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!

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