistaken. Instead, Fuuka’s stern-looking mom has arrived in Okinawa…and she doesn’t look happy.

Considering we’ve got twenty more episodes to work with, would the series dare separate Fuuka and Kukuru just when they’ve gotten so close? I dearly hope not! Instead it’s my wish that, as they pray to Kijimunaa each morning, as long as they keep doing what’s right, everything will work out.


Kageki Shoujo!! – 04 – Opening of Borders

I was both fully expecting and looking forward to Sarasa either scaring Mr. Stalker away with her imposing stature or showing off her jujitsu moves if he persisted. Thankfully something completely unexpected and much better happens. Truly great art tends to challenge the viewer in some way, rather than giving them what they expect or predict.

That kind of narrative and thematic creativity really suffuses this, the best episode yet of Kageki Shoujo and the one that finally had me coming around hoping there’d continue to be less actual on-stage performance and more human drama. Like last week, there are some tough-to-watch moments, but also moments of great joy, goofiness, and redemption.

Mr. Gross Otaku, one of Sarasa’s many hilarious, unintentionally insulting nicknames for the guy, didn’t come to exact “revenge” on Ai; he came to apologize for being the one who ruined her career. He was a shut-in NEET who had lost hope until he first saw Naracchi on-screen, and it fascinated him how she was trying so hard never to smile.

In one unguarded moment, Naracchi does smile, and there’s video evidence, but that little smirk at the sight of her favorite mascot shattered Mr. Gross Otaku’s hermitic existence, inspiring him to get a job and make friends (naturally, other admirers of Naracchi). At the in-person event, he was so nervous about properly thanking her for helping save his life, he held on her her hands too long, leading to her making the remark that ended her idol career.

Taichi, who had been observing from a close distance in case Mr. Gross Otaku was a Mr. Total Perv, tells the guy that it wasn’t anything personal; in fact, it was likely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Otaku Guy once did, Ai has given up on the world, and it led her to shut off her emotions. And yet, running away and leaving Sarasa alone invokes very strong emotions indeed, to the point Ai works up the courage to go back.

Naturally, her timing is terrible, and when she sees Sarasa doing goofy dance moves with the would-be tormentor while Taichi watches, Ai’s concern immediately curdles into something resembling hatred, and she storms off once again. The only problem is, poor Sarasa doesn’t know what she did to engender such hate!

Sarasa is persistent, and Ai finally makes a deal: she’ll tell her why she’s mad if she leaves her alone from now on. But when she does, Sarasa still doesn’t get it: if she came back out of worry for her, she should’ve been happy she was alright! As usual, Sarasa is right, but too blunt, and Ai retreats behind her curtain. Both girls seem incredibly unsatisfied where things end.

Sarasa, understandably getting a little fed up with being treated like this, declares that they’re “through”, though later confesses that might’ve been too harsh via Twitter to her friend Akiya—whose fellow Kabuki actor-in-training is tweeting more profound responses on his behalf. He tells Sarasa not to rush until they know each other, to be prepared for her feelings to be entirely one-sided, and appreciate that that’s beautiful in its own way.

The next day, Hijiri, Kouka’s Shit-Stirrer-in-Residence, confronts Sarasa with the pic she snapped of her with a guy (Mr. Gross Otaku), but Sarasa doesn’t have any time for this nonsense, as Ai is skipping classes and Taichi is worried about where she ended up. Sure enough, while staring at the sea, Ai is harassed by a couple of guys who recognized her, and one of them grabs her arm.

I have scarcely felt more fear and apprehension for a character than I did for Ai in this moment, but that was tempered by the knowledge that somehow in short order, Ai would be rescued. I just didn’t know it would happen by Sarasa calling Mr. Gross Otaku, who predicted Ai would go to the ocean to calm down (as she once stated in an interview) then run a social media search and locate her .

From there, all Mr. Gross Otaku has to do is buy a little time by haplessly trying to attack Ai’s harassers. He fails, faceplants, and gets a bloody nose, but still wins, as Taichi and Sarasa arrive and the latter screams for the police, who come running. There are no words for Sarasa’s transformation above as she voices satisfaction for scaring off the jerks.

What’s even more heartwarming about this entire scene that lets me forgive its many contrivances—as well as the entire premise of using stalking methods to save the target of stalkers—is that at this point, Sarasa is sticking to her guns when she said they were “through.” Yet even if she’s uncertain Ai will ever want to be her friend, she rescued her anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

When Sarasa explains to Ai how they found her and the role Mr. Gross Otaku —real name Kitaouji Mikiya—played, it’s Ai’s turn to do something completely unexpected: offer her handkerchief for Mikiya’s bloody nose. During the hand-off she drops the cloth on the ground, but it wasn’t intentional or meant as a slight.

As Ai says with tears welling up in her eyes, “this is the best I can do right now.” But Mikiya, being uncharacteristically cool, tells her to dry her eyes; all he and her other fans wanted was to see those rare and amazing moments when Naracchi genuinely smiled. Because that meant their idol was happy. He promises to return to see her perform on the Kouka stage.

Ai and Sarasa take the long walk back to their dorms, where they’ll face consequences for the incidents that transpired. While they walk, Ai opens up to Sarasa, asking her what she should do about something she wants to forget but can’t (though not going into detail). All Sarasa can tell her is to keep having good memories that will eventually cause the bad to fade from prominence.

Notably, Ai can’t see Sarasa’s face when she says this, but it sounds like a new invitation to make some of those memories with her, if she’ll have her. At this point, it’s safe to say the cat-and-mouse game between these two girls will continue, but they’ve definitely already made one of those memories Sarasa speaks of, and I’m looking forward to them making more.

As for poor, Yamada Ayako, who is now purging regularly and barely has the energy to sing, all I have to say is that every one of her upperclassmen and every adult on the faculty are totally failing her, and I’m terribly worried about how bad things will get until someone helps her. It shouldn’t have to fall to someone like Sarasa and/or Ai, but if it does I won’t complain. I just want Ayako to be happy and healthy!

The aquatope on white sand – 03 – First penguin

“Time not important. Only life important.”—Mondoshawan Caretaker, The Fifth Element

Before waking up for another busy day juggling school and thre directorship, Kukuru dreams of when her parents took her to the Gama Gama and she got to name her first penguin, Choko. He’s still with the aquarium fifteen years later, and was the first one in line when Fuuka’s doomed feeding session. Fortunately, she’s a lot better at feeding Choko here.

Besides being a surpassingly good boy, Choko, like the aquarium, is one of the ways Kukuru connects to her folks, who passed away not long after the aquarium visit in her dream. Fuuka learns this from Kukuru’s childhood friend Kai, who genuinely respects how hard Kukuru is working and wants to help in any way he can. Like Choko, Kai is also a good boy.

When Kukuru notices sores on Choko’s legs, she uses her authority as summer director to summon the vet Takeshita (Hanazawa Kana), who is on maternity leave and very pregnant, but also happy to stop by and examine the penguins.

But then, while at the aquarium, her water breaks. Kukuru initially panics, but when Kuuya addresses her by her position as acting director she slaps her cheeks, gets a grip, and makes Takeshita comfortable until a car (Karin’s) can arrive to take her to the maternity home.

While Kukuru and Fuuka are tending to her, Takeshita has a dream, not that dissimilar from the one Fuuka had that led her to want to get a job there. After Kukuru repeats what Takeshita once told her—that Gama Gama is a place where all life is protected, both aquatic and human—the aquarium seems to envelop the vet in its tranquil, watery bosom.

She sees the deity Kujimunaa playing with the image of her about-to-be-born son, who then swims down to hug her and tell her she’s about to meet him. It’s just such a moving, beautiful, and heart-swelling scene; one that demonstrates the true power behind what Kukuru is desperately trying to protect.

In this regard, Kukuru is like Choko: the “First Penguin” to dive into uncertain waters and have a positive effect on those around them. Those who either love the aquarium, or Kukuru, or both can’t help but want to give their all in trying to help Kukuru rescue Gama Gama.

And when Kuuya points out that the penguin keychain that catches Fuuka’s eye in the gift shop was made by Kukuru, she buys one for herself. After the two visit Takeshita and her healthy baby boy, Kukuru notices Fuuka has one of her keychains, it cheers her up after the bittersweet visit when the presence of a new mother in Takeshita reminded Kukuru that hers is gone.

Kukuru’s visit to Takeshita was also instructive, as she learned more about the “maternity handbooks” she found. They’re given to expectant mothers, meaning the ones Kukuru found were her mother’s. One bore her name, but the other was blank. I’m still not sure where this thread is going, as Kukuru confirms she’s never been pregnant, but the theme of maternity is certainly a rare and intriguing one for a slice of life anime.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 03 – Toughing it Out

Ai is aloof, standoffish and antisocial, and makes it crystal clear even to a lunkhead like Sarasa that she doesn’t want to be friends with her or anyone else, despite the fact they live and learn together. Sarasa is flummoxed by this declaration, but before they properly discuss it, Ai is whisked off by her big sister, Hijiri.

This week Kageki Shoujo! takes a long, hard, and sometimes downright distressing look back at how and why Narata Ai became the way she is. She always lied about being a perfect loving daughter to her glamorous actress mother, but the lying became harder as she grew older and more beautiful.

I can’t imagine the torment of men both young and old ogling you left and right, and What a cutie being akin to Hello for her, but that’s what Ai endured. When her mother shacked up with one of those older men, that constant public torment became private. She’d always been creeped out by Seiji, but then one day he was alone wither her and kissed her with his tongue.

After such a horrific assault, Ai no longer felt safe anywhere or with anyone…except her uncle, Taichi. And thank God for Taichi, because he was at least able to give her a measure of peace and security by installing a lock on her door and giving her a key to his place should she need to run away. But before he did that, she had already been assaulted, vomited, cut her hair, and tore apart her big teddy.

Considering her interactions with men who weren’t her uncle up to the point she became an idol, it’s not surprising that one day she’d say or do something to break the façade she’d created. Now that very scruffy dude whom she called a creep at a fan event has stalked her all the way to her school. Again, Ai is fortunate Taichi isn’t far, and she runs headlong into his arms. He’s the brother and dad, the family she never had.

Taichi will always be there for his niece, but he knows she can’t go on with no friends of any gender. Kouka is a chance for her to form new bonds with peers, and Sarasa, as bombastic and annoying as she is, really is a good person who would make a great friend. Sarasa is ready to accept Ai’s rejection, but Taichi insists she keep trying with Ai.

Sarasa does so, by escorting Ai home, which leads to the scene I was hoping for: the gigantic Sarasa spreading that massive wingspan to form an impenetrable shield for Ai against the smelly stalker.

Never mind if he’s not there to “get back” at Ai like she fears, but just wanted to return her bookbag and talk to her. The fact is he had absolutely ZERO right to meet with or speak to her after following her there.

Ai may have been rude to him at the fan event, but being rude isn’t a crime, and he doesn’t get to play the victim after committing the actual crime of stalking. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I’m glad we gained new insight into Ai’s twisted childhood and coming of age, which only makes someone like Sarasa seem more, not less, suitable to be her friend.

My only gripe is that we’ve still gotten very little actual musical theatre education in, with the exception of a brief tap class in which the teacher berated the objectively scrawny Yamada a “fattie” and all but ordered her to give up food. Fuckin’ yikes! I also wish the stalker situation had been fully resolved, instead of us being left hanging.

Even Sarasa looked a little uncomfortable confronting the guy, and no single high school girl, no matter how big or small, should have to go up against someone like that alone. I just hope that as we learned a lot about Ai, Ai also learned more about Sarasa, and how she’s someone she can lean on in times of strife.

The aquatope on white sand – 02 – Idol into water

Kukuru accepts Fuuka’s sudden offer to work, but since shes only the summer director of the aquarium, she gives Fuuka a ride to her house on her scooter (not a Super Cub, mind you!) to ask her gramps, who is director the rest of the year.

Kukuru’s gramps not only agrees to take Fuuka on at the aquarium, but will let her stay at their super cozy and comfy house. Kukuru isnt surprised by either, or by her gran accepting Fuuka’s offer to help her make Okinawan doughnuts. These are just really kind, laid back people.

The next morning starts out a little rough when Kukuru notices Fuuka’s painted nails for the first time, and perhaps too harshly demands that she remove it for the sake of the plants and animals there. Then our fish-out-of-water idol ends up in the water when she’s assigned the task of feeding some hungry penguins and makes a total cock-up of it.

While initially played for laughs (the little kids watching were certainly entertained), in the back room Kukuru chews Fuuka out for not considering the safety of the people and animals at all times. She tells Fuuka in no uncertain terms that if any creature is harmed as a result of Fuuka’s lack of care, she’ll never forgive her.

Karin, the tour guide who brought Fuuka to the aquarium in the first place, asks that she cut her friend Kukuru a little slack. The previous night, we saw Kukuru presenting a list of new equipment to Karin and their mutual friend Tsukimi (or “Udon-chan” since her fam runs a noodle diner and tsukimiudon is a thing) totalling over three million yen.

The bottom line is that Kukuru’s gramps intends to shut the long-struggling aquarium down to complete his retirement. But Kukuru is determined to stake her entire summer on breathing life into the flat-lining business. She knows that if such a special place were to close down, it would probably never come back.

When two unsavory loan sharks (heh heh) roll in and try to swindle Kukuru into debt she cant repay (or worse) and carelessly knock over the cute wooden sign welcoming guests with letters made from shells, Fuuka, having heard Kukuru’s struggle, finally shows some fire, chewing out the sharks and spraying them with the hose. As her employer, Kukuru is appalled; but as a person, seeing Fuuka go to the plate cheered her up big-time.

Karin arranges a impromptu welcoming party for Fuuka that night, with Udon-chan serving both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and the two boys in the show, Kuuya and Kai, also making an appearance. While Kuuya isn’t so good around girls, Kai seems to have a think for Kukuru, and the feeling isn’t necessarily not mutual. When he hears Kukuru could use another strong back, he’s not about to hide in the corner.

These scenes of people just kicking back and relaxing after a stressful day and welcoming their new gorgeous, mysterious friend, are just so lovely to behold. They emanate comfort warmth in smooth waves, like the gentle breakers on the beach. Ditto when Kukuru and Fuuka walk home in the serene darkness. You can really feel the quietude of the sleepy countryside they inhabit.

After hearing from Karin about Kukuru’s predicament with the aquarium, a fire was lit under Fuuka, resulting in her going off on those goofy loan sharks. Hearing Kukuru’s story also inspires her to open up to Kukuru about how she ended up there, living and working with her. If Kukuru’s dream is to protect her “home”—the aquarium—then Fuuka’s dream was to become a successful and beloved idol, making people happy with her singing…like Diva!

But then, quite suddenly, without warning, and without any fanfare or rancor…her dream simply ended. She heard a younger member wanted to be center for her ailing gran’s sake. She was a true idol, honorable and kind, but it was career suicide, and she was eventually cashiered out of the industry altogether.

But even if her dream ended, she still has what it takes to help support someone else’s dream; in this case Kukuru’s. At first she would have been fine ending up anywhere but back home where she’d have to face something worse than the scorn of her family and friends for her failure—but their love and understanding. Fuuka may be ready for that some day, but for now she’s fine being in a new place with new people.

And she definitely considers Kukuru a kindred spirit. The two even sigh at the same time, and the episode ends with them staring longingly into their big shimmering eyes. While their friendship has been steadily building up since the low of the penguin incident and the high of the shark-soaking, it is well and truly made official on that beach.

Fuuka is committed to helping Kukuru keep her dream alive, and her arrival has put a fresh, optimistic wind in Kukuru’s sails. I’m sure there will be more bumps (icebergs) down the road (sea?)—after all, this is a twenty-four episode series—but I’m looking forward to it more than anything else this summer.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 02 – Sink or Swim

The morning before their first day of actual classes, Ai deigns to attempt to wake Sarasa up…in the gentlest and most ineffectual way possible. But their class rep Sawa personally wakes Sarasa the hell up, because the people they’re facing this morning are far more fearsome than the JSDF: their second-year advisors, AKA “Big Sisters”.

The students of the centennial class have already demonstrated their capacity for ill-natured backbiting, but it’s the same way in the classes above them. We learn that Risa and Hijiri, Sarasa and Ai’s Big Sisters, are bitter rivals who usually hide their contempt for each other behind smiles and niceties.

When Risa flat-out tells Sarasa she’ll never be Lady Oscar, she makes the poor tall girl sob into the floorboards. When she asks why not through the tears, Risa mentions the curse of the tree, and in doing so gives Sarasa all the ammo she needs. If everyone believes the tree is cursed, she’ll just have to prove the curse is fake!

While Risa admires Sarasa’s innocence and drive (as does Sarasa’s childhood friend and kabuki actor-in-training, Akiya), Hijiri reports that “Naracchi” has “zero motivation” for Kouka. But just as Hijiri’s barbs about Risa only being suited for villainess roles have led her to strive towards greatness, she tells Hijiri they can’t know what future winds may lift Ai’s sails.

I can take a stab at the identity of that wind: she’s somewhere around 5’10” with green-tipped twin tails! But it won’t just be Sarasa’s bottomless confidence and enthusiasm gradually wearing down Ai’s apathy: she also isn’t just gong to sit back and take abuse, passive-aggressive or otherwise, from her classmates.

During class introductions (which are wonderful shorthand for the various girls’ personalities) Ai at first gives a curt description of herself, but Kaoru, the big shot legacy musume-yaku-in-waiting says everyone knows “that’s not all”. So Ai stands back up and says she’s there because she was forced to quit JPX48. It’s an important step for Ai standing up for herself against damn fools.

During a tour of backstage, Sarasa sees a dramaticaly-lit door and goes through it, leading to the main stage of the Kouka Revue. Andou-sensei warns her to get off the stage and under no circumstances walk out onto the “Silver Bridge”, the part of the stage where only Kouka’s top stars are permitted to stand.

Sarasa doesn’t break that taboo, but she also takes her sweet time leaving that stage! That’s because as soon as she stands on it, it’s clear she feels she’s where she’s supposed to be. As if by divine providence, a spotlight is cast upon her. Ai can feel that belonging too, dazzled as she is by Sarasa’s stage presence.

Incremental progress is made on several fronts. We’ve got a huge cast of young women, some sympathetic, some clearly villains, and some who are just kind of there. But as long as the spotlight stays on Sarasa and Ai most of the time, I’ll be a happy camper. As Ai’s stalker arrives in Kobe, we’ll likely learn next week how close he ends up getting to Ai, how she deals with that, and where Sarasa (or other classmates) might factor into the forthcoming confrontation.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

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.