Children of the Whales – Anime Review
Synopsis: As a magic wielder, young archivist Chakuro knows his time is short, but everything changes when a girl from the outside appears on his island. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
While Netflix is securing World Wide anime exclusives this year, attempting to build up their own, unique anime library, they’re still nabbing up a handful of other titles back from 2017. Netflix’s latest Western anime release is Children of the Whales, a visually vibrant, story-book colored fantasy/sci-fi tale that’s more focused on wrapping the viewer up in emotional impact than always making complete, logical sense.
While the series is outwardly beautiful, with incredible visuals and some on point music to set the mood, Children of the Whales becomes divisive for everything underneath that. The series is predicated on trying to pull at your heartstrings with maximum efficiency. Tragedy is always just around the corner, focused on characters who handle such tragic turns by cracking beneath the pressure and suffering in the extreme.
Chakuro, effectively our lead, is a young man who finds it difficult to keep his emotions tucked away. He lives on the island known as the Mud Whale. The population is divided into the marked and unmarked. While the marked have supernatural telekinesis powers, they live decidedly shorter lives than the powerless unmarked.
Chakuro is perhaps one of the most passive anime heroes you’ll ever meet. He’s often dragged into the narrative and rarely does little more than record the unfolding events. The series purposefully sets him in this position, with narration for his character indicating this more passive role is indeed intentional. He’s our window into this world, and the series tries to balance itself as an ensemble cast with character’s like Suou, the island’s budding mayor and Ouni, the rebellious fighter, acting as additional POV leads.
As emotional journeys go Chakuro’s is one of heartache and pushing back against the cruel nature of this world. The show is decidedly anti-violence, with a number of characters preaching extreme passivity. Chakuro’s journey is understandable, and even relatable, but it can often feel like he’s spinning his wheels, never moving past this central character issue of extreme pacifism. Even when it becomes clear it’s fight or die as the people of the mud whale are viciously attacked by enemy intruders, he suffers such an extreme aversion to the need to fight back one has to wonder if he’s actually moving anywhere as a character. His passivity further compounds things as it can often feel like developments are handed to him on a silver platter, without accomplishing anything for himself. There’s a notable late season development that just sorta happens for Chakuro without much set up or reason, yet remains crucial for sending the story forward.
Suou, budding mayor of the Mud Whale’s people, is a similar character stuck in extreme pacifist ways. Early on his passion for peace and his big heart make him an endearing character. He’s deeply hurt by the unnaturally short lives of the marked, and as an unmarked yearns to do something for his fellow man. But it becomes hard to identify with Suou when it becomes clear there’s no reasoning with the invading enemy, yet he tries again and again to offer up peace and pacifism even in the face of threat. Suou can end up feeling like someone who simply cannot take a hint. His ideals are just that, ideals, and it becomes frustrating when he struggles to understand the enemy he and his people are facing.
The big take away from characters like Chakuro and Suou is how laser focused Children of the Whales is on providing that one, two emotional punch. This is where the series becomes exceedingly divisive. While characters like Ouni, another citizen of the Mud Whale and the only character with a healthy drive to fight back against the would-be invaders, provides a more relatable mentality to the situation at hand, his type is few and far between.
Instead Whales forces tragedy upon these kind souls, and often abandons logic in order to accomplish that. An excellent example of this is the most divisive Episode, episode 3, featuring an attack on the Mud Whale by the mysterious invading army. But as the proceedings get brutal, the attacking army often stops mid battle to allow our heroes to experience maximum upset, bawling their eyes out and wailing in distress at the deaths of their loved ones. The way the enemy attacks is also often nonsensical, using guns one minute and melee weapons the next. While that leaves room for these emotionally powerful moments, it can cause less enthused audiences frustration for the severe lack of logic.
Other problems arise from Children of the Whales attempting to hammer its emotional message home. There’s a lot of talk of people on the Mud Whale being forced to hide their emotions, but the word emotions more seems code for crying, rather than the full spectrum of human reactions. The same holds true as the villains come into play. We’re told these enemies are emotionless robots, people who’ve had all their emotions literally stripped away, yet one villain is maniacal with lust for killing and maiming. It’s eventually explained later, but this ties into how Children of Whales keeps a lot of its world building and details too close to its chest.
There’s a lot of world building elements in play, which is great for crafting a fantasy/sci-fi world that feels truly alive. Yet Children of the Whales makes use of a lot of unique terminology, words that hold no meaning for those unfamiliar with the story. It wouldn’t be a problem if Children of the Whales defined those words sooner rather than later, but the series has no interest in holding the audiences hand. This means if you’re not wrapped up in the emotional heartache, you’ll likely grow frustrated as term after term is thrown at you with few definitions to follow. Things are eventually explained, but you’ll have to wait multiple episodes to be provided with the definitions to make a number of these words mean anything.
This laser focus on the emotional impact sometimes even impacts the series more dramatic events. At one point an unmarked leader of the Mud Whale puts his life on the line for his citizens. The character, initially a minor antagonist, undergoes a transformation, turning into a last minute hero. But during this emotional journey he’s attacked by the series reoccurring murderous, over the top villain. The attempt to drag this moment even further into emotionally gut-wrenching territory backfires, becoming so over the top, so abrupt with its violence and shock value it becomes comedic rather than effective. The series then even tries turning our big baddie into a sympathetic character, offering him a sob-story origin, one that never really works because he’s so vile in the present. Perhaps you come to understand him, but feeling sorry for him feels like a big task the show never accomplishes.
I’ve ragged pretty hard on the series, but a lot of that has to do with me being a far more logically minded viewer. The places where Children of the Whales casts aside logic in order to try and pull at my heart strings come off as contrived to me, but for someone less interested in the narrative making total sense, and more interested in the emotional weight of the series’ messages and themes, these problems likely border on the invisible. I can still imagine a more universally pleasing version of this story, but the fact remains that the series is exceedingly effective for anyone who finds logic and logistics far less crucial.
Children of the Whales is crafted to be an emotional ride, laser focused on providing that emotional roller coaster for those who seek it. Couple this with strong music, often injected to provide that one last push to get tears out of you, it’s clear Children of the Whales is really just for that type of anime viewer. The anime ends with a tease implying a second season, but for now Children of the Whales ends with many questions left on the table. Ultimately I doubt this will bother the intended audience, and if you’re truly just in it for the emotional ride Children of the Whales caps its first season, and perhaps only season, off in an effective and satisfying manner. I can’t find myself recommending it, as I rarely found myself truly engaged, but know it’s perfect if you’re looking for an exclusively emotional ride.
Children of the Whales is available for streaming via Netflix.