Nagi no Asukara: The Liturgy of a Love Story

For as long as I can remember, my family has vacationed in a small village by the Cantabrian Sea for the summer. We would rent a little house and stay there for a month. A the family would grew bigger each year, more inventiveness was needed, but only in times of great need did we fully cancel the trip.

In that region, the sea is cold and peaceful, with enormous green cliffs. A few years ago, we found one village we have always returned to ever since. My parents plan to retire there when they stop working. They will feel at home, because these are fisher villages whose population is aging, where everyone knows everyone. In contrast, the sea was, and is, vast and mysterious, unchanging and variable, familiar, but full of adventure.

Nagi no Asukara, which Stardf29 reviewed here and which I recently rewatched, is a show that captures that kind of setting, that paradox, as perfectly as can be: the storms, the peace, the waves, the sky, the sounds, the people. Once you accept the fantasy premise of some people living in a small village underwater and coming to the surface everyday for school or work, it comes to feel surprisingly natural. Nagi no Asukara captures the magic of living by the sea.

“I made the sandy shore the sea’s limit, which by eternal decree it may not overstep. Toss though it may, it is to no avail; though its billows roar, they cannot pass.” As a kid, I read the Illiad, (yes, I know), and dreamed about fighting armies from the sea. There is something primal and powerful about confronting, even with just your imagination, the power from the wide, indomitable waters. To look at it and think about your own heart.

I see myself in every character of Nagi no Asukara when they do this: Hikari, Manaka, Kaname, Chisaki, Miuna, Sayo, Tsumugu. Looking into the sea, you feel small, but in a strange way, you feel like the ocean and your heart are connected. The familiar and the strange, the small and the immense, the deep and dangerous, the refreshing and comforting—they all come together.

And when the sea, or nature, doesn’t do what it usually does, something trembles deep inside us, a world of unsuspecting horrors or possibilities, or both. The sea will behave unexpectedly in Nagi no Asukara, and its enigmatic power and majesty will happen to be intertwinned with the hidden truth, and with what lies in the hearts of our characters.

In the Bible, the Apostles came to feel in their hearts, with reverent awe, with fear, who Jesus of Nazareth was when He stopped a sea storm by rebuking the wind and the waves. “Quiet! Be still!” Terrified, they asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

“Do not be afraid.” After the fear, there is the wonder. Our Lord walking over the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Do you remember the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Spirit of God moving over the face of the water? The division of “the waters from the waters” on the second day of Creation? The Deluge destroying, but then abandoning the Earth? The sea fighting against the slaveholders of Egypt? God is the Lord of the Sea, and I am His child. We are His children.

But… after fear and wonder, we sometimes get accustomed to things we shouldn’t. We may even come to lose them. In Nagi no Asukara, the people of the fishing village of Oshioshi and the submerged village of Shioshio are likewise the “children of the Lord of the Sea,” the Umigami-Sama. He is a powerful, half-forgotten deity of mysterious nature, who maintains a priesthood and an odd avatar among the People of the Sea, but is also reverenced by the fishermen. He seems to be mostly dormant or absent, but is remembered and honored at the Ofunehiki, the liturgical ritual which both villages celebrate jointly, complete with ritual clothes, sacred fire, adorned boats that sail in formation, and a moving litany of songs of supplication and reverence. “Umigami-Sama!”

The two peoples, each person in his or her post, will carry on the work with care and enthusiasm, will celebrate the complex, meaningful connections between them, and will present their deepest feelings to Umigami-sama, reminding him of their bond. They reenact their common story, and at the same time they participate in it. They will look to the sea, together.

Only, not this year. You see, there has been a quarrel between the people of the Youth Association of Shioshio and the Cooperative of Fishers concerning the budget of the ceremony. Both parties are proud, and in the end, the festival has been called off. And who needs such things in this day and age, anyway? There are three reasons why this resonates so much with me.

Like Japan, my country, Spain, has a declining, aging population, as well as an identity crisis. It is not too far-fetched that it may disappear in a couple of generations. Also, as a lawyer in a small city, I see petty disagreements everyday, and they frustrate me to no end. And, I live in a country that is losing its Christian faith, first into ritual and fond memories, then into not even that. Ruins, historical records.

Just in front of the beach of this village by the Cantabrian Sea, climbing some stone stairs, there is a little church near the coast, made of grey stone, its roofs carved in waves, like seashells. Inside, the frontispiece is made of gilded wood. It has the distinctive look of a church for the fishermen, and as a child, I remember being moved by their hymn, “Salve, Estrella de los Mares” (“Hail, Star of the Seas”).

So, when the Ofunehiki, the liturgic festival of the two peoples, becomes an important plot point, it made me remember, and think. In Nagi no Asukara, the fact that the ritual is going to be abandoned this year is only one of the symptoms of what seems like the irreversible decadence of both communities. There are other signs everywhere, and they all point to a richness which is being lost, and that may be lost forever.

It is against this decadence (social, cultural, even environmental) which the protagonists, namely headstrong Hikari, the son of the priestly family at the village, his clumsy friend Manaka, the other two members of their group, insightful Chisaki and polite Kaname, along with a student from the surface, the kind and serious Tsumugu, all rebel, purporting to carry on the feast.

But what they don´t know is that the void and the disconnect are so great, both between their peoples and between each of their own hearts, that the feast, the symbol, the ritual, may not be enough. That is, the story they are coming into may be their true story. But it may not be one of reconciliation and love triumphant, as it seems at first, but a bittersweet tale of love found and love lost, of misunderstanding, foolishness and sin.

There was a reason St. Peter was afraid when he discovered God in the power of Jesus of Nazareth: He was a sinner. And maybe, just maybe, the unrequited crushes, the illusions, the things lost, the shadows of the hearts of many of the characters point in this direction too. Spoilers, then, for Nagi no Asukara.

Once upon a time, there was a love story between the god of the sea, the Umigami-sam,a and a mortal girl of the People of the Land. She had offered herself to the god to prevent the punishment of her people, who had caused harm to his sea. Moved, the god prevented her from drowning and granted mercy to her folk. They became friends, and then she fell in love with him and married him. The Ofunehiki purports to remind the god of the self-giving sacrifice of the girl, and thus involves throwing a Ojoshi-sama, a wooden doll wearing rich garments, to the bottom of the sea.

That is what you tell the young, it seems. But there is a second part, which is seldom told these days. In time, the girl found that she could not forget someone she had left on the land. She couldn´t decide if she loved the man of the surface or the god of the sea, and was in great suffering. The god of the sea knew that the man had tragically perished trying to save her from the waters. And thus, the Umigami-sama took from her the feelings which made her suffer so, and gave her freedom, and returned her to the land.

She never came back. Though sad and lonely, he honors the bond. Or he always has, until this year.

Himinazawa, anyone? To assume the best, this may be a symbolic remainder of the painful but necessary personal sacrifices for the good of the community (as intermarriage results in children unable to breath under the sea). But the fact that the bridegroom consents the sacrifice of his bride to appease the sea has a sinister Iphigenia ring to it. This Pagan world is not as far from us as it would seem. We may have few rituals, but we certainly have our own scapegoats. And we tend to be deaf to the voice of the Lord when He tells us, like he told Abraham, that a sacrifice is needed, but that He will provide the Lamb.

Every community, every family, every person, needs rites, celebrations, repetitions. In Greek, lithurgeia means precisely “the work of the people,” and is used to refer to every sort of public ceremony, not only those of religious nature. We need them to make sense of change and continuity, of the time of our lives. We need to express what is important to us, year after year, to the deeper meaning of what we do everyday, or we may simply forget, become lost in the moment, in trifle disputes, in absorbing events.

I would contend that the lack of this kind of shared experiences, of bonds and meanings that are expressed and celebrated, is why life in the modern world feels, in many cases, so disconnected, so artificial, so erratic. You know, present day, present time.

“What I´m doing here? I remember my childhood, or my youth, but what happened to me after that? There is something I have lost, but what? Was this or that ever true, or is only something I got accustomed to think?” When that kind of feeling arises and we look back, wanting to do something meaningful, feeling the loneliness and the confusion, struggling to make sense of things—it is like feeling that the danger of living asleep is great and urgent, but not being able to wake up. Nagi no Asukara uses powerful images, from hibernation to amnesia to the underwater abysses to salt snow, to express just this.

In the show as in life, the reenacting of the ritual, “the work of the people,” is just not enough. They have no power in itself, only that of the story that they express, and that story is incomplete. Confronting the meaning of things as fully as possible is a necessity, is healthy, but it is not enough. We have a thirst for a love, connection and plenitude bigger than the Sun or the Sea, and we do not have it. Love denied, change blocked, important things lost, absence of correspondence, frustrations, the decadence, the abysses between the characters, the hopes that are not to be fulfilled, the voids, are made manifest when the Umigami-sama intervenes, his love as hurt and confused as that of Hikari, Manaka, Chisaki or Miuna. I will not find a path just by looking at the sea one more time.

It is interesting to note that the group was not wrong to do the Ofunehiki. The Ofunehiki, not the idleness or the mundanity, was the right starting point. Biblical Israel was unique among the nations in which, from Abraham and Isaac to Moses to the Temple, its cult and sacrifices were prescribed by God himself.

When you read the Bible for the first time, you may be puzzled by the extension and detail of these prescriptions, mainly given during the Exodus: Every detail was thought of. These ceremonies created a people uniquely embedded with its past, the history of how God chose them, revealed Himself acted in their story. Even today, the People of Israel stands from the rest due to the unique consciousness of living their story, manifested in their strong traditions.

Even so, the prophets soon warned them that the external fulfillment, the ritual, was not enough. “Bring your worthless offerings no more,” says Isaiah in the name of the Lord. “Your incense is detestable to Me (…) even though you multiply your prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.…”

Since the fall, humans remain separated from God, nature, and one another by the lack of love, by sin. But as in Nagi no Asukara, the ritual retained its value as an explanation, as a promise of meaning, as a hope. And when the time came, when Zachariah, of a priestly family of Aaronites, was serving in the Temple and “all the people were praying outside while he was burning incense” to the right of the incense altar, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and announced him that the Messiah and His Precursor were coming.

In Nagi no Asukara, eight-year-old Miuna, who embodies some of the problems between the surface and the sea, runs away from home. Hikari and the group ask the adults to let them manage the situation.

I ran away when I was eight. So did Our Lord at twelve. Miuna and I were just being dumb, but He was not. He went to the Temple. He had to work in the things of His Father, and the Temple was the house of prayer, which He protected, even if He also pointed that its end was near. When Christ talks to the Samaritan woman, He tells her that the cult must be given in the Temple, and not in the “high places” where the story behind the lithurgy was perverted into paganism: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

But He also tells her that a time would come soon in which God would be given a proper cult, “in Spirit and truth,” not just in shadows and symbols. Because, as He told Abraham, God would give soon the Lamb for the sacrifice. It was He Himself.

During the second Ofunehiki, the reconciliation of the two peoples was achieved, bringing truth and harmony for the characters and the Umigami-sama himself, who was reconciled with his spouse. Those who were asleep awake, and love and hope, like a beating heart, filled the land, the sea and the people. And, at the center of it, there was the pure offering of Miuna, the child of the sea and the land, who lovingly accepted the pain and loved beyond.

For the Catholic tradition, the lithurgy of the New Alliance is precisely this. No longer the “work of the people,” but, as St. Benedict says, “the work of God,” celebrated by Christ, the one High Priest, together with his body, the church in Heaven and on Earth. Because He offered His love and obedience as both man and God, and this love trascended sin, and He communicates it to us.

The sacrifice of Christ transcends every time, and is available for all people. The love of God, which is the true life, the true meaning, is manifested and channeled into us, into the entire universe. It is the love which moves the Sun and all the stars.

The Church celebrates the liturgy, says the Catechism, in union with Heaven, “the baptized offering themselves as a spiritual sacrifice, the ordained ministers celebrating at the service of all the members of the Church in accordance with the order received, and bishops and priests acting in the person of Christ.” As Miuna channeled the feelings of the Ojoshi-sama (and of Manaka), fulfilling the reconciliation they could not achieve, Peter and the Apostles, poor sinners as they were, brought to all the Earth the living memorial brought to them on the Last Supper, in which Christ offered, and still offers, His body and His blood, His life, to overcome our sin and save, unite, awake us.

The wooden Ojoshi-samas were consumed by fire, but the effects of the sacrifice are evident in the last scenes of Nagi no Asukara. The strange summer-winter ends. The Temple of Jerusalem is no more, but as the Apocalypse tells us, the liturgy has not ceased. And now it does not only refer to the shared celebration of the mysteries of the Faith, but also the prayer, the predication of the Gospel, the spiritual offering, the testimony of the love of Christ in us. Creation, light, water, fire, bread, wine or oil are part of it, as washing, anointing or breaking bread, but it is Christ who baptizes, saves, brings communion, cleans, makes the offering, bringing us with Him through the new paths He has created.

The cult of God in Spirit and truth encompasses the Cosmos, all of our life, all the year, the past, the present and the future. Wherever we live. The stone church, the boat and the house. The land and the seas of Christ, the loving, sacrificial King of the Universe.

Some things change. Some things don’t need to, as Hikari says—or not yet at least. New paths are opened. The journey is just begun. There will be tempests and storms, as sin is still here. The boats will tremble, separate, crash. But now, with Christ, we can live our true story, walk on the water or breath under it, go beyond, know that the meaning will shine. We have a path.

After every storm, the King of the Universe will bring the calm with His words of eternal life, that will by no means pass, even when the earth and the heavens pass. We will look, once again, to the sea. We will sing and celebrate, we will baptize and bury those who sleep in the Lord, for now. We will come back when we stray. We will be together, even in distance. “Put out into deep water,” the Lord told Peter—until we reach our true homeland one day.

Nagi no Asukara can be streamed at Crunchyroll.

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