[Author's note: SPOILERS for Children of the Whales!]
So, you're riding around on your Mud Whale, living life the best way you know how, occasionally using your magical gifts called thymia to do some work, when all of a sudden you get the urge to write. You can't stop writing. Day and night you spend hunched over the precious amounts of paper your people use, writing about the people on the Mud Whale and their daily lives. And yet there are so many questions that come with this seemingly frivolous self-appointed task. Who are the people of the Mud Whale? How long have they lived on the Mud Whale? What makes the Mud Whale aimlessly move through the sea of sand? Are there any other people beyond the world you know? How do you prove your existence if no one is there to bear witness?
These are the questions Chakuro, record-keeper/archivist of the Mud Whale asks throughout Children of the Whales. Originally published as a Shōjo manga in 2013 by writer and illustrator Abi Umeda, Children of the Whales was adapted into an animated television series by J.C. Staff, airing in Japan in 2017. The anime was later globally released by Netflix in 2018, which is what we'll be focusing on in this article. From what I've found in my research, the 12 episode anime adapts the first 5-6 volumes of the manga with elements from later volumes peppered in as part of the larger world building.
To summarize the story: The Mud Whale is a massive vessel carrying a population of around 500 exiles across a sea of sand with no apparent destination. Among the people there are two groups: those what can wield magic called thymia, the marked, and those who can't, the unmarked. The tradeoff for using thymia, however, is that most of the marked rarely live past the age of 30. Chakuro is among the marked, though he spends most of his time wielding a pen instead of his thymia. His incessant need to write and record the events and people of the Mud Whale is put to the test when, in the 93rd year of Exile, the Mud Whale comes across another floating vessel and a girl named Lykos who shatters the very foundations of their world.
That's about as simplified as it gets without delving into a bunch of subplots and themes involving: Emotions vs Stoicism, child soldiers, imperialism, ignorance vs knowledge, generational sin, etc. Oh and all of the supernatural elements at the heart of each Mud Whale! That'll really bake your noodle once those revelations come to light!
At the heart of the anime, the one thing that is constantly reiterated by Chakuro at the end of every episode, is the right of existence for the people of the Mud Whale. After meeting Lykos the Mud Whale is attacked almost immediately by an unnamed empire determined to wipe them out and erase them from history. The outside world calls them the "criminals of Falaina" with each generation carrying the sin of the original exiles, though why it took nearly 100 years for the empire to carryout a death sentence is a legitimate question that no one ever asks.
The loose framing device of the anime puts the audience in the position of an observer of past events reconstructed through the records written by Chakuro. Not only do we get the major events of attacks, defeats, and victories, we also get the mundane bits of life and small events that make up living on the Mud Whale. The first episode, "It was Our Entire World," does a decent job of showing us the seemingly idyllic life of those aboard the Mud Whale despite the fact that it starts with a funeral. Death is ever present due to the shortened lifespans of the marked and it's through this lens that we're introduced to Chakuro as he records the event. At only 14 years old, he feels a record of a person's life is necessary, that there's a greater benefit to the world at large to know that this person existed even for a short amount of time. Before he knows anything about the empire or the truth about the Mud Whale, Chakuro's world is small but he understands that every life lived deserves acknowledgment. It's basically in the first two episodes that the anime solidifies its stance that the written record is proof of existence. And it's that belief that drives Chakuro throughout the series.
It's interesting how the elders of the community treat Chakuro and his need to write everything down. While the population of the Mud Whale is relatively small, we're never given the exact populations of the marked and unmarked, though we understand that the unmarked are in most positions of power due to their longer lifespans. The elders refer to his record-keeping as a diary, chastising him for using the limited amount of paper they have. They downplay the importance of his task because, we later learn, they know the truth about the "criminals of Falaina" and allowed their people to regress into ignorance. Their first major act after the Mud Whale is attacked by the empire is to sink it and kill all those who've lived their lives aboard, effectively wiping them out of existence. It's violence shrouded in mercy.
A lot of the archival themes brought up in Children of the Whales have been referenced in previous articles. Notably, the right of existence is a prominent theme of Neon Yang's Tensorate Series as seen through the character of Rider, a Quarterlander who literally slacked a record of their life into their bones so that even once their flesh rotted away there would still be something of them left behind. Like the people of the Quarterlands, the people of the Mud Whale are fighting against a much more powerful foe that would rather they not be remembered.
This is also typical of the imperialist playbook: take control of the narrative by removing a culture's legitimacy or leaving them out of the record entirely. If the written record can't corroborate your claims, then you're not really a culture, society, or even a person in the eyes of those in power. Thus, it's easier to demonize and dehumanize you to the rest of the world so whatever atrocities are committed against you are unquestionably righteous.
In Children of the Whales even the unnamed empire practices immaculate record-keeping to legitimize their fury towards the "criminals of Falaina." Every step is documented from the details of their attacks to the body count, which might seem counterproductive considering the whole point is erasing the Mud Whale's occupants from history but that's the double-edged sword of imperialism. Make them the villains to justify killing them, but still retain a record of your actions. Just make sure to keep those records locked away so no one can "misinterpret" their meaning.
The last archival theme that stuck out to me was Chakuro's comments about keeping his emotions out of the record. Like I said, emotions vs stoicism is one of the larger themes of the anime and we see a microcosm of it when Chakuro chastises himself for documenting his feelings within the "official records" he writes for the Mud Whale. Archivists often wrestle with how much of their emotional bias affects their collections and in recent years we've seen more instances of the emotional toll working on archival collections creates. Past practices have tried to emphasize maintaining "purity of the record" by keeping the archivist as hands off as possible but archivists are an essential part of creating and maintaining collections. While we try to encourage radical empathy in our approaches to collections the need for setting boundaries remains.
Chakuro is only 14, but he still has enough self awareness to wonder how much influence his emotional attachment colors the objectivity of the record. Then again, Chakuro is essentially a community archivist. If he didn't have a stake in his own community, then his records would ring false. Knowing how he feels about a person or an event is just as relevant, if not more so, than his need to maintain emotional distance.
Children of the Whales is an interesting watch. I wish it didn't feel repetitive after the first six episodes, but the archival themes peppered throughout the 12 episodes are still worth the time spent. If nothing else, enjoy the gorgeous backgrounds and tableaus and some surprise musical interludes that absolutely come out of nowhere.
Oh, and this guy. He's...something.
And yet, I can't help but relate.