“When you wake up every day, you have two choices. You can either be positive or negative; an optimist or a pessimist. I choose to be an optimist. It’s all a matter of perspective.” –Harvey Mackay
After suffering from a series of setbacks as an idol, Fūka Miyazawa runs away from Tokyo and decides to visit Okinawa, the southernmost island prefecture in Japan. She runs into a fortune teller, who suggests that she head south. Fūka ends up falling asleep on the beaches and the next day, very nearly succumbs to heat stroke from the hot tropical sun. While walking along the road, Fūka encounters Karin Kudaka; she’s an office lady working with the area’s tourism board to drive up travel. Karin suggests that Fūka head on over to the Gama Gama Aquarium. While looking at the different exhibits, she spots a Yaeyama blenny, which prefers to keep to itself but also feeds in algae and weeds to keep aquariums clean. Moved by the fish’s thankless efforts, Fūka begins to cry in earnest after remembering how hard she’d worked to make her dream of becoming an idol come true, and finds herself swept away by the aquarium’s water, eventually encountering a whale shark and schools of tropical fish in the ocean’s depths. When she comes to, she finds herself face-to-face with Kukuru Misakino, a high school girl who is Gama Gama’s deputy director and works countless shifts to keep their aquarium afloat. Kukuru is pleased to meet Fūka and mentions that the aquarium is hiring, but had considerable difficulty with applicants. Fūka decides to seize this opportunity, surprising Kukuru. This is The Aquatope on White Sand (Shiroi Suna no Aquatope), the latest addition to P.A. Works’ venerable catalogue. In this production, director Toshiya Shinohara, writer Yūko Kakihara and composer Yoshiaki Dewa make a return: these three had previously collaborated on 2018’s Iroduku: The World in Colours.
Whereas P.A. Works appears to be setting The Aquatope on White Sand up as a coming-of-age story about discovering one’s calling through open-mindedness, The Aquatope on White Sand does have one abberent element – throughout the first episode, small wood spirits known locally as kijimuna (木の精) can be seen. These spirits are thought of as tricksters who love pranks, and while they appear receptive to humans, oftentimes cannot maintain long-term friendships with them. In reality, they are relegated to the realm of folklore, but in The Aquatope on White Sand, kijimuna are visible on several occasions and presumed to have pranked Fūka after she’d fallen asleep on the beaches. P.A. Works’ track record with magic has been dicey, but with The World in Colours, the studio’s writers appear to have finally found their footing: The World in Colours had successfully and wholly embraced magic as a part of its plot, making it a central element in driving Hitomi’s growth while at the same time, ensuring that any constraints surrounding magic were clearly defined such that it wasn’t the sole driving force behind Hitomi’s development. While the extent of magic in The Aquatope on White Sand remains unknown at this time, being limited to Fūka experiencing a life-like vision, the outcomes from The World in Colours suggests that if magic is to be an integral part of The Aquatope on White Sand, there is precedence from which to establish the extent and scope of magic as a driving force behind the experiences that Fūka and Kukuru will share throughout The Aquatope on White Sand.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Within the first few seconds of The Aquatope on White Sand kicking things off, it is immediately apparent that this is going to be a series with top-tier art and animation: like The World in Colours, P.A. Works is fond of showing what they got, and both series open with a stunning set of visuals that really draw the viewers in. One could say that The Aquatope on White Sand is the second coming of The World in Colours, with twice the runtime and a focus on the workplace this time around, so I am curious to see if this series will be able to weave in magic and supernatural elements together with the sort of thing that made Hanasaku Iroha and Sakura Quest work.
- Fūka begins her journey after quitting her previous occupation as an idol: having watched the likes of Wake Up, Girls!, I’ve seen previous portrayals about how tough the entertainment industry is, and how being a centre is a big deal for idols (they’re equivalent to a project lead or squad leader). While Fūka put her all into her work, this effort never seemed to correspond with results, and her handlers think that Fūka is making a mistake in quitting. It’s clear that the agency Fūka is working for do not get along with her or have much faith in her talents.
- One of the other idols who’d been assigned to replace Fūka is tearful about her departure: while her superiors may not view Fūka favourably, this scene does suggest that with her peers, she got along with them. Fūka’s decision to quit, however, is final; The Aquatope on White Sand is not a story about making it big as an idol unit, and the sort of melancholy that accompanies Fūka is reminiscent of how Hitomi had started The World in Colours sullen and downcast. Because there is precedence for what is to happen, I have a feeling that the events of The Aquatope on White Sand are cast in stone already. However, merely because a story’s direction is clear doesn’t make a work any less enjoyable: a work’s success comes from how an outcome is reached.
- After Fūka ends a call with her parents, it is clear that they still love her very much and in fact, look forward to her return home. However, on the spur of the moment, Fūka longs for some space, to lose herself somewhere, and spotting an advertisement, she decides to head for Okinawa. A one-way ticket can be had for as little as 70 CAD, and within moments of landing at Naha Airport, Fūka takes an interest in a tank housing tropical fish, including what appear to be several Paracanthurus hepatus (Blue Tang, or colloquially “Dory”).
- There is a sharp contrast between the warm, inviting atmosphere surrounding Naha and Fūka’s melancholy, but in spite of this, she’s still enjoying herself somewhat: she’s seen eating a Blue Seal ice cream while strolling along a shōtengai. Blue Seal has an interesting history: it was originally founded to provide Americans stationed in Okinawa flavours of home via ice cream, and later on, incorporated Okinawan elements into their ice creams. With temperatures today hitting a balmy 31°C, I’m glad to have spent the morning mowing the lawn and backyard, before cooking up pizza-style double cheese dogs for lunch, accompanied by a tall glass of lemonade to ward off the heat of the summer sun.
- For the first time since arriving in Okinawa, Fūka smiles after speaking with a fortune teller who calls out to her. While Fūka is impressed with how much the fortune teller seemingly knows about her, clever use of camera angles and framing indicate to us viewers that fortune tellers are uncommonly observant people and can spin vivid stories from only a few prompts. After giving Fūka a general overview, she also spills her heart out and is grateful that Fūka had been around to listen to her. The fortune she gives Fūka is to head towards the direction of Sagittarius, a centaur.
- This is a clever touch: because people under the Sagittarius sign are said to be particularly open-minded, free-spirited and fun, the fortune teller is hinting at how Fūka will meet someone precisely like this during her travels. After consulting an astronomy app on her phone, she begins heading off in search of this fated encounter. Fūka is seen rocking an iPhone 12 Pro, evidenced by its distinct triple-camera setup. I’ve actually been meaning to buy a new iPhone, but my previous company had loaned me an iPhone Xʀ, and this loaner has served me quite well. I do plan on returning it at some point, but since it remains a solid phone, it allows me to hold out until the iPhone 14 is announced; the iPhone 13 looks like it’s going to be a underwhelming device.
- I only need a satisfactory device to test apps on, so I’m in no particular rush to upgrade. With this being said, if I were still rocking my iPhone 6, an upgrade would be mandatory, since the iPhone 6 only supports iOS 12. Returning the discussions to The Aquatope on White Sand, at least one kijimuna can be seen wandering the island at his own pace. This small detail makes it clear that there is going to be a magic piece in this anime, and while P.A. Works’ track record with magic had previously been questionable, its inclusion in The World in Colour was superb. I imagine that kijimuna will become more commonplace later on, along with the supernatural, so it will be curious to see how this plays out with the more conventional workplace story.
- Yoshiaki Dewa’s composition in The Aquatope of White Sand bears the same style as the music that was composed for The World in Colours, although unsurprisingly, since this anime is set in Okinawa, sanshin are utilised for the soundtrack. However, the piano pieces bring back memories of watching fireworks over the Nagasaki harbour, and after Fūka falls asleep on the beach, she awakens the next morning with a start: someone (or something) has pranked her by placing what appears to be bleached coral in a circle around her.
- Kukuru is the polar opposite of Fūka, being optimistic, friendly and energetic. She enjoys a breakfast of fried gurukun (double stripe fusilier, or Pterocaesio digramma) before rushing off to school on her bike. Whereas Fūka’s movements are slower, Kukuru is positively bouncing around the place: she brings joy into The Aquatope on White Sand, and anyone who’s been around the block long enough will immediately spot that she and Fūka are destined to meet precisely because, like Kohaku and Hitomi, their opposite personalities will create new adventure.
- Predictability has never been an issue for me in entertainment: what matters most is the experience it takes to get a given destination. This is similarly why I never tire of first person shooters and burgers; while the central elements are common to all, it’s the small (or not-so-small) variations that make each stand out. However, this isn’t something that all anime fans share; well-known detractors of P.A. Works have finally come out of the woodwork and immediately set about critique every single aspect of The Aquatope on White Sand, down the to the last pixel, citing similarities to previous works and familiar character designs as rendering this series unwatchable.
- I’d been hoping that The Aquatope on White Sands would launch in a low-profile manner, but in retrospect, this was a pipe dream at best. However, unlike Super Cub, this time around, I’ll steer clear of external discussions surrounding The Aquatope on White Sands so I can watch and enjoy this series at my own pace. Here, Kukuru speaks with her friends, Tsukimi (shown here) and Kai; Kukuru’s been fishing with Kai since forever, and Tsukimi wishes that Kukuru would be more focused on the human world; her latest assignment submission completely misses the project’s objectives, being about squid when she’d been tasked with mathematics.
- Fūka quickly wears out as the morning sun beats down on her, and those favoured with a keen eye will see the air shimmering from the heat. Temperatures in Okinawa are no joke; during the summer, the average high is 32°C, and at night, it only drops down to 27°C. A few weeks ago, the heat in my area hit a record-breaking 36°C for several consecutive days in a row. The heat has dissipated now, and temperatures are more seasonal, but the blistering temperatures have sparked wildfires in the province over, and the instability created some of the largest thunderstorms I’ve seen in a while.
- Every meeting in a given anime is important, and here, Fūka meets Karin, who works with the local tourism board. Karin quickly deduces that Fūka is a visitor, and after giving her a bottle of water to cool down, offers to drive her to the nearby aquarium. Knowing that P.A. Works is driving means that a part of me was inclined to go location hunting even this early in the game, and so, armed with the power of Google Maps, as well as the knowledge that The Aquatope on White Sand is set in Nanjō, I decided to have a look around to see if I could find the aquarium.
- A single still in the anime, portraying a gazebo overlooking a beach, led me to do a search along the coasts near Nanjō. In moments, I had my location: this is Azuma Sun Sun Beach, located to the east of Nanjō. Visitors can expect to pay 500 Yen for parking, but beyond this, visiting is free, and it is here that Gama Gama Aquarium is located. A look around shows that there is no aquarium at the site, and more Google-fu finds that the largest aquarium in Okinawa is DMM Kariyushi Aquarium, located 25.8 kilometres away by car. Further to this, with this location as the starting point, I was able to trace back the path Fūka had been walking along prior to meeting Karin.
- The choice of location was almost certainly done for convenience’s sake, so Kukuru could get there easily from home and school. With this knowledge, I’ll begin poking around and see if I can locate more spots seen in The Aquatope on White Sand as they are presented. Having Azyma Sun Sun Beach as a starting point is an incredible asset, and I imagine I’ll have more time to search for locations in the near future, so for the present, we’ll return to Fūka, who is absolutely enjoying the magical sights within the aquarium. When she reads about the Yaeyama blenny (Ecsenius yaeyamaensis), she learns the fish is low-profile but does an important job of eating moss and algae, keeping the tank clean.
- Out of the blue, Fūka feels under-appreciated and dissolves into tears. The tanks suddenly seem to engulf the space, and Fūka finds herself in the middle of the ocean with schools of fish, even spotting a whale shark in the process. This is probably an illusion cast by the elusive kijimuna, although as it is early in the game, how much magic there is in The Aquatope on White Sand will remain to be seen. This scene, however, does show how sophisticated P.A. Works’ craft have come over the years; their anime consistently impress from a visual perspective.
- When she comes to, she finds herself face-to-face with Kukuru, whose remarks to Fūka suggest that the phenomenon she’d just witnessed might very well be real. Like Kohaku, Kukuru is comfortable with speaking with people she’d just met, and she offers to take Fūka on a tour of the aquarium, which is named after Chibichiri-Gama Cave, which is known for being the site of a horrific and tragic mass suicide. As Kukuru says, during the final days of the Second World War, a hundred and forty took shelter hear, but out of fear that the American Marines would subject them to torture upon capture, began killing one another to escape such a fate. In the end, eighty-four died in this cave.
- It’s not often that anime mention the horrors of World War Two, and Okinawa did see some of the fiercest fighting as Allied forces prepared to use Okinawa as a staging area for invading the home islands themselves. The Aquatope on White Sand is not a World War Two anime, and as Kukuru takes Fūka deeper into the aquarium, the magic of such institutes becomes apparent. Because I live in a land-locked area, there are no aquariums, and the last time I went to one would’ve been Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. Perhaps in the future, I will consider a trip to the Vancouver Aquarium.
- At the first episode’s end, Fūka suddenly takes an interest in working at the Gama Gama Aquarium and implores Kukuru to allow her a position on the team. While I’d considered Fūka to be quite like Hitomi, that Fūka seizes the initiative here suggests that while she might be saddened by turning away from her old job as an idol, a part of Fūka still wants to do something meaningful. Hitomi, on the other hand, needed a bit more guidance to begin seeing the world in a new light, so I imagine that, as The Aquatope on White Sand progresses, viewers will have a chance to see the real Fūka. It’s a strong start to P.A. Works’ latest title, and I’m definitely looking forwards to seeing where this one is going.
Immediately out of the gates, the aesthetics that Shinohara and Kakihara bring to the table are noticeable: The Aquatope on White Sand feels distinctly like The World in Colours, possessing a sense of gentle melancholy and subtle longing for something unknown. Fūka takes on the same role that Hitomi did – both had suffered setbacks in their lives and lost their direction. Similarly, Kukuru’s enthusiasm for aquatic life and her extensive knowledge of the local aquarium parallels Kohaku’s energy and proficiency with magic. Where these two different personalities meet, the end result is an inevitable journey of self-discovery. However, a retread of The World in Colours wouldn’t be particularly enthralling. Fortunately, The Aquatope on White Sand introduces one additional element into its story – Gama Gama Aquarium appears be undergoing challenges. Kukuru is working so many shifts there that it’s negatively impacting her studies, and her grandfather is always out and about speaking with people. Moreover, Kukuru’s remarks to Fūka suggest that the aquarium is having trouble finding new staff. This workplace component is reminiscent of Sakura Quest and Hanasaku Iroha, both of which involved newcomers making a fresh start at a workplace. While the job initially seems above what Yoshino and Ohana, their series’ respective protagonists, can handle, both mature into their roles and come to greatly enjoy what they do. The extended runtime in The Aquatope on White Sand thus suggests that this anime is going to be an amalgamation of The World in Colours and P.A. Works’ anime on the workplaces: this is a bold and ambitious melding of the two genres I’ve always felt P.A. Works to excel in. Consequently, between P.A. Work’s track record and the fact this first episode has been very strong, expectations for The Aquatope on White Sand are going to be correspondingly high.