This Week: Glassy Ocean (Kujira no Chouyaku)
I want to reflect on something short but sweet from this week. I am working on a bigger plan for this time next Friday.
Tamura Shigeru is one of those folks who, only having watched their work this week, I dearly wish still did animation. His illustration style is that of a storybook surrealist, with more in common in terms of character design with older western works like Tintin than what one would normally immediately recall for anime or manga. Certainly this makes a degree of sense, as he is primarily a children’s book artist who has likely pulled a wide array of global influences so as to forge his particular dreamlike look.
I actually watched all three of the anime he made back in the 1990’s this week (Ginga no Uo Ursa Minor Blue, A Piece of Phantasmagoria, and Glassy Ocean), and as a complete set they really are quite something. That first one? Won the Ōfuji Noburō Award for animation excellence in 1993, so it sits among a number of well respected achievements in that respect. A Piece of Phantasmagoria, as his lone series, is such a great series of otherworldly but calming shorts to pop one or two of before bed. The entire collection of these productions function in the same universe though, pulled from Shigeru’s books as they are, and indeed Glassy Ocean even has its own primary episode bit in Phantasmagoria.
But here, as the last of his animations, it gets to shine as its own little film.
Conceptually, the idea is an easy enough dream to slip into. The idea of a sea one could walk on, but not frozen and cold like ice. Something nearly any kid has likely thought of. A temperate and comfortable place of ocean glass, where fish can be mined from under its surface like ore from mountains. And that in this vastness, where the ocean itself has stopped, there is still plenty of life. That a whale still tries to jump.
As the box cover or poster for this may imply, the actions surrounding this whale make up the core of the film. And I really do mean surrounding in a literal sense. The whale, in the physics of this universe, will take hours to jump from the water and travel through the air. And everyone knows this. So a crowd develops, full of friends and acquaintances to different folks as well as carnival or event fair like musicians and other performers. And as they take up their different perspectives around this whale, some share stories from other times in their lives. Others look on at what is before them in different ways, like painting or trying to just take in the moment. What the moment that turns into hours of this whale watching for them is, in a lot of respects, a formative “Those were the best of times” kind of experience for many to be able to look back on later.
You know how sometimes in life you have one of those? That This Will Be A Great Day To Remember? And you are aware of it even while it is in the process of happening? Boiled down, Glassy Ocean is a film that is entirely about that moment, given a dreamlike form that is as familiar as the idea of a jumping whale and yet as different as the notion that it may ever slow slowly make that leap over hours. That you could walk under the moment, fly over it, and really be able to walk away saying you saw as much as you could when the day is through and the moment has gone.
Now, this is a kind of surrealism I really like seeing done in animation, because this is still engineered to be wholly enjoyable and comprehensible to the children’s book audience.
Glassy Ocean is not exactly Angel’s Egg or Cat Soup in terms of design or intent. The characters have full dialogue but simple sentences that are easy to follow, and the overall plot operates in a straightforward manner. It is very easy to walk away with a sense of what happened and what was witnessed. That while there can be contemplative layers for a more adult audience to tear into, this is a dream that is not for them alone or even first and foremost. It is for everyone, and as such there is a low barrier to one saying they “got it” on one level or another as it were.
This is a movie where in one bit an old man being rowed by a robot gondolier needs to wind clocks submerged in water, and a pterodactyl needs to be chased away by said robot. And one person could try and decode any messaging intent in that regarding age, the advancement of time, wanting to have the opportunity to tick away ever longer, to take in just a few more sights before they go off into that good night.
Or, they could just enjoy the dream, the visual escapism wonder of such a world where a robot treats a pterodactyl with the mundanity that we may approach a seagull. And both are right, they fit the narrative fine. Each are awesome in different ways and intentions of the word.
That nothing is wrong, the music is calm and the colors are cooling.
That we still do have this moment now however we perceive it. We have the whale as an anchoring point of a communal memory, just like the characters do. And when we depart, we will still have that whale, both as a literal memory and as a reminder of a kind of That Was A Great Day I Will Always Remember feeling we always hope to one day see realized again in our lives outside of animation. It will not look quite the same of course, since for as wonderful as the sight of the jumping whale is to the gathering of the crowd, things can not be like that all the time or it would lose the novelty. But whatever the form they take, in a lot of ways those are the kinds of moments we all live for. They forge some of the most splendid memories and a waking escape from everything else in the world, wherever we may have come from.
It is a short film, in some ways even a short anthology given some of the stories shared. But I do not think that makes the long journey of the jumping whale and those who have gathered for the sight any less poetic for all kinds of audiences.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.