My Review of A Lull in the Sea!

Going to a new school is never easy. Having to uproot your life and leave behind everything you know just to satisfy whatever reason your parents have that you’re too young to understand is hardly fair for anyone, even though sometimes there’s no choice in the matter. But what’s even more unfair is when your family’s situation has nothing to do with it… When your school closes down, and without a formal establishment left to provide you with an education, you have to either go to a neighboring school where you’ll have the immediate disadvantage or to home school where you may never have opportunities to see your old friends again. this is the dilemma that’s been posed to Hikari, Manaka, and their friends Chisaki and Kaname, who’ve been forced to abandon their failing Nami Junior High and migrate to Mihama Middle School, and to make matters worse, they face discrimination the minute they set foot on campus… Not because of the color of their skin or the way they speak, but because of WHERE they’ve come from… Shioshishio, the village under the sea.

No, that’s not just a bizarre local catchphrase… Our four heroes are basically amphibious mermaids without tails. They can breathe with ease both in and out of the water, but need to be periodically drenched in salt water to keep themselves from dehydrating. At Hikari’s insistence, they all come to school wearing their old uniforms, a show of pride and resistance against their new day-to-day environment, which is an attitude their new classmates are all too willing to share, making comments about them smelling fishy and rejecting them as inhuman beings. On the surface(Pun not intended), this separation could be seen as a good thing, because if a surface dweller and a sea dweller ever cross the line with each other, the latter will be banished from Shioshishio and forced to live the rest of their lives as a human, which is a curse that has become all too common in the recent past. With vitriolic prejudice tormenting them on one side and the charms of one open-minded boy tempting them from the other, will these four fish out of water be able to balance their lives between home and school, or are both surf and turf headed for a new ice age hundreds of years in the making?

While Studio Bones may be my favorite animation studio in terms of content output, PA Works is probably the best one I’ve seen in terms of quality and visual consistency. I’ve commented before on how Kyoto Animation, Studio Gainax and JC Staff can put out great looking shows that break down and become really cheap looking whenever the budget gets cut too thin, but PA Works is the few where I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. I can easily say the same thing for their 2013 offering, A Lull in the Sea, because the budget doesn’t really drop until the second half, and even then, it’s a pretty difficult drop for the inexperienced to notice. Visually, this series is just as teeming with life as any ocean, and this is especially clear in the ocean, where there are schools of fish swimming around through the environment, in both the background, foreground, and once in a while they even interact with the sea dwelling humans on screen.

Character animation is also crisp and fresh, with little pieces of extra effort sprinkled in here and there to make their movements underwater feel more realistic, and to make their lack of practice moving above water feel a little more awkward. The character designs are nothing too extravagant, especially with most of the nameless adults looking more or less the same, and the only character who doesn’t look like he’d been pulled from the real world being the Sea God’s remnant, Uroko-sama. The kids look fairly generic, but for the most part, their personalities are so distinct that you won;t have any trouble remembering what each one looks like. Their facial expressions are also very fluidly animated, highly expressive, and full of either youthful passion or adult stoicism, depending on the character. I did of course mention the animation budget drops in the second half, and thankfully, there’s a canonical reason for this.

I won’t spoil what happens halfway through the series, but what I will say is that there’s a reason for the underwater setting to lose all of it’s fish and most of it’s people, and there’s also a reason for both sea and surface to a more intensely white color palette. The lack of underwater visual effects cannot be explained, however, but the lack of diverse expressions and extra movement can be traced back to a major shift in focus and tone, as there’s just a lot less going on in the second half than there is in the first half. More on that later, but I’m pretty sure a huge chunk of the budget in the second half must have gone to the 3D visual effect of salt-flake snow falling in both the sea and surface settings. All that aside, the point that’s most worth remembering is that the series may lose some of it’s flair, but it never gets so bad that it looks cheap, which is one thing you can always say for PA Works.

The soundtrack, for the most part, sticks to piano and string instruments, played in such a way that they almost sound like they’re echoing underwater. It’s music that, for the most part, that reminds you of the sea, even if it wasn’t attached to this series. There are some exceptions, like Ofunehiki no Uta, which draws upon a fictionalized Japanese tradition, and thus falls back on a much more traditionally eastern sounding orchestration, complete with backup singers and what might be the only wind instruments in the show. Another odd standout is Uroko Sama no Monogatari, a tune that plays around the character of Uroko-sama, and oddly enough, it almost sounds like the extended beginning to a country song. I can’t really say that it’s a memorable soundtrack, and there really aren’t any standouts that you’d get any enjoyment out of without having the show to put them in context, but there are quite a few of them that can move you to tears if you listen to them while remembering the scenes that they were used in, especially in the case of Ofunehiki no Uta.

The first opening, named after the anime itself, is a bit on the generic side, an upbeat pop song that you could find attached to pretty much any slice of life anime. The visuals, on the other hand, are nothing if not stunning. While the song fits the mold of slice of life, the video that accompanies it breaks that mold, offering a beautiful look at the two towns and their inhabitants, all while remaining consistent with the animation quality from that half of the series. On a related note, there’s water animation in this opening that could hold it’s own against Free!. The first ending theme, Aqua Terrarium, is also somewhat generic, albeit with it’s visual accompaniment being lingering shots of one of Manaka motionless in the sea. So, yeah, standard ending animation. The second opening, Ebb and Flow, carries a much more somber tone than the first one, and it’s imagery of time having passed can possibly tug at your heart strings for an episode or two, at least until you realize what direction the rest of the series is taking. The second ending theme, Mitsuba no Musubi, is just as unremarkable as the first, albeit with an unexpected shift in art style.

The english dub was produced by Bang Zoom, and I just want to say off the bat that I’ve been turning into a HUGE Max Mittelman fan lately. He’s still relatively new in the industry, but as I mentioned in my One Punch Man review, he deserves all of the lead roles he’s already been getting. He’s playing a character who starts off angsty and confrontational, and if we’re being completely honest, he’s also kind of an asshole. He develops over time to become much more reasonable and understanding, and throughout the whole process, he plays off of Michelle Ruff’s Manaka(Can I call her Monica from here on? Screw it, I’m gonna anyway) beautifully. While Monica is the target of both Hikari’s aggression and later affection, she’s no hapless Yamato Nadeshiko type character. She responds to his behavior the way any actual girl her age would respond to a close friend acting like a bully, by chastising him for being aggressive and threatening to stop hanging out with him if he doesn’t cool it. They become much stronger characters by the halfway point, and the actors have more than enough chemistry to pull it off.

Unfortunately, I can’t speak as glowingly about the rest of the main four, as Kaname and Chisaki aren’t quite as interesting as their floundering friends. They’re not unlikeable characters… At least, not at first… But it’s hard to describe them outside of their looks and their positions inside of the show’s love polygon. Brianna Knickerbocker and Bryce Papenbrook perform admirably in these roles, but still feel quite underused. Xanthe Huynh and Erica Mendez have a much more rewarding turn as Miuna, a little girl from a damaged home, and Akari, the woman who’s found herself tied by fate to Miuna’s single father. Their efforts to overcome prejudice and unchecked emotional turmoil in order to come together as a family is one of the biggest driving forces of the first half of the series, a fact that wasn’t lost on either actress, who put out some of the most genuine, raw emotion out of the show’s entire cast. Chris Hackney also does a commendable job as Tsumugu, a land-living boy who finds himself drawn into Hikari’s group of friends. He’s not the first actor to give a stoic character personality, but he still pulls it off pretty damn well. There aren’t very many standout performances over-all, but it’s still a solid dub that’s more or less on equal footing with the original sub.

At first glance, A Lull in the Sea may appear to be another slice of life romantic comedy, with it’s only distinction being it’s neo-little-mermaid gimmick. Thankfully, the writers waste no time whatsoever establishing that there are real themes at play here, and that they’re timeless themes to boot. At the beginning of the series, the people of the land and the people of the sea are not on good terms whatsoever. I’ve seen plenty of fictional allegories for racism in my day, and while most of them amount to angry strawmen claiming “We round people shouldn’t be getting mixed up with them circle people” to the Disney version of Pocahontas sporting a song that blatantly states “They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil,” Lull takes a much more thorough approach. The differences between the sea people and the surface people has some serious depth to it, as it exists not only in real time, but stretching back throughout their long term geographically close relationship with one another.

While it’s true that the setting does feel a bit underdeveloped, and the idea of an undersea village living as neighbors to a realistic, modern land village does bring up a lot of questions that never get answered, these flaws in world-building are easily over-shadowed by just how uncanny the plot’s resemblance to real life social issues can be. with the exception of the Sea God’s backstory, every single social injustice we see in this series can be drawn as a parallel to an issue that either occurs or used to occur in real life. The idea of middle and even high school students instantly rejecting and tormenting other students for the simple crime of being different has been happening since the dawn of time. It’s practically a rule of being adolescent, regardless of how adult international relationships may or may not be influencing it. For some minorities to want to rebel against this discrimination by being confrontational and having a bad attitude while others try to be on their best behavior in order to fight stereotypes through pacifism, and even for these two sects to clash with each other, is also disturbingly relevant to race relations in any society that’s managed to diversify itself. This is in stark contrast to Japan, a racially homogenous nation where this series oddly takes place.

Harking back to Hikari’s sister Akari(yes, those two names are put together in anime far, far too often), she originally had a job on the surface, until it was revealed that she was in love with her single father boss, and was harboring an intent to marry him. She was rejected outright from both sides, with her boss’s daughter not wanting the union to take place for certain spoiler reasons, but she was especially contested by her own people, including her father, because of a village rule stating that anyone who fell in love with a land lubber would never be allowed in the sea again. It’s later revealed that the legend of the Sea God was behind this rule, but even if he wasn’t, this attitude still rings true today, as there are tons of parents out there who would rather die than see their offspring wind up in a relationship that might compromise their heritage. Hell, one of my favorite scenes occurs long after the children have already put their differences aside, and the adults from both sides are coerced into a negotiation over a necessary ritual, which goes great until both sides start demanding apologies over perceived injustices of the past, an argument that almost becomes violent before the who kerfuffle is blamed on the kids, suggesting that racial differences are harder to get over for the older generation than the younger one.

If I hadn’t made it obvious to you by now, the two biggest recurring themes in this show(at least the interesting ones) are prejudice and desegregation, themes that are told primarily from the point of view of four sea-dwelling middle schoolers trying to fit in at a surface-dwelling school, but when you take a step back from them, you can see the issue from the perspectives of the human kids, the hopeful teacher, the adults who’ve lived through issues the kids can’t fully understand, the young star-crossed lovers and more. All of these different perspectives, almost all of which are realistic and relevant to the viewer in their own way, give the series a sense of depth and complexity that most slice of life shows can never even hope to reach. Characters grow and develop as their minds become more open and their hearts become more accepting, and yeah, even the bullies become likeable through the course of the story. There’s a sprinkling of developing crushes to add some spice to the main cast, but it takes a back seat to more important plotlines. All of this leads to a climax that’s equal parts inspiration and tragedy, and an ending that will have you crying your eyes out… Halfway through the series.

Yeah, this is pretty much where my praise of A Lull in the Sea ends, and the ravaging must begin. I’m going to try my best not to spoil the climax of episode 13, as I do believe everyone should be able to experience it blindly for themselves, but I will reveal some… stuff, from the second half, so here’s your warning. If I didn’t think it was important to talk about, I wouldn’t be spoiling it. For example, there’s the fact that episode 14 starts off with a five year time skip. One of our four main characters has aged naturally, but the other three are still 14, through some means I don’t feel like explaining. Considering how the first half ended, this isn’t the worst way to continue the series, and there is some potential for the story to develop under these circumstances, but here’s the problem… The racial tension, by this point, has been completely resolved. The people making the show must have realized they’d written themselves into a corner, and the only way to continue was to abandon all the depth of the first half and instead focus on the love-polygon, which quickly becomes a love-dodecahedron.

Going forward, a lot of dumb decisions are made to get the writers out of their corner, but the one that instantly had me doing the hardest head-desk of my life was when, in a flash-back, we hear nine year old Miuna getting jealous over Hikari, a character she’d never shown any special affection for throughout the first half. I did the math on the time skip, and guessed on the spot that this show was about to rely on one of the creepiest, unrealistic, sexist ideas that anime has ever come up with. To get a vague yet still accurate picture of what I’m talking about, picture Love Hina’s Keitaro Urashima, the boy who’s pursuing a girl he knew from his childhood. Now, instead of a male character falling back on a memory because he can’t get a girlfriend through any other means, picture a female character who COULD get a boyfriend, but refuses to because she’d rather end up an old maid than betray some dude she had a crush on as a child. It’s bad, and a lot of anime do it, but most anime don’t go the extra mile of using a time skip to make the girl and her old friend the same age so it’ll be okay. Only it’s not, because it’s still creepy.

Oh, and it gets worse… Her friend, the mischievous moppet Sayu, falls in love with another 14 year old because… Get this… He patted her on the head and called her a good girl. Ooh, scandalous, right? That has to be the most laughable catalyst for an “I WILL NEVER LOVE ANOTHER” that I have ever heard. I wish I could go into deeper spoilers, but I’ve already said too much, so let’s summarize this: The second half of the anime exists for two reasons. First of all, it exists to explore and conclude the love dodecahedron, which it doesn’t, and it also exists to ret-con the conclusion of episode 13 so that the series can end on a happier note, which… Unfortunately… is executed in a very fanficcy way that tears a massive plot hole in the lore of the story. Basically, the entire second half of the anime didn’t need or deserve to exist, especially since the first half ended on the perfect note, a beautiful tragedy that warranted no farther than one epilogue episode to wrap things up. You came close, Lull… You came close.

A Lull in the Sea is available stateside from NIS America, which of course means it’s ridonkulously expensive. Luckily, it’s also available in both dub and sub form on Crunchyroll for subscribers. The original manga by Project – 118 is not available stateside, nor is the follow-up four-panel manga from the same writer. Personally, I recommend the Crunchyroll subscription, if you can afford it. I had to cancel mine after paying 1000 dollars on a car bill, but then again, i’m an old ass adult. Subscribe with your parents’ money, kids!

A Lull in the Sea is kind of like The Big O… I fell in love with the first half, and then found my jaw dropping farther and farther to the floor as what was previously awesome and enjoyable became huge disappointments once they got over the hump. Also like Big O, I wish to God that MAL would separate the two halves into their own entries, so that I could judge them separately instead of lumping them together. Why does the second half of this show exist? What was the point of it? I’m not going to sit here and stream the manga, so I have no idea how well this show holds up against it, but if they did the second half just for accuracy, then maybe they should have broke away from the source material and found a way to end it with episode 14. None of these love interests needed to be resolved, which… Oh, by the way, they weren’t. Nor did the perfect ending, which happened at the show’s halfway point, need to be repeated under dumber circumstances to force a happy ending. This show could have been good. It should have been good. Yeah, a bad first half can be saved by a good second half, but a bad second half can destroy a good first half. This is a damn shame. I give A Lull in the Sea a 5/10.

  1. Based on this post and your Killing Joke review we have very different tastes when it comes to animation. Thanks to your eloquent prose I can however see things from your point of view. I liked this show, but what transpires at the midway point shakes things rather drastically. When something like that occurs there’s a risk that some viewers will not like the new direction they took or how they potentially ruined a tragic finale. Don’t be mean, let the sea people have some happiness. It’s tough enough that their religious figure keeps afflicting them with fish heads 🙂

  2. Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads… How’s that for eloquent prose?

    Anyway, honestly, I could have legitimately given this series a 9 or a 10 if that second half didn’t exist. I like happy endings and sad endings about equally, but they both have to be earned. You can’t build things up for one just to do a 180 degree cop-out and try to end on the other.

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