Breakaway Phenomenon and Escapism in Amanchu!

McDIVITT: They want you to come back in now.
WHITE: Back in?
McDIVITT: Back in.
GRISSOM: Roger, we’ve been trying to talk to you for awhile here.
WHITE: Aw, Cape, let me just [take] a few pictures.
McDIVITT: No, back in. Come on.
WHITE: … Listen, you could almost not drag me in, but I’m coming.

But he wasn’t. Two more minutes passed. McDivitt starts to plead.

McDIVITT: Just come on in …
WHITE: Actually, I’m trying to get a better picture.
McDIVITT: No, come on in.

Excerpt from Packing for Mars, Mary Roach1

Amanchu Teko lying on ocean floor

The breakaway phenomenon (break-off effect, breakaway effect, earth-out-of-view phenomenon) is first characterized for high altitude flights. A study published in Journal of Aviation Medicine described a strange euphoria experienced by pilots during a solo flights while flying at high altitudes: “It seems so peaceful, it seems like you are in another world.” Another account more eerily reported “wanting to fly on and on.”2 Following the publication, the experience was soon noted by space psychologists as “space euphoria,” which is often prompted by seeing the alien Earth in its entirety.

The father of saturation diving, George F. Bond coined a similar experience in diving as “aquanaut breakaway phenomenon.” While the aviation and space breakaway effects are primarily associated with a detachment from terra firma, Bond further emphasizes the relationship of the aquatic variety to independence.3 In the transition from a tense reliance on meticulous preparation and instructions to a completely unfamiliar, unoccupied, expansive world, divers (pilots, astronauts) may experience a sudden sense of relaxation and autonomy, and somewhat paradoxically, a sense of natural belonging.

Amanchu Teko scuba diving practice
“Gently, like a feather in the air, enveloped by a pale, blue light, my body takes flight.”

Indeed, in Amanchu!, the breakaway phenomenon may be the perfect metaphor for Teko’s inner struggles with alienation and irresolution. Her introduction to scuba diving sums this idea up neatly. Underwater, after Teko overcomes the difficult mask clearing and looming panic, she is finally able to assert herself and feel a sense of belonging and calm—she takes flight.

In reality, the phenomenon is dangerous in space and the sea. The deadly combination of calm, elation, invulnerability, and capriciousness can spell disaster in situations that require vigilance and adherence to protocol. Astronaut White’s persistent refusal to get back into Gemini IV would have resulted in his abandonment in space.1 In another example, divers working underwater in SEALAB have confessed to feeling as if they could go for swims without air tanks. In fact, a diver once recalled forgetting to go back for air.4

Amanchu Mato Katori Teko
“Wishes, hopes, and aspirations aren’t something you need to have. […] If you move forward, you will definitely meet something in your path.”
However, Amanchu! delights in that carefree attitude. It is fine to just lie on the ocean floor. It is fine that Teko does not yet know how to swim. It is fine to not have any goal or desire. Somehow, things will work out. It almost seems escapist, but that is also fine. Because watching the girls of Amanchu!, whose lives are so alien and yet seem so natural, for the briefest moments, the audience—I can break away a little too.

Amanchu Teko lying on ocean floor smiling

WHITE: That was the most natural feeling, Jim.
McDIVITT: … You looked like you were in your mother’s womb.

But eventually, we all have to resurface.

White makes a move toward the hatch, saying, “This is the saddest moment of my life.”1

1. Roach, Mary. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. pp. 67-69.
2. Clark B, Graybiel A. “The break-off phenomenon: a feeling of separation from the earth experienced by pilots at high altitude”. J Aviat Med. 1957 Apr;28(2):121-6.
3. Hellwarth, Ben. Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor. Simon and Schuster, 2012. p. 115.
4. Story of Sealab I. United States Navy, 1965. video.

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