Sometimes a movie can just be about an experience without being about a story. Angel's Egg is as inscrutable as it gets, but the sheer power of its imagery tells its own tale. Children Of The Sea wants to be like that — less a story than a state of mind, a vision of things — and it marshals imagery so gorgeous and meticulous it almost works on that score alone. Almost. The problem is it still relies on a story of some kind to make its points, and that story's delivery is too rudderless and unfocused to function as needed. An hour into the film I was still asking myself, where is all this going? You've heard of something being all tell and no show; this one is all show and no tell.
The waterboys, and their girl
The story deals with Ruka, a teenaged girl living in a seaside town with one of those aquariums where the dolphins perform for paying audiences. She's lonely and alienated, as she lives with her alcoholic mother at home while her father works at the aquarium and seems too polite and staid to force any kind of reconciliation.
One day she meets Umi (whose name literally means "Sea"), a boy who has become the subject of great scientific curiosity, as he was raised at sea by the creatures there — an oceanic wild child, as it were. Umi has a brother of sorts, Sora ("Sky"), another aquatic child whose melancholic temperament is a polar opposite to Umi's cheer and bounce. Both of them can't survive long outside of the water, and the implication is that someday, back to the water for keeps they will go. The two seem to have powers related to the ocean, and to a meteorite that makes earthfall, and ... something.
There is more to the story, and I know it, but the way the story is told is so vague and elliptical that it's nearly impossible to describe it coherently from front to back. Things happen, and people comment on the goings-on in pseudo-profound ways, and we see vibrant, lush imagery — most of it featuring marine life in some kind of massive migration — and that's about it. Whatever story development happens takes place in spite of what we see, not because of it.
One big culprit is the story construction, which makes Ruka into a passive recipient of the story, playing bewildered witness instead of participating and exercising agency. But the other problem, of which Ruka's passivity feels like a symptom, is an overall lack of focus. Too much of what goes on, and for far too long, is about insinuations and hints and whispers and distant thunder. There's no sense of what anyone in this story really needs or wants except by implication, and implication isn't enough. It's not enticing, it's maddening.
Is the movie worth watching at all? Absolutely, for the astounding animation work by Studio 4°C, which integrates hand-drawn and CGI animation. There's a stupefying shot early in the film where Ruka runs from her house, handled as a reverse tracking shot, and another amazing moment when she swims and we can clearly see how every bubble in every swirl of water created by her hands was drawn manually. I wish more Western animation studios would use this approach; it humanizes the material immensely to see something that looks like the product of actual human beings.
A movie like this tends to break down into a succession of pretty moments. Some of them are quite nice, like the above-mentioned reverse tracking shot. And I liked a scene where the three of them play underwater with dugongs and starfish. But the moments don't add up to a story. Whatever story there is always seems to be happening somewhere else in this film. Instead of a story, there's a lot of handwaving and mystical mumble-jumble. Ever notice how stories that have people say things like "We are all one" with a straight face never actually explore the idea? If all is one, does that mean I can use your credit card?
Kurt Vonnegut once said something to the effect that a character in a story should always clearly want something, even if it's a glass of water. It's frustrating to sit through scene after scene of this movie and feel no closer to understanding what everyone wants, or why they want it, or — most importantly — what it would mean if they got it. This is not the same as a story that clearly establishes its open-endedness from the beginning (again, e.g., Angel's Egg); this is just bad planning. One bad result of that is when things actually do start happening, in a rush of psychedelic imagery, they're not grounded in any logic we can recognize as part of the story. They just feel arbitrary, and therefore meaningless.
I have not read the Daisuke Igarashi manga Children was based on, and that was partly because someone who worked in the U.S. manga publishing industry once mentioned to me they had the opportunity to license it but chose not to because it they didn't think it was any good. Assuming the movie tracks closely to its source material, I think I now see what he meant. The overall aimlessness of the story seems like a conceptual issue, something you couldn't fix save by starting from zero. Whatever ideas are touched on, they're not developed in a coherent way or connected back to anything that goes on except cosmetically. That a story has a timely topic as an ingredient, like an ecological message, does not automatically make it interesting.
One feels bad being unenthusiastic about this project. It's a delight to look at, especially the blazing imagery of the last third or so. It's also clearly a labor of love, conceptually far more ambitious than most anime projects. (How many shows this season alone are about somebody reborn in a fantasy world?) But it has too little narrative momentum for too long, and by the time it finally bothers to pull itself together into a story with direction and drive, it's too late. This isn't a story, it's just a storyboard.