For all the awful and rot the final act of 2016 has brought us, one small glimmer of cinematic hope was revealed last month with the news that Hayao Miyazaki was coming out of retirement and working on another film for Studio Ghibli. Now, following not far behind, we have the theatrical rerelease of a long overlooked effort from the studio (and the first not directed by Isao Takahata or Miyazaki), the 1993 TV movie “Ocean Waves.” And while “Ocean Waves” never really comes close to reaching the glorious highs that the studio is known for (“Spirited Away,” “Castle In The Sky,” etc.), it is nonetheless a gorgeously realized and deep emotional film of quiet elegance and the fierce longing of youth, and certainly one worth catching again at your local arthouse.
Based on a novel of the same name by Saeko Himuro and directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, who worked on the film with the studio’s younger staff members, “Ocean Waves,” on the surface, is a great departure from the regular and delightfully magical work of Miyazaki and Takahata. Visually, however, the film lives up to the lush animation that the studio is rightfully known for. In fact, it’s hard to understate just how splendid “Ocean Waves” is to look at. For every odd, uneven beat in the story, the film more than makes up for it with its vivid detail, creamy color palette, and delicate texture.
The story, what little of it there is, follows Taku (Nobuo Tobita), who has just finished his first year of university and spotted a familiar face in the crowd at the train station on his way home to Kochi that sparks off rush of memories. Years earlier, while still in high school, Taku and his best friend Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) were looking to the future when their lives were turned upside down by the arrival Rikako (Yoko Sakamoto), a beautiful transfer student from Tokyo. Rikako is athletic and academic and utterly beguiling to the two boys. Yutaka develops a crush on her, but Taku finds himself caught in the limbo of friendship and desire.
Things only get worse for Taku, when on a class trip to Hawaii, Rikako asks him for a loan, claiming she has lost all of her money. Taku, thinking first of Yutaka, obliges, believing he is helping his best friend’s girlfriend. But it’s only after they’ve returned to Kochi that Taku learns Rikako has used his money to buy a pair of plane tickets to Tokyo. Determined to look after her, Taku tags along to the big city where teenage hormones fly and the intricacies of their relationship are knotted beyond recognition. What follows of course, is heartbreak. But what’s important in “Ocean Waves,” is the journey to that place of devastation. For all its lack of narrative momentum — and there is noticeable lack — the film manages to never really feel as static as it is. Which is the magic of Mochizuki’s film: “Ocean Waves” beautifully captures the tumultuous time of being young and the overwhelming way emotions ricochet from one extreme to the next. It’s a trick executed through the film’s remarkable animation, a layered soundscape, and a clear understanding of the power of cinematic patience. “Ocean Waves” lingers in the silences and the in between, it revels in the swelter of youth and the warm radiance of those feverishly operatic years.
The problems with the picture are mostly borne from the passage of time and some of the more garishly antiquated beats from the script: the objectification of Rikako, her manic-pixie dream girl flatness, the fact that she is always in need of rescue by a man, and the slight but damning moment when Taku strikes her. These details, each on their own, might not be worth mentioning, but they inevitably begin to add up. Nonetheless, they never completely sully the film; with time, though, they have certainly become more enunciated.
Still, “Ocean Waves” is a deeply charming and resonant look at the tug of longing that so often comes with memory, the utter mess of youth, and the beautiful delirium of love. But those seeking the grandeur and fantastical elements of other Studio Ghibli films aught to temper their expectations; “Ocean Waves” is, first and foremost, a drama in a minor key, the sort of love story you don’t even realize is a love story until after the fact. What matters most, though, is that it’s every bit as beautiful today as it was two decades ago. [B]