Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Nagi no Asukara Review

Year: 2014
Studio: P.A Works
Genre: fantasy, coming of age, slice of life, romance, drama

I knew off the bat Nagi no Asukara was going to generate a lot of conversation being a Mari Okada series. Really, there is no writer like Mari Okada, and regardless of whichever camp you are in or wherever on the fan spectrum you fall, I don't think anyone can deny that she is someone hard to ignore. Personally, I find her style – one that's very distinct and hard to miss – fascinating yet often frustrating. Okada pushes some legit emotional buttons when she's in the groove and has firm control over her talent. But every now and then, she crosses that fine line and lapses into histrionics. And there is no series that displays her flaws and competence in equal measures as much as Nagi no Asukara. Where Okada shines is also where she falters. But whatever problems I may have with the show, I can safely say I did enjoy it immensely and consider it one of the most memorable series of the Fall 2013 lineup.

One of the most prominent themes of Nagi no Asukara is change and resistance to change. Rightly so given what what we are dealing with – adolescence, a period of rough transitions, a time where many important but difficult changes take place. The series sets up the romantic dilemma early and adhering to its nature, things only get messier as the story goes on. No doubt about it, the plot at large serves the character and not the other way around. I won't nitpick about it because I want to recognize Nagi no Asukara for what it is and not what it's not. I think a lot of people, myself included, believed the OTP of the show was going to be Tsugumu and Manaka because of all that groundwork laid in the beginning, but that ship sunk pretty quickly didn't it. By the end of the first season, it's pretty clear who Manaka's feeling lies with, the only question remained was what path the story will take to bring the two together. Hell, that was one long and winding journey.

It's always a risky business to stake everything on character dynamic and the drama it generates the way Nagi-Asu is. In a way, Okada is a perfect candidate for the job because as much as I have problems with her writing, I can't deny that she has very good grasp on adolescent insecurities. There are moments when Nagi-Asu cuts through the veil and right into the heart of the adolescent experience – and many of them revolve around Chisaki. It's not unreasonable to say that she is the dilemma. Chisaki's unrequited love for Hikari sets the tone for the story and when you take her out of the equation, the paradigm in question would collapse. To me, all this means the series is already halfway to success if it can sufficiently resolve her side of the story.

The first half of the series did a wonderful job with that. I empathized with Chisaki's fear for change – revealing her feelings could potentially jeopardize her friendship with everyone around her. I also really like the fact it's the usually reserved Kaname who breaks the silence when everybody else more or less dances around the subject. He first confesses his feelings to Chisaki without a moment of hesitation or embarrassment and then he pushes Hikari to confess his. It's just nice to have someone take a firm stance and sets the wheels in motion. The second half of Nagi-Nasu doesn't quite share the same emotional profundity as the first – the plot is stagnant for too long and it meanders in pretence of searching for substance. As I said before, it's obvious that Manaka reciprocates Hikari's feelings and all that's left to do is bring them to the same page. In that regard, I think the plot held up pretty well. It doesn't make a whole lot sense logically for Manaka to lose her ability to love – to have romantic love to be precise, but I will take it for what it is. We see over and over again just how strongly Hikari feels for Manaka, to the extent he can set aside his own feelings as long as she is happy. In a show where so many characters brood and mope, Hikari's unwavering resolve and quickness to act is indeed precious.

The biggest problem I have with the second half is probably the handling of the Chisaki/Tsumugu/Kaname love triangle. It was almost inevitable for Chisaki to fall for Tsugumu because of the time skip. But the two people pushed together by the tides of fate (quite literally), lack the kind of chemistry that would have made their relationship compelling.  Kaname really got the short end of the stick here – if he didn't have a chance with Chisaki before, then it's unlikely he will with a 5 year age difference between them. He is practically sidelined in the second half of the story and because the writer didn't want him to come off too pitiful, she invented Sayu to fill the void. It's just too convenient for my liking. Tsumugu on the other hand comes off a bit too wise and composed for his age. I get that he is an old soul but bringing him down to a more humanistic level would have served well for his character development. To be honest, I wanted Tsumugu to momentarily lose control and show us a different facet of his character. Being the only person who stands above the rest of the playfield and with seemingly no emotional vulnerability distances him from the audience. The fact that Chisaki never completely come to terms with her feelings for Hikari is not much of a problem for me because I think it's okay to care for more than one person (the sentiment is echoed by the Sea God's tale). I don't think Chisaki quite figured out what is it exactly she feels for Hikari, it could just be she admires the qualities he possesses and is confusing it with romantic attachment or it could be she thinks of him as family. Whatever the case, I'm much happier being left with enough ambiguity to chew on than an unequivocal conclusion for the sake of providing answers.

The ending is more or less expected – in which Manaka and Hikari finally get together. I'm not sure what to think of Miuna's almost-sacrifice. To me, it happened because the story has to stop somewhere. Again, we go back to the problem of the plot serving its characters. I like Miuna as a character – her insecurities are relatable – even if I see her as little more than plot device in the grand scheme of things. It turns out that the Sea God also suffers from miscommunication and is consequently a victim of his own blind love. There is something about humanizing gods that always works for me and I like what I see here. Love is a mystery indeed and not even the gods can keep up with its highs and lows.

Nagi-Asu is a visually stunning show – reminiscent of Makoto Shinkai's works, it's beautiful even by P.A's standards. The scenery porn is simply mesmerizing. I'm not the biggest fan of the bubbly character design that practically scream melodramatic, and for a show that often overplays the pathos even without its help, it can be almost overwhelming to look at.

I think Okada is a lot more restrained where there are less episodes to work with, in the case of AnoHana for instance. But when she gets too much space to tell a story, she can become too obviously manipulative. To me, the difference between and AnoHana and Nagi-Asu is the former really packs an punch while the latter didn't quite. For sure, AnoHana is also one of the most melodramatic series I've seen to date but I say that in a good way. Nagi-Asu lacks subtlety, which it needs over the span of 26 episodes, but in spite of being loud and clumsy at times, it's still a fascinating watch punctuated with occasionally sharp emotional insight and some gorgeous visuals.

Overall: 8.5/10 

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