At age 14, Ruka feels adrift in the world. At school, she doesn’t have any friends. At home, her parents are absent or distracted most of the time: Ruka’s dad works at the local aquarium, while her mother spends her days drinking beer alone. This wide-eyed loner may be “just” an anime character, but she’s as relatable as any live-action teenager you might meet on screen this year, thanks to the splendid attention to detail and seemingly boundless imagination that characterizes “Children of the Sea,” director Ayumu Watanabe’s stunning adaptation of the prize-winning manga by Daisuke Igarashi.
Some audiences won’t go anywhere near anime, no matter how enthusiastic the endorsement, whereas others limit their exposure to only Studio Ghibli movies. But now that Hayao Miyazaki has more or less thrown in the towel, it’s time to open our minds to what Japan’s other great toon outfits are capable of — and in that respect, “Children of the Sea” is something to be celebrated. This latest feat from Studio 4°C (the team behind “Mind Game” and “MFKZ”) uses the medium in surprising ways, beginning intimate and modest before giving Ruka the answers to all the universe’s questions in a psychedelic finale that’s every bit as trippy as the “Star Child” sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Even though many an anime film or TV series has gone bonkers in the climactic stretch (the brain-expanding singularity at the end of “Akira” comes to mind, or the total eradication of the human race at the end of “Neon Genesis Evangelion”), “Children of Sea” catches you off-guard, if only because it so convincingly establishes a sense of realism in its opening stretch. Watanabe’s team takes the trouble to show a crushed beer can settling in its recycling bag, to show sunlight playing across a foyer as the door opens and to linger as a set of wet footprints evaporate in the sun.
At first, on the surface, the film seems to be another story of an ordinary, slightly awkward teenager who feels misunderstood by his or her peers (the setup for countless YA fantasies, from “The Neverending Story” to “Twilight”) before, in this case, stumbling across a pair of mysterious young men whose sudden interest seems almost overwhelming. Why would the cosmos choose her, Ruka modestly wonders? And yet, she does feel special. Among humans, only she can hear “the song of the stars,” and sometimes, when she runs fast enough, Ruka’s convinced that she can fly.
One afternoon, while visiting her father’s workplace, Ruka discovers Umi, who along with older brother Sora were raised at sea by a dugong. Now they’re being taken care of at the aquarium, where some of the scientists fret about their life expectancy, while others selfishly hope the boys will lead them to the Birth Festival — a rare marine phenomenon whose study they believe “will lead to a drastic advance in oceanic sciences.” Here, as in movies like “Splash,” Watanabe exploits that age-old tension between those who recognize a rare and fragile being that they wish to protect and the callous impulse to experiment on such an unfamiliar entity. But the real conflict is between Ruka’s inherent shyness and the sheer scope of the discovery that awaits her.
Stylistically speaking, Ruka and Umi look like relatively stock anime characters, with their long, thin bodies and disproportionately huge eyes, although the rest of the ensemble are given far more distinctive features. What’s more, “Children of the Sea” diverges from other Japanese animation in that faces become more finely drawn the bigger they appear in frame, so shading and skin texture start to show in medium shots, and close-ups reveal practically every eyelash while inviting us to gaze into the depth of intricately rendered irises. It’s disarming to be able to study hard-drawn characters’ features so closely, but stunning, too, in its own way.
The movie intends to impress with their beauty, exaggerating just how striking Sora’s blond hair and blue eyes look to Ruka — or later, the androgynous teen-idol appearance of long-haired aquarium assistant Anglade. But doing so also draws audiences into identifying with characters who might otherwise feel “cartoony,” for lack of a better word, which is critical in connecting with a story that gets increasingly surreal as it unfolds. (“Ponyo” composer Joe Hisaishi’s lovely score, whose strings and sparkles suggest sun glimmering across the waves, similarly expands alongside the film’s ambitions.)
From the outset, there’s something magical about going behind the scenes of the aquarium, as Ruka is permitted to do. In time, she starts to venture out with the two boys, taking a ship out to sea (to pursue a “will-o’-the-wisp,” a kind of shooting star), where she’s able to swim with whale sharks in one of the many stunning water-related sequences — wonderful moments in which humpback whales hurl themselves into the air, or an aquarium full of sea animals move in unexpected formations.
Still, that’s nothing compared with the movie’s final half-hour, when “Children of the Sea” delivers on its wild (and preposterous) underlying premise: that the infinite expanse of outer space is somehow reflected in the earth’s oceans. This is a peculiar hypothesis and one that may well be more meaningful to an island nation like Japan, surrounded by water as earth is by stars, but it’s a little too wonky for Westerners to take the finale seriously — not that it makes Ruka’s spectacular awakening any less mind-blowing. After all has settled back into normalcy, be sure to stick around through the credits for the movie’s sweet coda.