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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Birth Rites and Testimonies: On Reading Children of the Sea

One summer vacation, Ruka meets two boys, "Umi" and "Sora," whose upbringing contains strange and wonderful secrets. Drawn to their beautiful swimming, almost more like flying, Ruka and the adults who know them are intertwined in a complex mesh... (Source: SigIkki)

This weekend I finished reading Daisuke Igarashi's Children of the Sea, a Viz Manga/SigIkki seinen release. It's taken me years to finish this manga. It's so beautifully drawn and intricate in plot and visual that I didn't want it to end, thus why I took forever to read the fifth and final volume. The wait was worth it.

This Igarashi manga is billed as a mystery and Wikipedia calls it an adventure, which are both accurate in their own way, but overall it's a fantasy of the world. Like the sea, the deeper you get into it, the more opaque it gets. For many, that can be a distraction from the story. People want answers, and for a mystery, this series isn't concerned with finding answers.

Yet when you break through the other side with Ruka at the end of her journey, being opaque makes sense. It fits with the series, with the characters and their narratives. This series encompasses death and rebirth and a sense of oneness that never feels forced. It's a beautiful thing to read.

Across five volumes, we follow Ruka as she is drawn into the world of Umi and Sora, two young boys who are the 'children of the sea' that the title refers to. As marine life across the globe disappear, Ruka spends her summer learning more about Umi, Sora, and the mystery of the ocean, a separate world that defies explanation and continually entrances people into its waters, intent on exploring all that can be reached by human means.

I can say things like "it's a human story!" and "it's about life and death!" and those are trite as hell phrases, but somehow Children of the Sea takes trite concepts and remixes them into worthwhile reading material. It helps that Igarashi's artwork drives the series, and the artwork is some of the most detailed, gorgeous depictions of the ocean and island life I've ever seen in a manga title. Everything, from facial expressions to body movement to action scenes to the animals that populate the waters are rendered with an amazing amount of life on every page.

Yes, saying "but the art is so GOOD!" is often used to say "the story sucks but ooh, it's so pretty!". Surprise, Children of the Sea isn't one of them! I love the stories that are running through this manga - there's Ruka's fit to belong in society, Umi and Sora's journey to understand their future, the scientists' race to discover why fish are disappearing, and the various stories of people who briefly became involved with one of the mysteries of the sea and forever changed the trajectory of their lives.

Reading Children of the Sea will infuriate people who expect books to explain every single plot point and answer every single question raised over the course of a series. By the end of volume five, not a lot has been explicitly explained. We see how characters' stories end, but nothing is answered as to why or how. That's okay. It really does make sense, in the end.

Above all, this manga is about the mystique of the ocean, the depths that human science has yet to delve into and the amazing life forms that live within it. Umi and Sora, our mysterious young guides, are the harbingers of renewal and resurrection and the cycle of life that runs through our planet with or without human interference.

In the grand scheme of Children of the Sea, the human characters are mere observers to the grander scheme of the water. Only Ruka, who has become as much a part of the ocean's life as Umi and Sora (and to a lesser extent Jim and Anglade, two of the island's research team), gets to act out a higher calling.

The thing about the ocean is that it is the one part of the world that human science has not fully explored. It has not been thoroughly dissected and examined and therefore is the one part of the world that is still a genuine source of awe and wonder. The utmost bottom of the sea still eludes our knowledge.

In this respect, Children of the Sea can be understood the best. There are some mysteries in this universe that stay mysteries for a long time, and not for lack of trying to understand them. They simply lay beyond our grasp, and either you further your reach in an effort to grab at them or you let the knowing of not knowing stay your hand. Daisuke Igarashi shows us characters that follow both paths, but in the end, not everything is known and not every question is answered.

Children of the Sea is an elaborately drawn out ode to the stories of the sea which relies upon subtle narrative turns and complex artwork to carry the plot. For five volumes, it manages to encapsulate a perfect microcosm of island life through various sets of eyes, from the adolescent to the old to the ageless and unknowable. If you need a more mature read that doesn't mean excess blood and violence that makes you think and are completely all right with a somewhat inconclusive ending, this is the standout SigIkki title to pick up.

Manga titles like Children of the Sea: Satoshi Kon's Tropic of the Sea; Yuki Urushibara's Mushishi; Hisae Iwaoka's Saturn Apartments.