Ruka’s vacation is ruined right on the first day of summer. She hits another girl in the face with her elbow during a handball game — in her mind, it’s payback for having her foot stomped — and the coach lays down the law: “Don’t bother coming back to practice.” She’s unhappy and remote, distant from other kids her age, annoyed by how the only attention she gets from adults — including her estranged father and incurious mother — is in the form of reprimands. This girl needs something to do, and doesn’t know what.
One afternoon she rides the train into Tokyo, for no particular reason, and finds herself standing at the lip of an inlet to the ocean. Someone else is there, a boy who doesn’t look Japanese but speaks to her: “The sea in Tokyo is kind of like a broken toy, isn’t it?” His name is Umi — “Sea” — and he has the dreamy, amused air of someone who will probably never grow all the way up.
Strange, Ruka thinks, then drops by the aquarium where her estranged father works and sees Umi swimming in one of the tanks. He’s perfectly comfortable in and among the other fish, as if he had always been there. And in a way, he has: he was found in the South Seas years ago as an infant in the company of a family of manatees. Like the manatees themselves, he can move between land and sea with equal grace, but the sea is his true home.
Ruka is at first baffled, then curious. It turns out Umi is one of two such children living at the aquarium where her estranged father works. The other, Sora (“Sky”), is as arrogant and distant as Umi is friendly and playful, but nonetheless the two of them share something between them, a common mission. “You smell the way we do,” Umi tells Ruka, “and you see and think the way we do, too.” Ruka doesn’t know what any of this means until she has a few adventures with Sora and Umi, and indeed begins to see things as they do. The ocean, as she discovers in their company, is a universe unto itself, with its own denizens and peculiarities — and even its own ghosts.
A plot synopsis for Children of the Sea does not do justice to the storytelling, and so much of the joy of a book like this comes from the way it is told: beautifully. Like 5 cm/sec, it’s as much about the pauses and breathing spaces and little digressions in its story than forcing things to b e hustled forward on every single page. At one point Ruka plays hide-and-seek in her empty school; at another, she and the two boys grab a boat and push off into the sea on their own. Both scenes do make plot points, but they’re not rubbed in our faces. Likewise, there’s the larger story — something to do with other fish that are vanishing from their aquariums around the world, which may well tie into the general degradation of marine life. But Sea doesn’t make any of this into a formal ecology lesson. We’re just reading a lovely story about a girl’s most unusual summer.
Art: “Rough but beautiful.” That’s the best way I can describe Daisuke Igarashi’s artwork — it’s meticulous and lovely, but also coarse around the edges. And yet it’s a pleasant coarseness, like the way textured paper frays in appealing ways when you tear it. There’s enough detail to lend a sense of realism to everything that goes on (even the more magical moments), but it’s all seen in a somewhat dreamy, detached way.
Most striking is the the opening dozen or more pages, which ease us into the story through a series of digressions, illustrated as — what else? — watercolors. Then the colors fall away and we’re left with the lines and tones of the book’s black-and-white artwork, but even in black-and-white it’s still bewitching to look at.
Translation: This being a VIZ Signature edition, I expected nothing less than the best. I got most of it. The book’s original right-to-left layout was kept, although the editors chose to replace effects and signage when they could get away with doing so with minimal damage. I’ve become a lot less resistant to the idea of digitally retouching FX and signage: for one, it’s become easier to do this sort of thing, even in just the last couple of years; and it means that much broader an audience for works that genuinely deserve it. The text translation itself is impeccable, never distracting or stilted.
The Bottom Line: Between and among the endless clones of popular shonen titles, the gratuitous if entertaining violence of the more mature-audience offerings, and the flood of forgettable garbage, there’s titles like this. They’re not about a flashy concept and they don’t often have a name artist or writer on the cover, but once you start reading them the rest of the world simply drops away for a while.
Children of the Sea caught my eye when it was announced earlier in the year at Comic-Con East, and now that I actually have it in hand it is even more enchanting than I expected. This book embodies what I look for when I read manga at its best.
Footnote: VIZ’s rating system indicates the story is “for older teens” due to “disturbing imagery”. Nothing in this current volume justifies such a rating, which puts it in the same category as Claymore. Other volumes in this series might come closer to justifying the rating, but there’s scarcely a frame to be found in this book of Sea that is remotely as disturbing as anything in Claymore.