In “Children of the Sea,” Ruka (voiced by Mana Ashida) is drawn to the sea.


Reel Time sig Lee

Imagine being out at sea with no land in sight, no stars overhead and no navigational tools to help chart a course. The sails you depend upon for motion are slack and sagging. The ocean is becalmed and your ship is adrift, at the mercy of unpredictable currents. Although there is a scene in “Children of the Sea” that is similar to this scenario, it also serves as a metaphor for the film’s lack of narrative structure.

“Children of the Sea” comes from Japan’s Studio 4°C, a Japanese animation studio founded by Eiko Tanaka and Koji Morimoto in 1986. The film is directed by Ayumu Watanabe, with a score by award-winning composer and longtime Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, known for his work on films such as “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “My Neighbor Totoro.”

The story revolves a Ruka, a teenage girl whose parents are separated. She lives with her mother, who abuses alcohol. She has difficulty expressing her feelings and is depicted as a social outcast. In a flashback at the beginning of the film, Ruka sees a ghost in the water at the aquarium where her father works.

As a teenager, Ruka is still oddly drawn to the aquarium. When her summer plans collapse, she learns that two mysterious boys — Umi and Sora — were found living in the ocean. The boys were raised by dugongs, a cousin of the manatee that ranges throughout the Indo-West Pacific.

As viewers wade deeper into this confounding cinematic construct, it becomes evident that Ruka shares an enigmatic connection to the sea with her newfound friends. Simultaneously, a series of strange events preoccupy every adult that should be keeping tabs on the kids. Around the world, marine animals are behaving abnormally. Meteorites crash into the ocean. Researchers and military personnel conduct experiments and make presentations but are ultimately left grasping for understanding.

The audience may as well join them in their obliviousness: Any viewer expecting to identify traditional story elements in “Children of the Sea” will be thwarted. Watanabe’s film is more analogous to visual poetry. It is replete with profound ideas and magnificent imagery but it lacks lucidity and charm. Its characters are inconsistent and unapproachable. The film fails to provide adequate background to illuminate the mythos it strives to create. If Ruka’s internal struggle with identity serves as the central conflict, its resolution is ill-defined and unsatisfactory.

The film attempts to explore the relationship between microcosms and macrocosms, comparing the development of the individual to the evolution of life on earth as well as the connection between the biosphere and life cycle of the universe. Science and spirituality coexist in this speculative thought experiment. Ruka, who is emotionally disconnected at the beginning of the film, experiences ego death as she transitions and she begins to understand her connection to the world around her.

Reaching that moment of self-surrender and acknowledgement of Ruka’s true self involves a mind-expanding, universe-spawning cosmic maelstrom. With repeated references to “seeds of the stars,” “children of the stars” and “the sea is the mother,” the film clearly evokes the idea of panspermia, the hypothesis that life throughout the universe may have been distributed by comets, meteoroids, and space dust.

Part of the problem with “Children of the Sea” may be that it is a basically a thumbnail sketch of the source material. Igarashi’s original story unfolded across 42 issues making up a combined five volumes. Condensing that into a film with a running time of roughly 110 minutes means that a lot of details are going to be omitted. It is also a safe bet that something is lost in translation.

Still, “Children of the Sea” is breathtakingly beautiful. Despite the narrative defects, Watanabe floods the screen with a pageant of gorgeous scenes, so exhaustively detailed and meticulously rendered that the stunning panorama frequently conceals the film’s flaws. The film races toward a psychedelic spectacle that seems to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“Children of the Sea” is Watanabe’s fourth time directing a full-length theatrical release. In this instance, the director relies almost exclusively upon the images to do all of the heavy lifting. Drama and dialogue are minimized and the plot is adrift, steered by currents of fate the viewer cannot always fathom. Its splendor and mysticism are both mesmerizing and disorienting, but it feels as though this adaptation excludes too many integral parts of the story — much like an aquarium can only provide a diminutive sampling of life in the vast sea.

GKIDS, a distributor of award-winning feature animation for both adult and family audiences, licensed the film for release in the United States, with the intention of a theatrical run in April. Due to the pandemic, the U.S. theatrical release was pushed back to August only to be canceled again. GKIDS released the film Sept. 1 on DVD and Blu-ray and via video on demand through subscription platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Google Play.

Netflix assigned the film a TV-PG rating. Slow pacing and deep, philosophical themes make the film challenging for younger kids.

Lee Clark Zumpe is entertainment editor at Tampa Bay Newspapers and an author of short fiction appearing in select anthologies and magazines.