On the surface (no pun intended) Umi Monogatari looked like an Aria spin-off almost. For obvious starters, it’s directed by Junichi Sato (Aria, helped on Sketchbook, Kaleido Star, Magic User’s Club, Princess Tutu), has some focus on beautiful background art (Shichiro Kobayashi is art director (Simoun, Angel’s Egg, Ashita no Joe 2, Berserk, Detroit Metal City, Figure 17, Castle of Cagliostro, Melody of Oblivion, REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA, Space Adventure Cobra) and he’s definitely one of the best – I talked about him more in my Simoun review), has quiet, soulful piano songs by composer Ken Muramatsu (Kurenai and Sketchbook), and some extremely familiar character personalities. However, Umi Monogatari seems to be hiding a slightly darker card up it’s sleeve.
Umi Monogatari (or ‘Sea Story’) is about two women of the sea – not quite mermaids, but it is shown that they can only inhabit the water and use some kind of magical bracelets to breathe above the water. The pair are Marin (Kana Asumi (Yuno in Hidamari Sketch, Hyouka Kazakiri in Index) whose voice is slightly annoying) and her younger sister Urin (Yui Horie (Manabi in Manabi Straight, Ayu in Kanon, Minori in Toradora) who is playing young), and the show begins when the two of them find a very pretty ring laying on the sea floor. Marin, being the total Akari-type overly-optimistic girl decides that she wants to return the ring to it’s owner, who will have come from the surface, though she and her sister have never been to the surface world and hear bad things about it. Urin is a bit of a worrier and less optimistic, but bug sis Marin sways her with her natural magnetism.
As a note for this beginning part, I don’t think Kana Asumi is great for the role of Marin. Her uber-moe voice is better suited to characters like Yuno who are shy and insecure, and sounds a little awkward trying to pull off an ultra-positive sound. Add to that Yui Horie, who is often used as the queen of Genki, playing the less energetic and more worried character, and you really have to scratch your head at the casting decisions.
Anywho, the first half of the episode moves very slow and fairly predictably, though not in a bad way. Marin and Urin have pretty typical loving-sister interactions and there’s a lot of quiet moments with excellent imagery as well as fun moments with chibis and cute little gags. When the girls emerge on the surface, there is a summer festival going on, and everyone who sees them is pretty weirded out, partly because they both wear bikinis with massive cleavage, and partly because they are yelling out to everyone about the ring in search of it’s owner.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to the owner herself, a dark-haired girl who is left in her mother’s fortune-teller booth at the festival to try and make some money, though all she can think about is how her boyfriend dumped her earlier, and she threw the ring that he gave her into the sea. She’s pretty pissed off.
As expected, the sea girls eventually find the girl and bring her the ring, but she doesn’t want it, going on about her ex-boyfriend being a bastard. Just when Marin’s almost given her enough optimistic and heartfelt words about the ring’s beauty to make her keep it, the girl sees her ex-boyfriend with another woman and chucks the ring off into the distance. Marin goes to look for it again, in spite of Urin’s complaints that the surface dwellers simply can’t appreciate beauty, but Marin thinks that the girl had a beauty in her soul and really wanted the ring.
Now, it’s around this point that things take a bit of a strange and unexpected turn. The sea girls continue to search for the ring, and eventually the dark-haired girl realizes that she should probably try looking as well, and wonders a bit if maybe there was more to what her boyfriend had done when he broke up with her. Now, what I pretty much expected was that they’d find the ring, Marin would say some heartfelt words, the boyfriend’s real intentions would be made clear, the end, back to the sea. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Marin and Urin have split up in their search, and it’s started to get dark outside. Urin finds herself completely frightened and wanting to go home, and decides to give up on finding the ring to go find her sister, however, she falls through a bush and stumbles down a hill, landing her more lost and farther from comfort. She finds herself beside a large coffin and is generally scared and confused. Meanwhile, the dark haired girl catches up with Marin to help her look for the ring.
Just then, fireworks suddenly start going off. Only, the fireworks scare the living fuck out of Marin and Urin, and both of them start screaming in horror. The dark-haired girl reassures Marin that they are just fireworks, but, as Marin points out, there is no one to reassure Urin. Sure enough, Urin continues to freak out in what I must say is fairly convincing terror, and I must say, at this point I started to get worried. Even if there was a happy ending, this could only be seen as completely traumatic for the poor little girl who’s lost and alone and scared out of her fucking mind. Rather than optimism and fun, I was frightened, and I started to remember that Junichi Sato also did Princess Tutu.
Before long, the lights from the fireworks bring a glint of light to Urin’s attention, and it’s the ring , which has fallen into a crevice beside the coffin. Urin tries to reach down and get it, and failing that, tries to move the coffin, and eventually gets the ring, however she accidentally opens the coffin. This is where it gets really weird – a huge mass of black wind surges forth from the coffin and surrounds the whole island in a dark cloud which begins circling ominously and raining on everyone’s parade. Urin, worried still, whimpers ‘onee-chan…’
……and then it ends. That’s it. No happy resolution for this episode, just a little girl, lost and confused, wishing her sister was there, as a dark, ominous cloud hangs over.
Honestly, I have no idea what to think of this episode. I can’t tell if it’s going to get happy again or back to normal soon, or if this was all a horrible Narutaru-style bait-and-switch where you’re lured in with happy fun and then suddenly everyone’s crying and someone is frantically disemboweled. It felt really, really awkward to watch as the familiarity and fun of slice-of-life was replaced with a confusing, dark, and scary environment. And to point out the obvious, ‘that dark cloud doesn’t bode well.’ It actually kind of reminds me of the first episode of Shigofumi, but less obvious or sudden.
But the thing is, even leaving behind the whole issue of expectations versus delivery, I think there were some technical reasons that this first episode was so confusing. For starters, it was so mixed up – one minute the girls are screaming because of the fireworks, and then Marin is talking about how beautiful they are, and then it’s back to Urin being terrified – you can’t tell when it’s supposed to heartwarming and when it’s supposed to be heart-wrenching. I definitely feel like this episode needs to be rewatched with different expectations, but at the same time, I don’t know what those expectations should be. If everything is jolly again in episode 2, then it means that the first episode had some really odd spots of darkness, but if it gets darker, then it means the show had some really odd spots of light.
Until we see more, I can’t really make up my mind on anything. On the one hand, the bits of fanservice seemed really out of place and almost creepy at times in a lighthearted show, but if it’s a dark one, they might be right at home. If this were supposed to be an episodic adventure show, I’d say the camera angles were really closed in and not very explorative, but if this show will continue in the same place, maybe there will be plenty of time to explore it thoroughly. Thee problem is simply not knowing what I’ve gotten myself into, and having too many expectations. I’ll definitely be watching more of this show just out of the curiosity as to what the fuck just happened.
Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier, but this show is, in fact, based off of a pachinko game. No shit.