The world’s water is the mother of all. It is where all life originated from, and where, with global warming, it seems fated to return. Anime acknowledges the many moods of water and how it can drag a body into dark emotional depths, mirroring as metaphor mental illness and social struggles. But in the same breath, it encourages its characters and the viewer to look to the same source for healing and strength.
Any character in Free! could attest to these polar opposites of power in water, but out of the whole of Iwatobi High School swim club, Makoto Tachibana perhaps feels them the most strongly. When the group go on a training trip by the sea, they challenge themselves to swim across a long stretch of open water between three small islands. Swim team newbie Rei Ryugazaki initially fails the test, but heads out in the middle of the night for a second try. Caught up in a storm, he almost drowns and Makoto is the first to wake up and notice, but fails to rescue him. The loss of an old friend at sea still hangs heavy on him. He finds he cannot swim in open water even to save his teammate, and he too is almost taken under by the storm. Here the ocean as allegory is a literal challenge to overcome, posing a challenge that can help Makoto to deal with his fears and, in Rei’s case, his perceived inadequacies.
Rei and Makoto are both rescued in the end, and that evening Makoto confesses his trauma. In expressing his anxieties about the ocean, he relives the pain of loss. But his love of the water despite it bouys him up and he tells his friends that with them, he could swim anywhere.
The movement of water makes sense of the movement of emotions. When we sense ourselves as being forever linked with it, being near enough bodies of water ourselves, its flow reminds us that there are some things out of our control. If we can only believe that our consciousness and moods are moved by the moon in the same way as shorelines, the potential arises to harness that power and our emotions for our own happiness.
In given, Mafuyu long since internalised water as a place of new beginnings. The sea was the start of everything he wanted to experience and become when he set eyes on it for the first time with his then-boyfriend Yuki. After his death, its memory absorbs his losses. Then, when he finds love again in guitarist Ritsuka, he brings him to that same stretch of water as though it’s only then that his life can restart.
Mafuyu’s honouring of the water as a great giver and keeper of memory brings to mind the ritual of the Norse funeral. A ship filled with signifiers of the power of the spirit it bore and gifts from the bereaved would be set alight and become a funeral pyre. Every aspect of this ritual was believed critical to the dead being able to join the afterlife with the same standing they had in life. If not, the soul might wander eternally without a home. In taking his lost love’s guitar, Mafuyu has taken the grave goods of his lover and thereby feels weighed down by all his lost potential. He is compelled to learn to play it, and even though it seems somewhat appropriative and false, it may be that the continuation of Yuki’s soul dwells with him through the haunted instrument.
Sometimes, rather than taking from the sea, it is becoming enveloped by it which can heal the soul. Tsuritama initially takes the peace of its seaside setting as the potential for a raging whirlpool of frustration, boredom and dissatisfaction. The protagonist Yuki Sanada has never found it easy to settle because his grandmother moves around a lot for work. He is always busy imagining the next tragic situation his social difficulties will put him in. They’re no less real and impactful for being inside his mind. He sweats, turns red, struggles to breathe and generally looks furious as the frame fills up with water and threatens to drown him. The quiet of seaside life only makes his anxieties echo louder in his mind, and he loathes it. But learning to fish becomes his grounding force.
Amanchu! shows us another case of the water being a metaphor for the main character’s discomfort, awkwardness and feelings of being out of place. Futaba has just moved to the coast from the city and for the first few days before school starts, she’s left alone with her feelings of doubt and inadequacy. She’s by the sea, and she can’t even swim. In meeting the free spirit Hikari, who enthuses about how good diving is for her soul, Futaba becomes convinced enough to take the plunge. Her first experience of open-water diving is a transcendent experience for her in all its awe. Here below the surface where she felt so trapped is a larger world, a weightless one where she is free to wonder again.
In tsuritama and Amanchu!, the act of taking to the sea is the healer of all mental and spiritual wounds. Futaba learns to swim and finally to dive, and Yuki learns the peace in communing with the ocean, in so doing overcoming his own anxieties. The unforgiving ocean often acts as metaphor in anime, its dark depths as allegory for depression, its cold and changing nature like anxiety. Yet seen on a clear day, from a clifftop or with the sun high in the sky, the ocean can be calm, beautiful and a source of endless peace.