I will get back to my ongoing reviews of the original Sailor Moon seasons in the near future but I decided I needed a short break from blonde pig-tailed heroines who fight for justice. And so I found myself eyeing off this title in my review list.
I should probably admit I watched the first episode of this back when it first became available on Netflix and decided to pass. on the back of having watched Made in Abyss and Girls’ Last Tour, I wasn’t really in the mood for another anime that relied on a juxtaposition between adorable art and dark themes to hit my emotional resonance buttons so that I would ooh and ah and gush over another modern master-piece (not that Made in Abyss got all that much gushing being an incomplete story). And it isn’t that there is anything wrong with that particular ideal, it just feels like we’re getting a lot of these kinds of anime recently and to be honest the emotional payoff goes way down when you are waiting for the tragedy to strike.
Anyway, after I got over my preconceptions and comparisons to other series, I finally sat down and binged watched this anime in two sessions. That would make you think I was seriously into the story but that actually wasn’t the case. The reason I finished it during the second viewing session was I knew I would never go back and finish it if I stopped the viewing. I would find something else to watch and that would be the end of knowing what happened to the children on the Mud Whale and so I pushed forward through dialogue that never quite landed its mark and cheap emotional ploys that felt like they would have much greater weight on paper then they ever did on the screen.
What made this worse was the sequel-bait ending leaving huge chunks of the character journey and world-building as yet undone and yet I can’t really bring myself to care. We know the secret of how the Mud Whale came to be and how such a clearly flawed social structure formed and the immediate threat has been dealt with, kind of. For me, that’s enough and I certainly am not attached enough to any of the characters to care what happens next on their journey.
While this might make Children of the Whales sound dreadful, that is hardly the case. Visually it hits its mark with both character designs and the settings. At times it is remarkably beautiful and the fight sequences where characters use a mixture of weapons and magic power are usually very fluid and pretty to watch. The musical score is fairly on point and the narrative, what we get of it, is functional with no glaring issues other than the lack of an ending and unanswered questions. Yet from start to finish I was not drawn into the wonder that was the Mud Whale and those who inhabited it. As I went to draft this review I had to seriously ask myself why. Yes, the story doesn’t end, but I was disengaged long before I got to that point. What actually wasn’t working here that made me want this show to end?
The conclusion I came to was that this story feels very much like it was written by committee and tested by crowd preferences. It’s dystopian because dystopians are popular. The main character is male and an underdog. The coolest character is a bit of a rebel who ultimately wants to help his people. Female characters get cool powers but don’t ever do anything in fight sequences (trust me, it doesn’t matter how cool they seem, they don’t do anything in the fights). We have an attempted genocide of an island where the population is almost entirely made up of children because that will be dramatic. Oh, and the main character has a cool nickname. He’s known as the ‘destroyer’ because he has little control over his powers. Sounds important, but it never amounts to anything in the course of this first season.
And, the thing is, not one of those ideas is bad. Except the whole female characters being sidelined at every possible turn for no apparent reason given some of them are more trained and more powerful than the boy who seems to run through the heart of every conflict, that’s a pretty poor idea. But they are all just thrown in without any real heart behind them. Despite the circumstances of the Mud Whale, it never really feels like a real place. It’s just a setting for a fight to occur on. A location where characters are stranded. As much as the Mud Whale should feel like an actual character in this story and the setting needs to feel genuine, it never achieves that. Its a pretty play piece that has been beautifully built, but no real life has been breathed into it.
Each of the characters suffers the same fate. They have everything they need to be a real character. They have relationships and ties with others, frequently they have back stories, they have motives and desires. These characters should feel vibrant and alive, at least until they die tragically or watch others die tragically. And yet, you can’t help but feel that each one of these characters lacks any real presence outside of the script they’ve been given. While they all have character, that character feels so tightly controlled that they cease to feel real. Whether it is is Suou’s hand clenching, Ouni’s petulant desire for escape, or Sami’s hopeless love, it always feels scripted and calculated rather than genuine.
This isn’t helped by the presence of the villains who just seem like a bunch of psychos. And given they are supposed to have had their emotions eaten (and I know they come up with a bunch of babble as to why some retain emotions, but still), these characters are literally just war crazy, blood-thirsty murderers and it does nothing to aid the suspension of disbelief about the reality we are plunged into.
Nor does it help when the villains declare one of the Mud Whales kids to have some super special power that had never been mentioned prior and then suddenly he has some super special power. Props at least for not giving this to the main character, but still, then his nickname might have made sense.
So what I was left with was the hollow shell of an anime with a story that should work, characters who sound like they would be awesome on paper, and visually looks impressive, but ultimately it failed to reach me at all. And as the Mud Whale continues on its journey I can’t help but wonder about how much better things might have been with this idea if the story had narrowed its focus down or just really found its own sense of identity which is something I felt over and over again that this anime lacked.
What did you think of the Children of the Whales?
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