Nagi no Asukara is the story of two subsects of humanity: land-dwellers and sea-dwellers. As the culture of humanity on land grows, the more separate the culture of the sea becomes. Catastrophe draws ever closer as the population of the once-vibrant sea community dwindles, and the near-forgotten sea god preparing to freeze the land, tipping the balance of power back to the sea in the distant future. Faced with this calamity, four junior high school students, the last of the sea population’s youth, are caught in the friction between land and sea.
Four friends from a village beneath the ocean become unwitting ambassadors to a village on land when their own school closes down due to a lack of students. Tensions run high between the children from both the land and sea; however, as Nagi no Asukara progresses, individuals begin to form strong relationships, romantic or otherwise. These bonds lead to additional tension and understanding as the adolescents struggle to express or hide their respective emotions while a calamity looms in the horizon.
The two paragraphs above are plot synopses for the same series: Nagi no Asukara. One focuses on the social and political narrative within the series, while the other focuses specifically on the character relationships. Chances are, if you are a viewer of the series, your emotional investment is firmly entrenched in the latter, rather than the former. It’s difficult to care about the overarching narrative of the world slowly going into a deep freeze when all you want is for Miuna Shiodome to find her happiness. It is a credit to the writing of Nagi no Asukara, headed by series composer Mari Okada, that it integrates both stories so well.
“Shishio’s future is all up to you guys. You know that, right? When we wake up, the young’uns need to be full of energy to pop out kids left and right. It doesn’t matter whose seed it is, make the babies.”
-a Shioshishio elder to Manaka Mukaido, Nagi no Asukara, episode 10
Through its primary focus on character relationships, Nagi no Asukara does not eschew the grander narrative, but uses the main characters’ hardships and awkward adolescent fumbling as a frame through which to view it. At first, it is simply a hum in the background as Hikari Sakishima attempts to come to terms with his sister Akari falling in love with someone on the mainland, as opposed to her own village of Shioshishio underneath the sea. The narrative thrust of Hikari’s character growth in the first seven episodes is grounded by the larger tension from the sea village’s obvious stagnation and shrinking population. Regardless of whether the viewer comes to love Hikari or simply tolerate him, Nagi no Asukara makes it a point to show how Hikari’s natural hot-blooded nature stems both from his somewhat oppressive upbringing and ignorance, making his character development believable.
In episode 10, saltflake snow – a weather phenomenon previously restricted to the sea village – begins to fall on land, heralding the arrival of the deep freeze foretold by Uroko, a representative or “scale” of the sea god. The series does not completely shift gears into a in-depth discussion of the oncoming climate change, but instead focuses on how this calamity affects the characters that we have grown to know and love. The residents of Shioshishio prepare to undergo hibernation, therefore avoiding the freeze until it is their time to awaken. As the quote above indicates, this puts a tremendous burden on the youth of Shioshishio, who we have come to know as Hikari, Manaka, Chisaki, and Kaname.
Naturally, having made important friendships and relationships with people on land, as well as furthering their own emotions towards each other, the four are unable to accept the idea of hibernation. Their attempt to stave off the larger catastrophe results in a smaller, more personal tragedy. Time passes, and the focus remains on how these people, with whom we become more and more emotionally invested, go about their lives.
Episode 22 cements the union between the grand sociopolitical landscape and the complex web of interpersonal relationships between individual characters. In taking away Manaka’s ability to love another, Nagi no Asukara instantly transforms the larger narrative into an intimate one. Manaka has been the emotional mainstay of the group, and her sudden lack of genuine emotion has repercussions for each individual character. Regardless of whom you have come to care the most for in the series, they are irrevocably affected.
I watch Nagi no Asukara weekly with a friend. Following each episode, our excited chatter turns to specific character relationships and development rather than the impending climate change and continuing friction between land and sea. How will Chisaki bridge her waning feelings for Hikari with her budding feelings towards Tsumugu? Will Miuna replace Manaka as the sacrifice to appease the sea god, spurred by her love for Hikari? These are questions that are narrowly focused on specific characters, but remain inseparable from the larger narrative. Both synopses, sociopolitical and intimate, are correct. Most impressive is how Nagi no Asukara uses the former to inform and propel the latter, keeping the viewer emotionally invested.