Alternative title(s): Shiroi Suna no Aquatope
Anime original by P.A. Works
Streaming on Crunchyroll
Eighteen-year-old Fuuka Miyazawa decides to take an impromptu vacation to Okinawa after she fails to realize her dreams as an idol in Tokyo. There, she meets
a freaky fish girl Kukuru Misakino, the self-appointed director of a local aquarium.
Aqua’s verdict: Bubbly and Blue
It’s time for yet another P.A. Works slice-of-life original, so time to cart out Aqua again to do the usual spiel about how there are a highly specific kind of show this studio likes to make! Indeed, The Aquatope on White Sand is yet again a show about young women navigating the workplace with a slightly sardonic edge and a focus on a small-town sense of community. Nevertheless, the platonic similarity of the studio’s output — discounting the not insignificant number of adaptations and supernatural action shows it does also produces — makes it a fascinating subject for analysis.
I see P.A. Works almost as a band of sorts — or at least the kind of rock band which with each new album it releases, tweaks its sound by keeping everything that worked about the last album and replacing the rest with either something new or something that worked previously until it reaches the one perfect compromise it wants to be remembered for. In Aquatope‘s case, we take the melancholy, magical realism and drop-dead beauty of Iroduku: The World in Colors and add some of the spunk of Shirobako or Sakura Quest for a clever cocktail that makes a strong first impression.
The Aquatope on White Sand is a typical city-mouse-meets-country-mouse story, but it’s interesting how our two protagonists reflect the show’s two identities in their respective stories: Fuuka, the former idol, is a dead ringer for Iroduku‘s protagonist Hitomi and provides the narrative’s dramatic hooks, while Kukuru is a plucky go-getter in the vein of Hanasaku Iroha‘s Ohana or Shirobako‘s Miyamori, who injects the story with some much-appreciated energy and quirkiness. While they don’t meet until the very end of the episode, Aquatope does a good job setting the characters’ individualities and their places in the world, allowing P.A. Works a victory lap through familiar territory before the narrative proper kicks off.
Fuuka’s side of the story shows off director Toshiya Shinohara’s eye for subtlety, all but wordlessly relating the story of her disillusionment and eventual failure as an idol. I’m a sucker for any anime that dares to point out the more distressing elements of the the music industry, so I appreciate how unapologetically Aquatope addresses just how disposable idols are to their managers and producers. The shot of Fuuka having to serve drinks at one of her agency’s mandatory after-work parties is both ghastly and darkly funny, but I can easily see it being a reality for many aspiring starlets in Japan’s deeply patriarchal culture.
It’s not all grim, though. Aside from these flashbacks, the scene at the market is a particular standout as well, funny yet heartwarming in equal measure as Fuuka’s humility and sensitivity manage to sway a shady fortune teller out to swindle her into giving away some genuine advice for free. We learn so much about this character without anyone ever explaining or pointing it out, and I cannot stress enough just how refreshing that is in anime.
Kukuru’s bits, meanwhile, thread more familiar territory, serving mostly to introduce the various members of the supporting cast. Nevertheless, it is nice to see a character quite obviously set up to be a manic pixie dream girl leading a life outside of her relationship with the hapless sack of anxiety whose days she’s destined to light up. I might say yuri fans might want to keep an eye out for this one, but I know better at this point, unfortunately. Still, as Bloom Into You and the popular manga A Tropical Fish Yearns For Snow have proven, there really is no better place for girls to forge a deeply intimate bond than at an aquarium… somehow. Must be the blue lights.
Anyway, just like how Fuuka’s story wasn’t without its more light-hearted moments, Kukuru’s life is also hinted to be more than just sunshine and rainbows. Though this is never mentioned outright, her parents have very obviously passed, and this wouldn’t be a P.A. Works show if that was not going to affect her in some way.
For now, though, any particularly intense emotional experiences to be attributed to Aquatope will likely be the result of its presentation. P.A. Works has always done excellent work, but the cinematic quality on display here is on the level of Kyoto Animation, as evidenced by the copious shots of animated, moving crowds and exquisite details like the various members of Fuuka’s idol group dancing just slightly out of sync. Even the computer animation of the various inhabitants of Kukuru’s aquarium has been integrated quite seamlessly, resulting in a pilot that merits being watched even if nothing I have been describing up to now appeals to you at all.
In the end, The Aquatope on White Sand brings little to nothing new to the table, but it is at first glance a perfect cumulation of everything its creators have set out to do before. Sure, none of P.A. Works’ previous works in this unofficial series save for Shirobako have quite managed to stick the landing for me yet — and with the presence of Yuko Kakihara, the writer behind two of the more infamous crash-and-burn disappointments in Glorio Blog history at the helm, the odds aren’t exactly in Aquatope‘s favour — but with twenty-three episodes left to go, I am more than willing to give this show the benefit of the doubt after this pleasant first meeting. P.A. Works continues to fine-tune its formula, and perhaps this coming-of-age story could be the studio’s coming of age as well.
Artemis’ verdict: Surprisingly Well-Balanced
Admittedly, although I prefer to approach my anime these days knowing as little as possible, I was wary of this one going in, as P.A. Works has always had a spotty record with me, particularly in more recent years (the likes of Appare-Ranman! not exactly being the pinnacle of great storytelling). Moreover, their dramas tend to be draaaaamas, typically of the “and everyone had a depressing past and cried a lot at the end” variety.
Happily, Aquatope on White Sand, while more slice-of-life than anything else, doesn’t seem to be taking itself with the same ultra-seriousness as many previous anime titles with the same names behind them. While it has its share of more melancholy moments, the premiere at least balances these out adroitly with a number of charming moments of humor – I was especially fond of the fortune-teller scene, although there were several other small titbits thrown in there, particularly in the first few scenes, which also did a really nice job of introducing its setting in a way that I found both reasonably lighthearted and nostalgic.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the show will keep things on an even keel as far as the melodrama goes, especially since I don’t yet have any idea whether this is going to turn into some supernatural-type thing (again, not an especially good sign when it comes to P.A. Works – looking at you, Red Data Girl, Charlotte, Iroduku). I’m also not yet sure of the main characters; I like the potential I see in ex-idol Fuuka’s storyline, although I’m more lukewarm about Kukuru, whose character design and general energy makes her seem closer to 12 than the 18-year-old high schooler she’s supposed to be.
So far though, I certainly don’t hate this. And hey, if nothing else, Aquatope is more than competent from a technical standpoint – it’s lovely to look at, especially if you happen to be into aquatic-themed stories like I am. Let’s just all hope it doesn’t go off the rails like the last water-centric title from this studio…