Animated story of teenage love finally washes up on American shores
Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki
Cast: Nobuo Tobita, Toshihiko Seki, Yoko Sakamoto
Fans of Japanese animation can be forgiven for their constant on-again, off-again speculation whether “semiretired” master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki will ever direct another film. (As of November anyway, the 75-year-old says he’s got a “project proposal” for a new feature he wants to make.) After all, Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is responsible for some of the most beloved animated features on the international scene (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo). Though it’s not directed by Miyazaki and it’s not technically new, the 1993 film Ocean Waves comes from the fine folks at Studio Ghibli and is just now being released for the first time in America—meaning dedicated anime fans would do well to pay attention.
The film, based on the novel I Can Hear the Sea by Saeko Himuro, was originally conceived as a TV movie and was produced on a much stricter budget than the typical Studio Ghibli feature. Though it lacks the technical flourishes of films like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, it’s a lovely and graceful slice of modern life.
Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki (“Ranma 1/2,” “Kimagure Orange Road”), the film takes viewers to Kochi, the capital city of Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Though it boasts a rather dense population of some 340,000 people, it’s considered a rural town—particularly in comparison to ultra-urban Tokyo. It’s at the local high school in Kochi that we meet Taku Morisaki (Nobuo Tobita), a junior who’s spending his summer earning much-needed cash working as a dishwasher, and his best friend Yutaka Matsuno (Toshihiko Seki). Yutaka has summoned Taku to school to take a gander at the new transfer student who will be joining them in the fall. Her name is Rikako Muto (Yoko Sakamoto). It’s known that she used to live in Tokyo, and it’s generally agreed that she’s quite beautiful.
Once the school year starts, Taku and Yutaka engage in a friendly rivalry for Rikako’s affections. Not that she notices. The girl, thought of by most at the school as haughty, has few friends. She excels at sports and is soon climbing to the top of the school’s academic list. Taku and Yutaka are lucky to get a word out of the girl. It eventually becomes clear that the big-city-bred girl’s parents are divorced and she’s been forced to relocate to Podunk Kochi against her will. (She thinks, for example, all the locals sound like they belong in a samurai film.) Despite her standoffish attitude, Taku and Yutaka remain intrigued by the mysterious gal.
Things eventually come to a head during the school’s senior trip. Having been denied a junior trip due to slipping grades, the senior class is rewarded with a big trip to Hawaii. Taku spends most of his time lounging around the hotel, but he has a strange encounter with Rikako in which she manipulates him into loaning her a tidy sum of money. This leads, some months later, to a fateful trip to Tokyo in which the unhappy student tries to reunite with her estranged father.
Little more than a low-key love triangle among teenagers, Ocean Waves doesn’t seem nearly as ambitious as other Studio Ghibli outings. Most of the Ghibli films that have made it big on American shores have been elaborate fantasies. Ocean Waves is much more in line with the Japanese company’s earthbound domestic hits, such as Only Yesterday, Whisper of the Heart, My Neighbors the Yamadas, From Up On Poppy Hill and When Marnie Was There.
Still, the film is notable for a couple of things. Firstly is its lack of emotional histrionics. Lots of anime stories (particularly of the serialized variety) can assign some extravagant emotional states to teenage characters (usually leading to high-flying sword fights and literal explosions). Ocean Waves, in contrast, is all bottled-up feelings and runaway doubt. Actions are misinterpreted, signals are misunderstood, and the behavior of other people is just plain confusing. Real life teenagers are terrible at love, and Ocean Waves taps perfectly into that well of confusion and inexperience.
Ocean Waves also stands out from a visual perspective. Though the occasionally “flat” animation style isn’t anywhere near the artistic achievement of, say, Princess Mononoke, this is clearly a Ghibli film in its exacting attention to detail. Look at the riot of signs at the Obiyamachi Shopping Arcade or the tidy display of flyers taped to random bus stops or the way a set of hinges attaches a metal gate to a concrete block wall. These seemingly inconsequential details impart an overwhelmingly realistic, lived-in quality. Obviously the Ghibli animators are sourcing these images from reality. But it’s the kind of nitty-gritty technical precision (an inexplicably beautiful tangle of telephone wires above a street scene, for example) that puts even minor Ghibli at the forefront of modern animation.
To be perfectly honest, Ocean Waves is little more than a footnote in the history of Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli. An intentionally small-scale, intimate coming-of-age tale, Ocean Waves isn’t going to resonate as anyone’s favorite anime. But its uncluttered observation is sure to strike a chord in some audience members who still remember (or are currently experiencing) the unmistakable, alternating feelings of confusion and fascination that accompany teenage romance.
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