Children of the Whales: A show full of contradictions

Upon the sea of sand we see an island. An island that is sailing across the sand. It is a beautiful place where people live in harmony. But things are not what they seem to be. Most of the island’s inhabitants are below the age of 30. What is this place? Who are these people? You’ll find out in Children of the Whales.

It is a nice experience when you’re positively surprised by a show. Children of the Whales (Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau) is one that did. With no prior knowledge on the show save the limited information Netflix provides this was a wild guess for me. But being in the mood for something short I gave it a try. And it was an interesting watch.

The basics

Let’s start simple since the show seems like it’s a bit overlooked1 and its overall ratings across different platforms is somewhere in the 70-75 region. The larger animation focussed Youtube channels also haven’t covered it.

Children of the Whales (CotW) is an animated show based upon the manga of the same name. The manga released in 2013; the animation produced by J.C.Staff dates from 2017.

The series follows the 12-year old boy Chakuro who is the scribe/recorder of the people of his island. The island, called the Mud Whale, is adrift on the sea of sand. The people survive by scavenging other islands that pass by them and the bit of farming that they can manage. This small society is divided in two groups: The Marked and Unmarked.

The Marked are people with magical telekinesis- like powers called Thymia. Thymia is powered by the emotions of the wielder. They people have a short lifespan and rarely reach the age of 30. The Marked make up about 98% of the Mud Whale society. The others are the Unmarked. The people without thymia. While they are the de facto minority of the society, they are the ones in charge because they have a ‘normal’ human lifespan. The story kicks off when Chakuro encounters a human on another drifting island, something that hasn’t happened since people started to record their lives on paper. Contrary to what you might expect from the opening episode of this show, some unlikely events occur and it gets quite bloody real fast.

The show is a mixed bag of mystery, adventure and some other elements in a science fantasy universe. The target audience of the manga is labeled as Shojou, but the anime doesn’t give that vibe to me. Since I don’t know how the manga differs from the anime, I can only comment on the on screen presentation. It differs from things I’ve seen recently and the sound and visuals are a big contribution to that. 

Art and sound

To start: CotW is beautiful to watch. It is a blend of 2D and CGI. Its beautiful coloring and background painting made me reminisce to Grimgar, who applied a similar technique to its benefit. 

Like Grimgar, most of the backgrounds are static which can feel a bit like cheating, but in the best kind of way. Unlike Grimgar, the backgrounds in CotW are sometimes distracting from the action in the forefront. This is (perhaps) enhanced by the chosen color palette, where the character on the forefront look less important over the bright, beautiful background. However, this artistic aspect of the show; combined with gorgeous animation brings a distinct visual beauty to the screen that I don’t see that often. It sometimes is very pretty like below example; and sometimes misses it’s mark.

In CotW, the world looks like a canvas and the sound gives it an ethereal vibe. Even if you don’t end up watching I highly recommend listening to the OST. The soundtrack adds to the mystery of the world like a good soundtrack of a horror show would. It’s complimented by a couple of J-pop songs that represent the innocence of the Mud Whalers. An innocence that they lose rather quickly after the inciting incident.

The next part contains (mild) spoilers.

Thematics and story

The story of the anime is at times difficult to follow. There are large exposition dumps which make your mind dazzle. Combined with the sometimes poorly paced buildup and resolution of events the narrative feels rushed. It is easily the worst part of the show and probably the biggest turn-off for most people. There are so many elements in place that make this world tick, intricate details that are absolutely necessary to create a full understanding of this world that a solid narrative is vital. The creators did not do a bad job, it just could’ve been done better2.

That is not to say the thematics aren’t handled well. Like the visuals, I find it a bit of a mixed bag. The strangeness of Liontari/Ryodari as a character is an obvious display of a boy turned sadist because he is the only one with full emotions in his normal surroundings. His state of mind is what happens when you are accompanied by a host of emotionless child soldiers. You do what you can to survive. I find it very fitting that the nameless soldiers are dressed like Jesters, making it even more clear how this shows puts rationale and emotions against each other. And this is just one of the thematics that are on display3.

A show of contradictions

Children of the Whales is a show full of contradictions. On the one side it has an ethereal quality to it. This is balanced by the richly flowing blood and the importance given to menial tasks like working the land. But the world looks empty with very little scenes of moving people yet it feels very rich because of its art and (implied) history. The deep thematics are front and center but the execution in the story is lacking. It boasts a large conflict in the storyworld but fails to deliver the correct buildup. Because of this there are only minor moments that the characters truly shine as dimensional, breathing people.

At the end of the day CotW has everything in place to ask a meaningful question. Something like “Would you give up your powers for a longer life?” or “What sacrifice would you make for a life full of emotions?” 

Sadly, the narrative execution in CotW leaves much to be desired and is a clear detriment to the beautiful animation and sound that make this world a place you as the viewer would want to visit. So while I was positively surprised, I would give you a big “caution before you watch”. It surely is something that you don’t see everyday, and in the animated space it surely is something special.

  1. Note that this is speculation from my side, and totally not backed by research.
  2. Instead of the info dump on what Marked and Unmarked are by voiceover, they could’ve opted to have Suou or Taisha read it out loud as a check on Chakuro’s work. Work that they assigned to him. Another example would be Masoh’s arc and his relationship with the others (like Kuchiba). I would’ve preferred it if he were presented as someone the children look up to. And because of this, his strained relationship with the ruling powers of the island. Even if he just wants to help everybody.
  3. Think of: ruling minority/handling of power; elders keeping secrets from their children; discrimination; what it means to have a supportive family/community; saying your goodbye/realitionship with death; living a short and predestined life; dealing with disturbances in your community; can you be judged for event/crimes of your ancestors; the visually implied angelic nature of Neri and Aima.