“Do what’s right, and everything will work out.” This is the prayer repeated throughout The Aquatope on White Sand, particularly by its two main characters, Kukuru and Fuuka. It’s an optimistic mantra, one that shows a sense of faith in the goodwill of the universe (or at least, the little local god to whom these prayers are delivered). Good things will happen to kind people, honest effort will ensure your dreams come true, and love will always save the day no matter the odds—that sort of thing.

Screenshot form Aquatope on White Sand featuring two woman kneeling before a tree. Text: "Do what is right, and everything will work out."

It would be easy to dismiss this worldview as naïve or even childish, but Aquatope never belittles its characters for believing in this sort of cosmic kindness. Even when the series transitions away from the magic and whimsy of its first cour, it maintains a surprising and uplifting sense of optimism.

The Aquatope on White Sand can be split neatly into two. The first half of the story follows the summer when Fuuka, a recently retired (well, recently laid off) teen idol runs away to Okinawa. Lost and listless, she wanders into Gama Gama Aquarium and is struck by a sense of strange, welcoming wonder. She soon discovers that, financially, Gama Gama is on its last legs, and the official plan is for the facility to close at the end of the season. Fuuka teams up with Kukuru, the director’s granddaughter, to do whatever they can to keep the place open.

From here, the plot seemed obvious: the girls would hatch many zany schemes, learn and grow, and through their love and determination the aquarium would be saved. Gama Gama is a local business, a scrappy underdog, and represents the whimsy and happiness of Kukuru’s childhood. Its inexplicable ability to show guests visions of the future or the past makes it an ethereal place, tinged with supernatural nostalgia. But it’s also the place Kukuru most associates with her deceased parents—her final connection to her lost family. By all story logic, I thought, surely this would be an uplifting tale of overcoming the odds to protect this beautiful, strange place.

A girl smiles as she looks in at a school of fish in an aquarium tank.

But that is not what happens. A storm batters Gama Gama during a lock-in protest, leaving Kukuru and Fuuka to scramble to keep the wildlife alive and the building intact. When the typhoon passes and the power comes back on, Kukuru is forced to reckon with the reality of the situation as she stands among the wreckage. Gama Gama is hanging on by a thread. The structural faults in the building and the technology mean it isn’t safe for the sea creatures or the humans working to preserve them. It would take money the family does not have to repair the damage, and even then, it would only be a temporary solution.

Instead of a triumphant finale, the story arc ends with Kukuru coming to terms with inevitable loss: of her parents, of her family business, and ultimately of her childhood. Gama Gama does not survive, and closes down as was initially planned. Kukuru—and Fuuka beside her—is forced to let it go.

It’s heartbreaking, and it would be a horrible downer of an ending… if it was the ending. But the “death” of Gama Gama is only Aquatope’s halfway point. The second half of the story picks up after a time skip, with Kukuru embarking on a new job at a new aquarium… in its marketing department.

A blue-haired woman holding a clipboard wears a look of disgust.

Things don’t seem off to a positive start. The plucky girl we mostly saw in cut-off shorts has stuffed herself into a skirt-suit, and the sea-life-loving kid who was most at home among fish tanks now finds herself stuck behind a desk. Cruel, adult reality has the freewheeling Kukuru in its teeth, and all her delusions about magic and goodness are mashed up like so much fish food. At least, that’s what I feared for the future of the story. But Aquatope surprised me again by retaining the optimistic tone that had carried its first cour.

After all, what is optimism if not staying determined and kind in the face of a world that’s kinda crappy? Kukuru is technically in her dream field, but is stuck doing boring and stressful administrative work. Her boss is an unapproachable hardass, she’s tired all the time, and her attempts at breaking the mould and doing things the Gama Gama way often get her in trouble. It’s a clash of passion and practicality that I’m sure many viewers are familiar with (and certainly a more relatable struggle than Fuuka’s failed idol career, no offence to her). But rather than wallowing in the ruins of her damaged dream and loathing every minute of her new corporate grind, Kukuru applies that same determined spirit that propelled her in the show’s first half.

And it works.

The storytelling never kicks Kukuru down for her ambition and passion. The ultimate message is that Kukuru’s optimism and drive are not wrong, they just might need to be applied a little differently. She’s portrayed as naïve, but always in situations that provide room for growth. She butts heads with an aquarium supervisor over sea slug care, and is ultimately reminded that aquariums exist for the purpose of scientific study and conservation rather than a nebulous duty to all living creatures. She adjusts her outlook based on this new perspective, but also injects a bit of love into the supervisor’s outlook, too.

A blue-haired woman in a teal shirt holds a shell. Subtitle: "But all you can do is take on what's in front of you with all your heart, right?"

Her antagonistic relationship with aquarium attendant Chiyu gets ironed out when she learns more about Chiyu’s stressful home life as a single mother. Kukuru’s fiery passion switches from anger at Chiyu’s attitude to a determination to see things from her point of view, leading to a haphazard babysitting session. Kukuru will always try, even if it’s ill-advised. Her plucky dedication might be easy to dismiss as a “childish” trait, but it carries through and informs—and ultimately improves—her adult life and relationships.

Even when everything goes wrong for Kukuru in the series’ climax, the storytelling leans on kindness and catharsis rather than shrugging and asking her to accept “that’s the way it is.” Straws pile up to break the proverbial camel’s back: she flubs a marketing pitch, argues with her boss, and gives up the chance to swim with a dolphin in favour of finishing her admin work. Most painfully, working late means she misses the chance to visit Gama Gama one last time before the old building gets demolished. Kukuru gets there too late and has to literally watch the ruins of her childhood get tidied away. She buckles under the weight of all this heartache that seems to have no real goal, and runs away.

But the universe comes to Kukuru’s rescue: a marine scientist takes Kukuru under her wing, and she gets to watch baby turtles hatching and making their way to the sea. Just kids, like her, pushing out of their shells and into the wide blue yonder, where all they can do is try their best to survive and thrive. Fuuka even comes to find her, offering comfort in her time of stress and reassuring her that, even if this was not the most sensible course of action, Kukuru’s feelings are still valid (and she hasn’t burnt all her bridges).

Kukuru must mature, but the narrative does not place her in a binary where her passion, emotionality, and belief in the kindness of the world are lumped in with her immaturity. “Do what’s right, and everything will work out” is still the ethos that underpins how most episodes of Aquatope are written, even after the dramatic transition away from the whimsical and magical setting of Gama Gama.

A blue-haired girl an da brown-haired girl laugh, as they walk beneath a clear blue sky.

The experience with the sea turtles reinvigorates Kukuru’s passion for wildlife, and she realises that, in marketing, she’s in a unique position to help. She’s able to educate and spread awareness, while inspiring the same passion in other people. Even when she’s offered the chance to transfer to what was her dream job, Kukuru ends up turning it down, resolving instead to combine her oceanic knowledge with her new PR skills to fight for the future of fish on a different stage. It’s a decision that shows how much she’s grown over the series, and how the desk job reality of being a grownup hasn’t robbed her of her passion; it just taught her to apply it in different ways.

The optimism of Kukuru—and Fuuka, and everyone else whose lives she touches—stands out starkly when the whimsy and magic disappear from the show’s backdrop, and thus becomes even more admirable. Sometimes, your dreams fall through despite all your hard work and passion. Sometimes, you need to reckon with your grief instead of clinging to nostalgia. Sometimes life is hard, and mean, and sad, and tiring, almost all the time.

But you need to keep moving forward, keep trying your best. If magic is no longer built into your setting, that just means you need to bring your own.

You can take the girl out of the liminal aquarium, but you can’t take the liminal aquarium out of the girl. Aquatope’s length lets this narrative play out with satisfying pacing, presenting magical childhood and realistic adulthood not as two opposing poles, but something we can learn to navigate without devolving into cynicism. It makes for a rewarding coming-of-age story and an especially sweet-natured office dramedy.