"Why are you watching this?" asked my mother flatly as she walked in on my viewing of the latest episode of MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC.
"Because I like it, Mom. I'm also a media professional and it's my job to take stock in what's going on in the media," I responded in a perfectly para-phrasable and memorable way that I am not making up for the sake of convenient reading.
My mother responded with a grimace and walked away, likely contemplating her decisions in raising me.
But I ask you, Vicers: who has not also seen this scenario play out, one time or another, over their taste in anime? Whether or not you like MLP, I think most anime fans can sympathize with the plight of the brony; one who likes something that not necessarily everyone else understands.
But, my fellow bronies, I know you are always on the search for more. For something that explores emotions and expands upon characters, all while giving you a fascinating world to ponder the implications of. And if you're in the market for something else like MLP, then I would love to recommend to you P.A. Works' NAGI NO ASUKARA (also called NAGI-ASU). And here's why...
1) Art Direction
If you watch MLP, then you're probably a big fan of "teh qte." Every pony in the show is adorable - - even most of the villains - - and their candy-colored coats make for a technicolor feast for the eyes.
And the same goes for NAGI-ASU. All the important characters in this show are supercute, to the point where I'd be lying if I said their design isn't moe. Their vibrant, sparkling eyes are quite puppy-like, though only the philosophical Kaname tries to use his cuteness powers to manipulate (and even then, it's for a good cause). Since most of the cast is middle school age or younger, pretty much everyone in the cast is this cute (and even some of the adults).
But if the character designs are cute and simple, the backgrounds are beautiful and intricate. Lush backdrops reminiscant of oil on canvas let you really inhabit the twin towns of Shioshishio and Oshiooshi. The sweeping, wavelike architecture of the sea town contrasts wonderfully with the hard angles of the land town. Beautifully detailed fish populate the ocean, keeping the world dreamlike and letting you read more deeply into the background.
Something I didn't really notice about NAGI NO ASUKARA is how the show practices worldbuilding. Sure in the first episode you're going "huh, whoa!" at all the strangeness that is bafflingly mundane for the underwater people of Shioshishio, but following that initial shock things are introduced gradually. Quirkier aspects of the world--such as the divine fire the sea people use to cook underwater--are only referred to in regular dialogue, allowing the viewer to use context clues to figure things out. More complicated things, such as the magic Ena that coats all sea people, are explained in the voices of characters and in situations where such explanations would be necessary, which helps keep you immersed in the story instead of being sidetracked by exposition.
Even the native sea children, though, don't know everything about their world. They have to be taught by authority figures such as Hikari's father Akari (the chief priest) or Uroko the sage. When pressed with revelations, Hikari and friends often doubt these sources because they have their own agendas—and they may be right to do so.
3) Expanding Background Cast
If there's something that bronies love, it's background characters. Every tiny action they perform gets read into, interpreted, extrapolated and expanded to fill the fandom's fervent need for more content.
So what if I told you, dear bronies, that there are no background characters in NAGI-ASU?
Because it's true. This show doesn't really have background characters because anyone you would THINK would be one, like fellow classmates or random people in town, actually become fully fleshed out as the series goes on. You start to wonder when that one guy in Shioshishio will get it into his head that Akari won't return to the sea for him. You wonder if the homeroom teacher at school will ever reward his class with something that costs more than ten yen. And will Kaname's classmate Yu ever confess her feelings for him?
Something that MLP:FIM never really touches on is romance, and I think that's ok. The show focuses on purely platonic friendships for children and how they change and grow, and love interests would really distract from that (no, I'm not counting EQUESTRIA GIRLS in this--are you insane?). Sure Spike has a crush on Rarity, and that's a big part of his character, but he's also approximately 7 years old by human standards—she's his first crush, and she's wayyyy older than him.
With NAGI-ASU, however, burgeoning emotions are integral to the premise. Since the four protagonists are all on the cusp of puberty, they're experiencing strong emotions of longing for the very first time and really don't know what to do with them. Is it OK to love someone you've grown up with? What if your family hates them for some reason? Or worse, what if your friends hate them, and hate YOU for liking them?
NAGI-ASU's relationship chart is best described as a non-euclidian love polygon. I could spend paragraphs going into who likes who and why but then they notice something and it changes feelings inside them... but the point isn't trying to diagram it out, because it's all pretty apparent. What's important is that these emotions are vivid, and there are no bad guys in their relationship conflicts. All the characters are dealing with more than one type of love for each other, and they don't know if they want to keep it balanced and preserve what they have or bring it closer to what they would like it to be at an unknown cost.
So if you like MY LITTLE PONY for any of the reasons above, I couldn't recommend NAGI NO ASUKARA more. And hey, if you like NAGI-ASU... maybe you should give MLP a chance too.
Matt Murphy is a freelance nerd who has contributed to many nerd websites. You can reach him by going to where the light meets the shadow, by sending out zeta-brainwaves or by following him on Twitter @Murphix.