"The Aquatope on White Sand" lives up to its title by being a cumbersome and overlong anime that offers interesting characters in a fantastic setting but never reaches its full potential across its 24 episode run.
A young woman named Fuuka has given up her opportunity to be a music idol in Tokyo, a depressing turn of events that has her running away from the big city and family to the sunny beaches of Okinawa.
Listlessly traversing the island, she comes across a tour guide who helps her out and takes her to Gama Gama Aquarium, a small ailing attraction that is a month away from closure.
The aquarium has some mystical mumbo-jumbo happening, wherein people occasionally see visions of dead relatives or find some solace in magical episodes that only they can see.
That magic inspires Fuuka to ask the acting director of the aquarium, a high school senior named Kukuru, to take her on as a worker.
Across the first 12 episodes, we see the complexity of emotions and events that make compelling viewing.
Kukuru is adamant about Gama Gama staying open despite her grandparents knowing one-hundred-percent it will close at the end of the month.
All the while, she deals with the fact it's her last connection to her dead parents and the only home she has ever known.
While Kukuru's dream is falling apart around her, Fuuka is recovering from her failed dream and finding comfort in growing into a kind of big sister for Kukuru.
But the central axis around which everything revolves is Gama Gama Aquarium, a character unto itself, and the series explores its role in our main heroine's lives and the community’s.
It creates a sense of dread that parallels that of the characters watching this staple of the area close up.
I’ve previously mentioned in my Amagi Brilliant Park review (shameless plug) that I love series, especially anime, focused on people working in otherwise mundane places.
Amusement parks, onsen, McDonald's, aquariums; because these are being explored through the medium of animation, there is a lot more that can be done.
And even a slice-of-life like Hanasaku Iroha (similar to Aquatope: about a young woman working over the summer at an ailing hot spring resort) that doesn’t utilize the medium and presents something could have been done in live-action to the same effect still has a certain magic to it.
That said, unlike Amagi Brilliant Park, where the magic was justified, the magic in Aquatope is nonsense.
I don’t understand why some people see their deceased loved ones in the waters of this aquarium and why it becomes such an essential part of the anime.
I guess it’s trying to build on why Gama Gama is so unique, but it comes across as pointless and obtuse rather than meaningful.
Regardless of the mystical elements, Aquatope still manages to build to a grounded and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
But there are twelve more episodes.
"The Aquatope on White Sand" bumbles forward with an unnecessary second half. In it, we see the characters nearly a year later as they move on from Gama Gama and begin working for a giant, expensive aquarium.
Where Gama Gama was laid back, this new aquarium is strict, corporate, and many of the workers are unfriendly and passive-aggressive.
I tried my best to get through this second half, but nothing kept me engaged. The character relationships felt like they had peaked, and there were no stakes anymore.
I appreciate what it’s trying to do, showing how these characters have to mature and grow in their jobs to make their dreams come true, but it all rang hollow. And my disengagement ultimately led me to move on to other shows.
The show's first half has some out-of-place mystical elements and can get a little too dramatic (and obsessed with fish, maybe it’s just Okinawa, but everyone is a fish encyclopedia in this show).
But despite all that, it’s a fun watch that offers deep and emotionally satisfying storytelling. It’s too bad it’s spoiled a bit by a second-half that feels so much more empty and meaningless, telling a continuation of a story that didn’t need to be continued.
The Aquatope on White Sand is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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More melancholy staring at fish tanks at Sean Newgent's website.