“Children of the Sea” has achieved the impossible.

The new animated film from Studio 4°C adapts the manga of the same name by Daisuke Igarashi — whose idiosyncratic, wispy illustrations, with their huge numbers of flowing lines, always seemed impractical, if not downright impossible to bring into the world of animation. But director Ayumu Watanabe and his team have somehow pulled it off. No shortcuts, no compromise — just Igarashi’s art translated directly to anime. This is one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve seen in years.

Like the manga on which it is based, “Children of the Sea” revolves around Ruka (Mana Ashida), a headstrong 14-year-old girl who lives in a coastal town near Tokyo. Ruka’s means of escape from her household — made up of a caring but largely absent father and an alcoholic mother — comes from participating in her school’s handball team. On the first day of summer vacation, though, a tussle with an older student on the court gets Ruka tossed off the team for the entire summer. Lamenting her bad luck while wandering the town, she visits the aquarium where her father works and witnesses something incredible: a boy swimming among the whales.

Children of the Sea (Kaiju no Kodomo)
Run Time 111 mins.
Opens June 7

This boy, she learns, is named Umi (literally “Sea,” voiced by Hiiro Ishibashi) and not without reason: he and his brother, Sora (“Sky,” voiced by Seishi Uragami), were raised in the ocean by dugongs. Ruka begins spending time with Umi and Sora and, like the brothers, discovers that she shares an almost magical connection to the ocean. Meanwhile, a mysterious gathering of aquatic life off the coast seems imminent — a gathering where the three children of the sea appear destined to play a crucial role.

But narrative may be the least important thing about “Children of the Sea.” This is a film that takes place in the ocean, after all, where things can feel more nebulous than on land. Most of its mysteries remain unsolved, and it concludes with a psychedelic trip through the sea and stars that recalls the climax of “2001: A Space Odyssey” for both its fantastic imagery and how much it leaves open to interpretation.

No matter. This is a film you experience on a deeper level, one that washes over you like a wave. On Ruka’s first day of summer vacation, with the sun reflecting off the sea and the cicadas chirping, you practically start sweating. When she leaps into the air to score a goal in handball, you share that thrilling moment of weightlessness. When the children feast on a freshly cooked lobster, you can almost feel the tender meat sliding down your throat. It’s hard to overstate what an atmospheric triumph Studio 4°C has pulled off here. Actually, if the end credits are any indication, it’s somewhat of a shared triumph: It had backup from practically the entire anime industry.

In the same way the animation in “Children of the Sea” cleaves almost exactly to its manga base, so does the rest of it. Most of the dialogue is taken wholesale from the manga, as is the narrative flow (excepting a few edits for time.) If there’s a flaw to be found in the film, it’s just this. Igarashi’s manga, with its dynamic framing and minimal dialogue, does feels cinematic and lends itself well to adaptation. Still, I wonder if a slightly less reverent take might have felt more like a duet with the original material than a cover version.

Still, what a beautiful cover it is.

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