A review of The Aquatope on White Sand

I didn’t want my only non-scheduled post this month to be just me complaining for 2,000 words, so here’s a proper one, the kind my site is supposedly meant for: a review. Or more like a review/analysis, since this is one of those series that it’s hard to talk about without getting into details. And there’s a lot to get into this time, which you can tell already by the length of the scroll bar on this post.

The Aquatope on White Sand (Japanese title Shiroi Suna no Aquatope) is a 24-episode anime series that aired over the summer and fall 2021 seasons. As the second series by P.A. Works that I’ve seen, it had a lot to live up to — the first was Shirobako, which is damn near the top of my list of best anime (whatever that list is, since I’ve never actually made one, but it’s near the top of the hypothetical list anyway.) P.A. Works seems generally pretty well regarded, and many other viewers had similarly high expectations going in.

Our story begins with Fuuka Miyazawa, a young idol/pop star working for an agency in Tokyo. Fuuka has just gotten pushed out of her position by management (somehow; I don’t really get how this idol stuff works but it sounds like she had a lead spot in a concert and gave it up or something like that.) She’s more or less quitting, or retiring, or graduating or something. In any case she’s not happy about the situation, and the thought of returning from Tokyo back home to her family after this failure is unbearable to her. So instead of going home, she impulsively flies to Okinawa without telling anyone.

Since Fuuka wasn’t originally planning to go to Okinawa and doesn’t know anyone there, she’s at a loss for what to actually do when she arrives. After wandering around with her rolling luggage, passing out on the beach, and nearly suffering from heat stroke, she’s picked up by local tourism department worker Karin Kudaka, who gives her some much-needed water and information about where to stay on the island. Karin just happens to be driving to a local aquarium in the course of her work, so Fuuka decides to take the chance to check it out.

And while exploring the sea life, Fuuka is suddenly thrown into a hallucination/vision of herself in the ocean with fish, dolphins, and whales swimming around her. This vision looks frightening at first but soon becomes calming to Fuuka, who seems entranced by it.

Immediately after her vision ends, she meets the other lead of the show. Kukuru Misakino is still a high schooler, but she’s taken on the enormous job of acting director of Gama Gama Aquarium in place of her grandfather. After a brief conversation with Kukuru, Fuuka makes another impulsive decision: she asks Kukuru to let her work and stay at the aquarium.

Maybe that’s what they meant in The Godfather when they said that guy sleeps with the fishes? He wasn’t dead, he was just living in an aquarium.

Kukuru is understandably confused and suspicious about this sudden request, and from a first-time visitor to the aquarium and a total stranger otherwise. But Gama Gama is short-staffed and in financial trouble as we’ll soon learn, and Kukuru seems to see something in Fuuka, so she accepts her request to work there with the understanding that she’s absolutely serious about it. But Kukuru isn’t about to let Fuuka sleep on the floor next to a fish tank either, so she brings her home to stay with her and her grandparents.

Why do his markings look like an actual tuxedo? I can accept the visions but not this

After a very shaky start, Fuuka gets the hang of being an aquarium attendant and of her new life in Okinawa generally, becoming fast friends with Kukuru and the other workers at Gama Gama. But there are dark clouds on the horizon for both our leads. Fuuka has been putting off her mother, who’s been sending her messages asking what the hell she’s thinking running away to Okinawa without telling anyone, and she’s still not sure about whether she really wants to end her idol career. And Kukuru faces the impending closure of Gama Gama, an old aquarium that’s been getting more expensive to maintain properly and suffering from lower visitor turnout. Kukuru’s grandfather, Gama Gama’s long-time director and a legend in the Okinawan aquarium world, is trying to get her to face the inevitable in his own gentle way, but she’s determined to keep the aquarium open, and Fuuka pledges her support. Will the pair be able to face their challenges, or will they have to adapt to painful realities?

Before getting into the analysis and dropping big story/ending spoilers, I’d like to gush about how damn good Aquatope looks. As I’ve said a few times before, I’m no expert when it comes to animation, but I know what looks good to me, and Aquatope does. If this series was created in part to tout Okinawa’s value as a tourism destination, it worked on me, because the landscapes it depicts are beautiful. Naturally, a ton of sea life is also featured, including a group of penguins that introduce Fuuka to aquarium attendant life properly by knocking her into a pool before she gets the hang of things around episodes 3 and 4. And again, I’m no expert — I’ve only been to aquariums a few times in my life and barely know a thing about sea life aside from the kinds I like to eat — but those all look great too, with limited but effective use of 3D animation in a few scenes.

Wish I were there

Here’s the obligatory big ass spoiler warning, effective after the next screenshot. But I never like leaving readers who want to avoid those without my general impressions, so here they are: while I felt Aquatope left a couple of loose ends hanging by the end, it more than lived up to my expectations otherwise. A lot of people have talked up the show’s relaxing qualities, and while it is relaxing to watch in parts (especially considering its slow pace and beautiful setting) and does have a strong slice-of-life element, it also takes on some serious issues around finding your way as a young professional and dealing with painful changes in life. This is a mature series, but the kind that’s not up its own ass about itself — it’s all very natural, thanks in part to the strong characters it develops and the relationships they share.

So Aquatope gets my unqualified recommendation, especially if you like anime like Shirobako, A Place Further Than the Universe, or Planetes. Even if this series doesn’t quite reach the heights those three did for me (which still isn’t an insult, because they’re among the very best) it is very much in the same vein and near the same excellent quality. And try not to let the length and slow pace of Aquatope turn you off if that seems like it might be an issue, because it’s well worth the journey. This is the sort of series where the journey is part of the reason for watching.

But prepare for some possible self-reflection.

There seems to have been some controversy over a few aspects of The Aquatope on White Sand, perhaps most of all with the direction the plot takes in the middle of the series. While it tells one continuous story through a couple of time skips, Aquatope can be divided right down the middle between two arcs, the first at Gama Gama and the second at the far newer and more technically advanced aquarium Tingarla. Because yeah, Gama Gama is truly finished even at the opening of the series. Kukuru’s grandfather knows the challenges the place faces better than anyone, and in the end Kukuru is the only one left with the will to keep the place open. She makes serious efforts to attract new visitors throughout the first half of the series, and when the aquarium is on the brink of being shut down for good, she even goes to the extreme length of locking herself in, later joined by Fuuka, who brings her food and camps out with her there when a massive storm hits and wrecks the place beyond repair.

At this point, Kukuru is forced to admit defeat, only managing to find some closure with the situation on the last day of Gama Gama’s operation when the aquarium sees a great turnout from the community. But the aquarium life continues for the whole crew even beyond the shuttering of Gama Gama, when Kukuru’s grandfather helps them get hired at Tingarla, where one of his friends/protégés is the director.

The shift from the smaller and older Gama Gama to the much larger and more modern Tingarla is a serious challenge, most of all for Kukuru, who unexpectedly ends up being hired not as an attendant but rather as a member of the aquarium’s marketing department. She’s pretty put out by this development, but after realizing she can’t easily get a transfer, she resolves to do her best working under the strict department head. Writing project proposals and reports doesn’t come naturally to Kukuru, and her clashing with a former rival among the attendants doesn’t help matters. The Gama Gama crew generally doesn’t gel all that well with the existing staff at first with a couple of exceptions, but Kukuru certainly has the worst of it.

I know the feeling, Kukuru

This shift in setting is also a shift in the story itself — a shift from the struggle of trying to preserve the old and familiar that’s falling apart to the struggle of adapting to something new and uncomfortable. I’ve read some criticism that Aquatope suffers in its second half because of this stark change.

I don’t agree at all. Yeah, Gama Gama had plenty of charm, and I imagine a lot of people were hoping for a happy ending for the old aquarium, as wrapped up as it was with Kukuru’s own identity and her sense of belonging, which she loses and has to find again when it’s shut down. But everything we see and hear in that first half of Aquatope points to Gama Gama just having too much stacked against it. It probably wouldn’t have been realistic at that point to have a miraculous turnaround (aside from that magical realism element, which more on that later.) It’s also possible to see the closure of Gama Gama as a good thing in the long run for Kukuru, forced as she is to resolve some of the personal issues she seemed to be dealing with before by going full workaholic at the aquarium when she wasn’t studying or going to school.

This was understandable considering the memories she had attached to the aquarium, including those of her long-deceased parents. Kukuru’s orphaning, her adoption by her grandparents, and the loss of an unborn sister leaving her an only child clearly put her in a rough spot that she found comfort from in her love of her work. The move to Tingarla is hard for her in part because of this shift away from the familiar, but by the end of the series Kukuru discovers she has some talent for marketing (which was evident to viewers throughout most of the show — even though her efforts to save Gama Gama failed, she threw herself into some creative marketing efforts there as well, and the closure occurred despite her best efforts to prevent it.) It’s also strongly hinted that Grandpa himself had something to do with her placement in marketing in order to prepare her for a future of aquarium management.

He never tells her what to do, but he’s always guiding her: the best kind of parenting in my opinion, and the kind I hope I’d practice if that ever happens.

This shift also forces Kukuru to understand and tone down her more stubborn aspect slightly. While that stubbornness can be a positive in some situations and to some degree, it also causes her problems, especially when that rival of hers, Chiyu, first shows up in the series as an intern at Gama Gama. Chiyu certainly does plenty to contribute to her own failure to perform well at Gama Gama, being vocally dismissive of the old aquarium. But Kukuru shares the blame: she doesn’t handle Chiyu well at all in her position as acting director, openly clashing with her over her attitude and more or less saying good riddance and fuck off when she eventually gets transferred to intern at Tingarla, where they meet again.

While Kukuru’s offense is understandable, she doesn’t deal with it in a mature way — though she knows a lot about marine life and has plenty of experience as an attendant for her age, she shows at this point that she’s not quite an adult yet. Moving to Tingarla puts her in a position where she’s no longer in control and has to put up with other people’s shit, some of whom she doesn’t know all that well, and by the end she’s figured out how to adjust pretty effectively. Even she and Chiyu become colleagues who can work together, if not exactly friends (though Chiyu’s previously unknown young son dropping into the cast seemed to have a lot to do with that, since he charms everyone else instantly. There are benefits to having kids, I guess.)

This criticism relates to another one I’ve read that I think has more to it — the story’s shift away from Fuuka. You might have told already from how much I wrote about Kukuru above, but despite Aquatope opening with Fuuka’s story and the career/life dilemma she’s dealing with, the actual protagonist of the story as far as I can tell is Kukuru. Fuuka’s conflict over what to do about facing her family and her struggles working at a completely new job in a new environment are almost entirely resolved by the middle of the first Gama Gama arc, or about one-quarter through the entire series. While there’s still a question hanging in the air about Fuuka’s eventual possible return to idol work, that’s pretty easily resolved when she decides near the end of that same arc to abandon that dream and find something else to do. Then, no big surprise, shortly after the Tingarla part of the plot starts Fuuka returns from the mainland and joins the team as an attendant — her new dream is to work with sea life.

Most of the rest of Fuuka’s story ties in with Kukuru’s struggles. Their relationship is one of the central aspects of the series, so that’s not so unnatural, but by the end of Aquatope I had the sense that this was mainly Kukuru’s story. This isn’t necessarily a fault — at best I’d say it was a bit misleading. I can see viewers having a problem with this if they weren’t big on Kukuru, though. Which I can understand somewhat at least, though I don’t count myself among them. I liked Kukuru, even when she was being a little too stubborn. Except for that one point in the second or third episode where she was being seriously unreasonable and chewing Fuuka out for screwing up her first damn day on the job, and even then she apologized for that afterward if I remember correctly.

Yeah penguins are cute and all but it’s not always fun and games with them

The only other serious criticism I’ve heard about Aquatope, and the one I credit the most, is its near-complete dropping of its pretty strong magical realist element halfway through. Fuuka isn’t the only visitor to Gama Gama who has had visions there — Kukuru knows exactly what she’s experienced the first time they meet, and Kukuru, her childhood friend/fellow aquarium worker Kai, and a few other visitors have similar visions during the first half of the series. There might have been some doubt about whether these visions were “real” or just strange hallucinations, but the show occasionally cuts to a sort of natural god/spirit hanging around the island. Kukuru and then Fuuka make offerings at a shrine every morning with the prayer “Do what’s right and everything will work out” and it’s implied that these shrines are connected with the god. And since we the viewers actually see this guy hanging around, I think it’s safe to assume the god exists in this world and that they’re connected with the visions somehow.

Near the middle of the series and the end of Gama Gama’s story, Kukuru gets desperate enough to suggest marketing the aquarium as a place where people can experience these strong and emotional visions, but she’s finally discouraged from taking this path after talking to Kai about it (who actually lies to her about not having had his own vision there, which he did — wouldn’t have done that myself but I think I get what he was going for, since Kukuru’s plan felt almost sacrilegious somehow. Though the tradition I grew up in might be stricter about such things.) Either way, it felt a bit weird for Aquatope to almost entirely drop this element in the second half. That god/spirit guy didn’t seem too upset by any of the above developments or by much of anything at all either.

But then maybe that’s the point. Fuuka and Kukuru both stick to their prayer throughout the series, anyway, and everything does work out in the end for them, though not in the way they first expect.

Okinawa seems like the “don’t worry about thing so much” type of place where life moves slowly, kind of like the Mediterranean. Just the impression I get. Also I’d love to visit this diner and hang out with Udon-chan here.

There’s one more point about Aquatope that I may have a controversial opinion about. Possibly controversial. I don’t actually know. But it’s about Kukuru and Fuuka’s relationship, so you might guess the subject. There was some talk early on in the run of Aquatope that it might involve some yuri romance between the leads. I brought it up in my first impressions post but doubted that there was very much there, and now that the series is complete, I can confirm that there really wasn’t much there at all.

At least there wasn’t from my perspective. I’ve seen a few suggest (including a writer at ANN posted on the series Wikipedia page) that Aquatope was “yuri-coded.” I’m not sure if that means it’s not straight-up yuri but has suggestions of it or something, but even that feels like a stretch. What bothers me about it isn’t the suggestion of yuri itself — as I wrote before, I didn’t care how Kukuru and Fuuka’s relationship shook out as long as it was handled well, and I think it was. But while they’re something more than just friends, I didn’t see anything romantic in their relationship. No, I see Kukuru and Fuuka’s relationship as one of those “sworn siblings” situations. Usually they’re sworn brothers you see, but no reason you can’t have sworn sisters either, even if there’s no actual blood oath or anything exchanged. Fuuka seems to be filling the place of Kukuru’s lost sister, and the two support and are attached to each other pretty closely. So that’s an intimate relationship, sure, but romantic? I guess it depends on how you define the term, but again, I didn’t see it.

Or maybe this romantic setting influenced some people’s opinions on the matter?

Hell maybe I’m the idiot dumbass here; wouldn’t be the first time. Or maybe my understanding of social ties is warped (see last post for that.) You tell me. Some people think two non-related friends who are especially intimate must have romantic feelings for each other, but that seems way too presumptuous to me. I guess you can read the relationship that way if you really want, anyway, but I need more than that. See also Reinhard and Kircheis in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, who I might have joked about when I wrote about it years ago, but eh. There’s way stronger proof for the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship in Moby-Dick, and while I’ve heard the same about Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings I can’t confirm or deny, since it’s been well over a decade since I saw the films and longer since I read the novels. Since they’re all characters, all we have to go on are what’s on the page/screen and the intent of the author. Or ignore authorial intent like my junior year English teacher said we can do, which really fucking bothers me.

But I’m not writing about this stuff anymore, since we’re starting to get into critical analysis here or whatever it’s called and I’m not smart enough to do that properly.

Who cares, let’s dress like fish

That’s all I have for The Aquatope on White Sand. It’s a very good anime series and you should watch it. It’s on Crunchyroll, which is kind of a piece of shit, but it’s the only place I know of to watch it (legally.) Tell me what you think of it and/or of my dumb opinions if you feel like it, especially the relationship stuff, because I’m curious to see how other people around here feel about that aspect of the series. Thanks as always, and until next time (probably the end-of-month post) all the best.