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?

The aquatope on white sand – 08 – Attack of the xanthid crab

Thanks to tireless work on the phones from Karin, Gama Gama finally gets to go on the road. Specifically, they’re bringing a little bit of the aquarium to Nanjo General Clinic’s pediatric ward. The ward’s kabourophobic director, Dr. Kinjou, has only one non-negotiable condition: no crabs.

So as chance should have it, one of the Gama Gama’s Xanthid crabs stows away in one of the traveling aquarium’s tank, and is discovered by Fuuka, who is left alone to set things up the common room when Kukuru, Karin, and Umi-yam are busy with other matters. Predictably, one of Fuuka’s fingers gets snapped and the crab is free to roam the hospital.

Meanwhile, Kukuru presents Dr. Kinjou with some stuffed sea life for the kids and goes off on a tangent about eels, and the doctor ends up making a comment about how nice it is they’re keeping busy before Gama Gama closes.

Karin later tells Kukuru that due to her job with the Tourism Association, she hears things, like that the new aquarium being built at the civic center will sap Gama Gama of what little tourist traffic it enjoys, spelling its doom. Kukuru doesn’t want to hear it, a skulks away to the roof.

She’s eventually joined by Umi-yan, who primarily came to the clinic to visit his young friend Airi, who was a regular visitor to Gama Gama before her hospitalization. Airi gives Umi-yan and sea life the cold shoulder.

She’s drawn back into the world beneath the waves when the xanthid crab climbs Dr. Kinjou and threatens to snap at her neck! Airi, the only one close enough to help the paralyzed-with-fear Kinjou, reaches out and carefully grabs the crab, marveling at how it’s alive.

Newly charmed by the sea, Airi joins the other kids in the common room, and the crab is safely stowed in a bucket for the return trip. Airi finally gets to interact with the theraputic doctorfish Umi-yan promised, and a huge smile returns to her face. Like the other kids, the aquarium is a welcome distraction from their health issues.

Dr. Kinjou initially seems ready to lodge formal complaints left and right, but lets the crab incident slide out of appreciation for the sparkly eyes and smiles the traveling aquarium gave the kids.

On the elevator ride down to the exit, Karin confesses that it was once her dream to be an aquarium attendant like Kukuru, but had to choose more stable employment due to her family situation.

When she watches Kukuru rush headlong towards her dream, Karin can’t help but feel a little envious. This makes me wonder if there’s a potential future where Karin makes her dream come true at a revitalized Gama Gama. But with news of a shiny new rival aquarium and a new face who has come to train at Gama Gama for that aquarium, Kukuru faces a very uphill climb.

It’s here where I must admit I found this to be the weakest episode of Aquatope yet, even though I still enjoyed it. Some of its strongest moments felt like variations on very similar, stronger moments from past episodes. It wavered between a Karin-centric episode, keeping the pressure on Kukuru, and Umi-yan being the nicest big guy in the world.

Most importantly, it had precious little Kukuru-Fuuka interaction. Whether you see their relationship as sisterly or romantic, it’s the beating heart of this show, and without it the episode felt underweight and hollow—like a crab you caught that’s too small to eat.

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.