The Thematic Importance of Locations, and the Place of Dreams, in The Aquatope on White Sand

Declan Biswas-Hughes
Aug 9 · 19 min read
Blue-Haired Kukuru and Brown-Haired Fuuka holding hands in their aquarium gear.

White walls, wooden floorboards, an empty room — save for a few cardboard boxes. That has long symbolised my own, regular displacement in life. Sometimes the floors were carpeted, the walls rough instead of smooth, but they all meant I was leaving a bare space behind without anything to indicate I had ever been there. And a few times, as with protagonist Fuuka Miyazawa two minutes into the first episode of The Aquatope on White Sand, those clear white walls and unmarked floors represented failure. Like Fuuka laments, “So much for my dream.” Closing the door to her lonely apartment, Fuuka is moved on from a dream she once had, whether she wants to be or not.

That room is at the heart of Aquatope’s approach to storytelling. Even the full title of the series The Aquatope on White Sand: The Two Girls Met in the Ruins of Damaged Dream (sic) thematically links physical locations and personal aspirations. The series draws upon the symbolism of settings so overtly that it almost ceases to be metaphorical allusion. The locales become a direct extension of personalities, rather than an abstraction of their feelings. For these characters, as Aquatope’s dialogue reiterates throughout the first few episodes, the environment becomes as important as the place of dreams in their lives.

This essay contains explicit spoilers for Episode 1 to 5 of The Aquatope on White Sand.

An empty room with white walls featuring the protagonist, Fuuka.
An empty room and an absence of hope for Fuuka. Please leave the stage.

The End of an Altruistic Idol

It’s hard to give up a dream. It’s hard to let yourself pursue a new dream without being weighed down by regret of the old one. It’s most difficult to still feel worthy of having dreams when you’ve been so summarily denied a passion. Fuuka Miyazawa faces that internal conflict in Aquatope. She strived to achieve her goal of becoming an idol and was a helpful team member. On the cusp of selection as a centre star, compassion led her to step aside for her younger kouhai idol member Ruka, a slightly more audacious and ruthless person, because Fuuka overheard Ruka’s grandmother was ill and maybe would never see her perform.

Fuuka’s empathy is quickly weaponised against her by the management company: “She’s naïve if she thinks she can get away with giving up her opportunity to someone else.” Perhaps she did not expect to be sidelined afterwards, handing out water bottles in the stage wings with a smile. Her kindness is her undoing and the frustration hurts. The idol system effectively rejects her pursuit of a dream as a consequence of her altruism. She could not exist as herself, and her caring personality does not let her survive. Unfortunately, she “never really stood out”. So Fuuka leaves her apartment and departs Tokyo altogether.

That smile. That damn smile.

The prospect of returning to her house in Morioka, Iwate is not much better. Pernicious familial expectations and demands already seep through a phone-call with her mother. Likewise, Fuuka’s mother deprives Fuuka of the chance to mourn her dead dream privately, because “[t]his kind of news spreads”. The shadows cast across Mrs. Miyazawa’s face as she smiles betray a dismissiveness towards Fuuka’s entertainment ambition, which “isn’t stable work, anyway”. From Fuuka’s perspective, her mother is a person who decided to go on holiday while her daughter’s world collapsed.

Unfortunately, this is not the last shot in the series of Fuuka looking forlorn.

Fuuka’s final breaking point is discovering that friends and family are “all set on throwing a party” to make her feel better. She already resiliently held back tears when confronted by the apologetic Ruka, who felt guilty that she “stole [Fuuka’s] opportunity”. Fuuka realises that she will never have time to grieve in Morioka. She envisions bearing her lost idol career placidly at home, while ironically singing for other people’s delight, and dutifully filling up relatives’ and neighbours’ cups with beer. The idea is abhorrent. Discouraged by the callous lack of consideration from her mother, and anticipating performing another unchosen role for family, Fuuka flees to Okinawa, at the other end of the country.

Finding Comfort in Decay and Washing Away Worries

Is the little kijimuna magic? Real? Fuuka couldn’t tell you.

Beaches and blue seas often represent an idyllic escape from troubled reality. They are the typical travel agency holiday advertisements for a reason. Fuuka herself sees an enticing poster for Okinawa while desperately searching for an alternative to her failure.

The reality of living in a quiet coastal city is different, however. The easy cadence to life can be as stifling as it is inviting; its slow, unchanging rhythms are only punctuated by cicadas chirping monotonously, which Aquatope’s ambient sounds are rife with.

From Episode 5. I lied, Fuuka’s not actually coming back from the beach here. She’s leaving the aquarium!

Nothing envelops you in that sedate mood more than the stroll back from the beach. No matter how close to the shore you live, it’s always a long walk along searing sands and hot, cracked bitumen. You go at a sluggish pace when you’re dried out and salted from the sand and sea. In the eon it takes to get home, you notice iron leeching out of everywhere. There are ageing rusty metal pavilions and poles. Faded, sun-bleached paints on buildings. Splintered trees, broken by wind, or dehydrated almost as much as you are. Beachside cities are perpetually in a state of slight disrepair.

However, if you’ve settled in a coastal town long enough, or stayed away for a while and come back, the familiar dilapidation brings tranquillity. Aquatope tries to immediately evoke that sensation. With its very first images, the series ensconces the audience in the soothing pleasures of broken timber logs, peeled paint, chipped concrete, and oxidised metals against the backdrop of a gentle sea.

The very first shot of the series.

P.A. Works’ series luxuriate in scenery and find beauty in the mundane details of imperfection. In Sakura Quest or Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea, slightly crumbled towns are crucibles for the emotionally-adrift protagonists to adapt to. Here, the location and its atmosphere console, rather than exasperate. Although Aquatope’s Fuuka Miyazawa is lost and confused about her place in life, she is glad to be there in Nanjo, Okinawa. Nanjo is an appropriate setting. The name means ‘southern castle’; the remnants of many castles and fortress strongholds, which locals refer to as gusuku, are dotted around the area. In this story, Nanjo is the ideal place for a sojourn. The city affords Fuuka protection from her own failures amongst broken things also needing restoration.

This shot of coral is SYMBOLIC.

A beach itself results from natural wreckage: eroded sediments deposited to create the shore, along with washed up cracked shells, worn coral and crunchy dead seaweed. A uniquely serene scape of a ruin. Therefore, it is apt that Fuuka’s most transformative moment in Episode 1 occurs on the beach. Fulfilling dreams requires personal metamorphosis and effort, but relies upon luck as well. This aspect ties dreams into auspicious fate. Aquatope understands that notion. Prompted by a fortune teller to spend time at the beach, Fuuka spends all evening waiting for a promised encounter that will assuage her worries, but eventually falls asleep on the cooled sand. Indulging in magic realism to underscore the significance of the scene, a mischievous supernatural ‘kijimuna’ spirit creature observes her. However, as opposed to any destiny or magic altering her trajectory, she initiates the most pivotal change by herself: she decides to turn off her phone and ignore her mother’s calls.

It was then that Fuuka left the beach, not wanting to be part of a summoning ritual.

Fuuka takes a desperate measure, but a necessary one. She avoids the nagging voice that would unearth the raw pain and shame she has barely processed. Crucially, Fuuka makes the choice without coercion, something she has not yet done. Indeed, Fuuka makes many choices that lead to her self-imposed exile in Okinawa, but only under duress and never freely. Although she tells Ruka “it was my decision to quit”, she felt pressure to accommodate her junior’s proclaimed “last chance” circumstances. The idol management company suggested “it was time to call it quits” despite her still trying to succeed, and chastised her as if she were not “cut out for it”. Even Okinawa as a destination was purely circumstantial. Now, once again alone on a deserted beach — a wide expanse of opportunity compared to the cloistered box that was her flat — Fuuka realises that she will “figure it out”. She shuts off the phone as the sun rises the next morning, heralding her new future.

Stubborn Ambitions for an Aquarium

The first meeting of the OTP.

At this juncture, it might be best to discuss Aquatope’s deuteragonist separately, because the first episode deliberately keeps Fuuka Miyazawa and Kukuru Misakino apart until the very end. The series inserts hard cuts between plot threads before their meeting. Subsequent episodes narratively intertwine their lives as a story of two girls supporting one another, but Aquatope juxtaposes that with their distinct personal journeys. For as many moments as Fuuka and Kukuru feature as subjects together in the same shot, their actions and reactions are frequently framed in single shots even when they occupy the same vicinity. Perhaps at first suggesting emotional distance, its continuation reflects the fact that these are two people who have coincidentally intersected, and their individual progress through dilemmas remains paramount.

That does not preclude thematic parallels, however. Before even seeing Fuuka fall victim to her own kindness, we watch Kukuru Misakino pray that she can “Do what’s right and everything will work out”, before she begs, “Help, please! I can’t go on like this.” She is another person constricted by her moral impulses and who consequently needs some salvation. Her and Fuuka’s respective dialogue echoes one another: faced with oppressive uncertainty for the future, with no divine intervention forthcoming, Kukuru also finds refuge in “I’ll figure it out…I’ll make it work.”

This innocent, smiling face is completely out of context.

The thematic utilisation of location is even more prominent in Kukuru Misakino’s story. Moreover, her desires are physically embodied by the shabby Gama Gama Aquarium; as one friend describes, “Gama Gama Aquarium is her dream.” Her dream is breaking down though. The foyer needs repainting. Their staff has waned, as has the number of visitors. The aquarium’s fish tanks and machinery require serious and unaffordable repairs. Kukuru’s grandfather, who is the current owner and director, plans on closing the unsustainable aquarium after keeping it afloat for many years when it was already facing bankruptcy. As the acting director over the summer months, Kukuru is determined to find the necessary funds for maintenance, and restore Gama Gama Aquarium to its former glory. This is the basic driving conflict for the plot.

Yet the actual decrepit building and its contents are the conduit for Kukuru’s character exploration. Kukuru is resolute and has a firm goal, which is less naturally dynamic than Fuuka growing beyond her obvious personal stasis. Kukuru’s externalisation of her goals might be construed as a coping mechanism for deep trauma, namely the loss of her parents, and possibly a missing or dead unknown sibling. However, it currently makes her personality the more static of the two, and there are fewer occasions probing her psychological interiority. All her outwardly expressed thoughts concern the Gama Game Aquarium, and she even blatantly ignores the requirements of her maths schoolwork in order to write an exposé about squid life cycles. Her teacher later pointedly says, “Your brain’s an aquarium, isn’t it?” Therefore, the aquarium — where Kukuru is in her element — is an elegant space to reveal introspective parts of her character.

Her friend ‘Udon-chan’ summarising Kukuru’s character conflict.

Take, for example, her demeanour at the beginning of Episode 1. While not revolutionary imagery, Kukuru sitting alone in the cavernous aquarium and staring wistfully at a fish tank reflects her solitary suffering. Both in relation to her tragic past, and presently, because nobody seems to simply love the aquarium as much as she does. She feels isolated in her attempts to “protect it forever”. That is a misapprehension; her friends simply quietly protect her instead, but Kukuru is occupied with Gama Gama Aquarium to the exclusion of nearly all else. The aforementioned scene is a stark contrast to her excitement when she believes Fuuka is as keen as her about aquatic animals, after Fuuka is enraptured by a piscine panoply towards the end of the episode.

Vacuuming the entire aquarium must take hours.

Furthermore, Kukuru’s main measure of people’s worthiness depends on their investment in the welfare of the aquarium. Thanks to Fuuka’s surreal experience with the fish, Kukuru amiably lets a complete stranger join the aquarium as a worker for the summer and also stay with her family. How Fuuka treats her position at Gama Gama Aquarium determines how Kukuru cultivates their relationship. Kukuru can hardly hide her disappointment when she realises “[i]t didn’t have to be an aquarium” for Fuuka to emotionally anchor herself with. She resents the apathy. So it seems more personal when she rebukes Fuuka by saying, “[I]f something happens to our animals, I won’t forgive you.” Conversely, Kukuru discloses more after she overhears Fuuka defend the aquarium against unscrupulous proprietors and exclaim, “I don’t want you here anymore if you don’t know how valuable this…is!”

Fuuka has just sworn eternal fealty to the fish of Gama Gama Aquarium.

Overall, however, Kukuru’s myopia about the aquarium regularly curtails her awareness of other people’s needs and priorities. She impetuously insists upon contacting a heavily pregnant veterinarian, who is on maternity leave, because her favourite penguin has bumblefoot disease. The veterinarian goes into labour while diagnosing the animal. Thankfully, Kukuru is admonished for her rash actions and learns from the incident that “courage isn’t the same as being reckless”. Still, her inadvertent neglect is a pervasive flaw that is compounded by Fuuka suppressing and rarely verbalising her thoughts.

Locations and Realisations

Just be cool, Kukuru! Be cool!

Therefore, forthright and clear communication between the pair is the thematic apotheosis to the character development so far, even though they might appear to be simply denouements in the episodes themselves. Unsurprisingly then, these climactic conversations happen in Aquatope’s key locations. The relative ease with which Fuuka divulges her circumstances and the decline of her idol career, which have tortured her up to this point, makes for a shoreside confessional in Episode 2. Again, the beach serves as a secluded safe haven for catharsis. The final exchange stresses the theme of dreams and is a pronounced exorcising of inner turmoil and deepening of their relationship:

Fuuka: “My dream’s over, but I can still support someone’s dream. I don’t want you to give up, Director.”
Kukuru: “You can call me Kukuru. Help me with my dream, Fuuka.”

Similarly in Episode 4, both characters have their epiphanies in the aquarium’s staff room:

Kukuru: “Did I make it hard for you to decline because I was so obsessed with work?…I wasn’t paying attention to how you’d feel.”
Fuuka: “I chose to be an attendant myself…I was really happy when you gave me work and praised me. I wanted to be useful to you, Director…I see. That’s why I was working so hard. I wanted to get to know you better. I wanted to get closer to you…”
Kukuru: “I never realised you felt that way.”
Fuuka: “Me neither.”
Kukuru: “I wanted to give you more work, so that you’d fall in love with Gama Gama more. I think that’s because I wanted to become closer to you, too.”

These critical self-realisations specifically occur in the places that Aquatope has reinforced as thematically relevant, enhancing the scenes. Aquatope relies on the motifs to make these character moments resonant, because otherwise the series does not possess a strong narrative direction thus far. The stakes remain omnipresent, but the looser episodic structure and uncomplicated plotting, which are appropriate for the setting’s casual atmosphere, really exist as a framework for examining Fuuka and Kukuru’s mental states.

A challenger appears!

Fuuka’s stalemate with her mother is the clearest source of pervading dramatic tension in the series, which is expounded upon in Episode 5. The bluntly titled ‘Mother Arrives’ nominally delves into the relationships between four sets of daughters and mothers: Fuuka and her mother; Kukuru’s friend Tsukimi ‘Udon-chan’ Teruya and her mother; and more obliquely, the void left by Kukuru’s deceased mother in both Kukuru’s and her grandmother’s lives. Despite this, Fuuka’s character arc still ultimately revolves around reckoning with her new direction in life, and the aquarium and beach conspicuously help define that progression.

One of the best shot compositions in the series so far.

The episode starts and ends at Gama Gama Aquarium. In the first instance, Fuuka thwarts Mrs. Miyazawa’s attempt to take her home by evading her along the aquarium’s corridors and backrooms. Aquatope does not trade in subtlety. Fuuka later converses with Udon-chan over lunch about the virtues of regular work and simply being “busy” in comparison to Kukuru’s “awesome dreams”. However, this fruitful discussion does not cause her to abandon her escape (with Udon-chan’s own mother as her getaway driver). Instead, a brief stop to bid the ocean farewell becomes the true turning point. She meets children invigorated by her earlier talk at the touch pool in Gama Gama Aquarium; they subsequently have taken an interest in marine biology. Fuuka finally feels vindicated and rewarded for her endeavours. She quickly asks to be driven to the aquarium thereafter.

Beach Again (SSAK3 in the house!)…Actually a relatively appropriate K-Pop song given the context.

This time, Gama Gama Aquarium is Fuuka’s bastion as much as Kukuru’s. Fuuka surprises Kukuru with her arrival and distress about an unwell Coral Blenny fish she remembered. Aquatope makes the “hardest-working” Coral Blenny a symbol for Fuuka in the very first episode, ‘The Tropical Fish Ran Away’, so the news of it dying sobers her. She visibly dwells on the implication for herself for a moment, but wastes little time in aiding Kukuru properly dispose of the fish. The scene illustrates Udon-chan’s philosophy, “When you’re busy, you don’t have time to worry about things that don’t matter.” The death signals renewal for Fuuka, who is dedicated to her position as an attendant at the aquarium.

Kukuru, please raise this poor girl’s self-esteem.

Her mother quietly monitors as Fuuka assists Kukuru and recognises her daughter’s efforts. Episode 1 presented Fuuka and Kukuru mostly independently and Episode 5 separates Fuuka and her mother to the same effect. During their time apart, Mrs. Miyazawa discerns her daughter’s feelings in a completely different area to where Fuuka’s and Kukuru’s revelations occurred. She spends the day relaxing at the Misakino residence, and comes to appreciate Fuuka’s tribulations, but also the respite paints her more sympathetically than in the teenager’s mind. She ambiguously smiled over the phone, because she was looking forward to the “chance to be her mother” and she naturally fears for her daughter who has run away.

That said, she persists with her assumptions about the correct path for Fuuka, not considering her autonomy, even when she “can see why Fuuka wanted to stay here so much”. Mrs. Miyazawa cannot adequately guide her daughter, because she doesn’t really fully understand her. How could she though? Idols train from a young age and hopeful members and inductees often live away from home in dormitories and apartments for years even after debuting. Therefore, the friction between Fuuka and her mother can be partly attributed to incongruous people not being used to each other anymore.

For now at least, the aquarium is the right shelter for Fuuka, alongside her newfound friends, that Morioka with her parents cannot provide. Within that sanctuary, she can be frank and honest with her mother about her wish to stay in Nanjo, and have Kukuru attest that she is “someone we absolutely need at the aquarium”. Fuuka needs the validation that her life is meaningful and she receives affirmation in the aquarium more than anywhere else.

Really just wanted to share a picture of the best mum in the show so far.

Mrs. Miyazawa approves of Fuuka’s plans at the aquarium, but Aquatope delays Mrs. Miyazawa’s true acceptance until the group returns to her own newly found sanctum at the Misakino household, where the calm brings out maternal warmth. It’s only in that space Mrs. Miyazawa tenderly acknowledges, “You’ve been working so hard all these years by yourself.” Aquatope is primarily a character study and using settings as leitmotifs only furthers elucidate the facets of these emotionally complex people.

We Found Love in a Hopeful Place

Look at the staring, the hand-clasping.

Deliberately making the setting central to the characters has a further effect of queer-coding Fuuka and Kukuru’s companionship. Aquatope firmly interlaces Kukuru with Gama Gama Aquarium, and so re-inspecting Kukuru’s line, “I wanted to give you more work, so that you’d fall in love with Gama Gama more. I think that’s because I wanted to become closer to you, too”, appears to be almost a double declaration of affection. That notion is expanded in other ways. There is copious blushing, glancing, and hand-holding so far, the last of which is as emblematic of love in anime as anything. Notably, the first firm clasping of hands takes place at the aquarium. Fuuka is eager to wear the same clothes and have matching keychains, long-time romantic gestures in anime and manga. Whether this remains a subtextual reading of their relationship shall be seen, but Aquatope has shown the main supporting male character, Kuuya Yakamashi, to be interested in another “good-looking guy[]”, Kai.

Actual dialogue.

As an aside, introducing a romantic subplot would be an evolution for the “working girls” series that have become a hallmark for P.A. Works. It would also set Aquatope apart; thus far, the series mostly exists as a confident refinement of the formula that has been honed over the last decade since Hanasaku Iroha. The characters are also something of a culmination of that iterative process. Noticeably, Fuuka Miyazawa’s failures echo Shizuka Sakaki’s struggles to book a voice acting job in Shirobako. Likewise, her introverted and quietly despairing personality are reminiscent of how Hitomi Tsukishiro started out her adventures in Iroduku: The World in Colours, directed by Toshiya Shinohara and written by Yuuko Kakihara, also now responsible for Aquatope. Or it could simply be that casting these common personalities and universal issues in different lights and scenarios are worthwhile repeating. Regardless, this is a series engaged with the interrogation of its characters, and it would be a natural if these two girls finding comfort, solace, and support in one another led to romance blossoming as well.

It doesn’t get any clearer or lewder than this.

Meaningful Dreams

This essay began by observing that the title The Aquatope on White Sand: The Two Girls Met in the Ruins of Damaged Dream encapsulates the various ways in which the settings influence Aquatope’s storytelling and are steeped in themes. Within that ambit, we should address the term ‘aquatope’, and the unusual subtitle, The Two Girls Met in the Ruins of Damaged Dream.

Aquatope is a fabricated portmanteau, which suits a series about two girls combining their efforts to achieve one goal. Aqua obviously refers to water, which evidently relates to Fuuka via the beach and Kukuru via the aquarium. Tope has several definitions. A tope is a type of endangered migratory shark, which not only alludes to the aquarium teeming with sea creatures, but also that Fuuka feels her future is threatened, and has travelled to Okinawa to recuperate and gestate.

It ain’t no joke, I’d like to buy the world a tope. — Kukuru, probably, if she knows Smash Mouth.

Curiously, a tope is also an alternative name for a ‘stupa’, a dome façade that features in Buddhist and Hindu architecture. In the Buddhist tradition, stupas very often exist as meditation spots surrounded by holy artifacts stored there. Furthermore, examples of topes have been discovered in ancient rock-cut temples across India. Gama Gama Aquarium has a rock edifice; in fact, it appears as if it were hewn into the stone. Gama Gama certainly is Kukuru’s temple and is becoming so for Fuuka as well. The aquarium inspires awe, but also brings peaceful contemplation for multiple characters as they consider their dreams while fish swim past.

The Two Girls Met in the Ruins of Damaged Dream as a subtitle presents a quandary. Whether or not the choice of the singular ‘dream’ was awkward mistranslation or intentional, it is textual. It could remain metaphorical, as both Fuuka and Kukuru’s dreams have faced impositions, and that has brought them closer together. However, Fuuka and Kukuru first meet in the Gama Gama Aquarium. That could be the literal ‘damaged dream’. Even so, the main title, as this essay has expanded upon, identifies both the ‘aquatope’ aquarium and the ‘white sand’ of the beach as ruins thematically relevant to the pursuit of dreams. Given the pertinence of the beach and the aquarium to Fuuka and Kukuru, respectively, interpreting the dream so strictly as only one physical place would be a narrow scope that excludes half the series.

Late night chats are the best.

The resolution to this conundrum may lie in the fact that both girls shared their dreams and innermost feelings with each other at both locations. In this way, their goals are slowly intermingling, becoming a unified damaged dream made from the ruins of their individual ones. Fuuka, particularly, wants to “support someone’s dream”. Fuuka and Kukuru have struggled alone long enough. The thought that they could progress forward together with an amalgamated dream is comforting.

With this sentiment in mind, Nanjo once again seems like a perfect place for Aquatope’s story. The current city is the product of several older towns merging together and being renamed as Nanjo. ‘Jo’ is a Sino-Japanese reading of the 城 character, which in the Okinawan language is used for the gusuku ruins. It would be fitting if by entering into each other’s lives — entering into each other’s dreams — that they both could succeed at achieving one single dream in Nanjo, and finally be happier for it.

A rejuvenated Fuuka looking forward to the future.

Thank you to Protonstorm for his editorial feedback and helpful additional notes on the Japanese language, some of which have been incorporated into this text. Thank you also to my mum for her thoughtful comments that led to me expand the last section in particular, and her reassurance that I did not need to abandon the essay altogether.

All screenshot images taken from Crunchyroll.

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