Ocean Waves, like Only Yesterday before it, is one of a handful of Studio Ghibli films that are only just now seeing their first releases in the United States. And like Only Yesterday, it's worth forgetting that this is a Studio Ghibli film, because I worry that imposes unrealistic expectations about its quality, intentions, and end results. Is it essential viewing? Not really, not in the same way Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro are. Is it enjoyable viewing? Absolutely.
Bizarre love triangle
Originally released in 1993, Ocean Waves is one of a clutch of movies produced by Ghibli that is not fantasy, but unpretentiously rooted in everyday life. I mentioned Only Yesterday, but My Neighbors The Yamadas also fits. Waves is a light comedy of teenage manners based on Saeko Himuro's novel (Umi ga kikoeru, lit. "I can hear the sea"), and it involves one of the most staple of subjects for such material: Two guys and a girl.
The guys in question are Taku Morisaki and Yutaka Matsuno, who attend the same high school in a little town on Shikoku. Yutaka is the more studious and buttoned-down of the two; Taku is more footloose. Both of them have their eyes on the new girl who just transferred in from Tokyo, Rikako Muto. Stuck up, she is, or so the other girls say. Maybe the real story, as Taku learns from his mother, is that Rikako (still just "Muto" to her classmates) is lonely and displaced — her mother's divorced, and she's not even living at home. Maybe someone will be nice enough to roll out an emotional red carpet for her, but Taku doesn't seem himself as that someone.
Then, over the next few months, Taku and Rikako are thrown together by one discomfiting set of circumstances after another. When the class goes on a summer trip to Hawaii (compensation for another, canceled trip), Rikako confronts Taku, apropos of nothing, and asks to borrow a pile of money from him. She lost all the cash she brought for this trip, you see — and whatever you do, she admonishes him, don't tell anyone! But Taku ends up telling Yutaka anyway; the last thing he wants is for his friend to start getting the wrong ideas about him and that girl.
Then things begin to get really complicated for Taku. His money, as it turns out, was used to buy plane tickets for Rikako to fly to Tokyo, and he only found out about this because she tricked a classmate — the only female friend she has in the school, no less — to go with her. Taku ends up taking the friend's place, pseudo-chaperoning Rikako back to the big city so that she can see her father. It ends badly, with Rikako getting drunk when she finds out Dad is more interested in his new girlfriend than in his own daughter, and with Taku crashing out in the bathtub so nobody will think anything happened. His embarrassment deepens even further the next day, when Rikako trots him out as a way to embarrass a former boyfriend. Infuriating.
It's all the more infuriating, Taku finds, because of the web of consequences that wind up developing around this girl. Every time he tries to extract himself from them, he only gets all the more entangled — not least of all because Yutaka is himself smitten with Rikako, and the last thing Taku wants is to lose a friend over someone he doesn't even like very much. Or so he tells himself, anyway.
Material like this works best when it's approach with a light, fast-moving touch. Ocean Waves is barely eighty minutes including credits, and some of that is practicality: the film was originally developed for TV, and so needed to fit a timeslot with room for commercials. But one positive side effect of such economy is the movie doesn't overstay its welcome or become ponderously outsized. It enters, charms, and exits. This was for me the reason why Makoto Shinkai's barely one-hour-long Garden Of Words worked better than other movies twice its length (whether his or other peoples'); there's only so much detail you can go into, only so much convolution you can explore before it becomes tedious, charmless, soap-opera shrill.
This is especially true for romances or comedies, or mixtures of both. At bottom, those stories tend mainly to be about one thing anyway, and Ocean Waves is mostly about one thing — how Taku comes to realize this girl, infuriating as she can be, is actually someone to be admired for her verve and her spine. She has the guts to strike out on her own to see her dad; she stands her ground against other girls who accuse her (wrongly) of flirting with their boyfriends; and in the end, she thought more highly of Taku than most anyone else, even if she expressed it all in the clumsy way young people often do. People like that are rare, and Taku's big realization is that maybe someone like that, for all of their noise and irritation, is worth it.
Even a "minor" Ghibli production is invested with the same painstaking care as a "major" one. Ocean Waves has no spectacular set-pieces or apocalyptic imagery; the most jolting thing that happens is when Yutaka punches Taku and he goes flying into a pile of trash. What it does have is the same total attention to detail — Taku's jittery body language, for instance, or the lovingly rendered atmosphere of Tokyo, Taku's hometown, the Hawaiian resort, and the school festival near the end of the movie. It's just lavish enough to be attractive, but not distracting.
That by itself could be an argument against projects like these. Why animate something that isn't, in the material itself, about showing how animation is different from live action? I'm partly sympathetic to this view; outlandish projects like REDLINE seem like the best possible case studies for why animation thrives as its own art form. But that's like saying the only kinds of buildings worth constructing are skyscrapers. Ocean Waves isn't groundbreaking technically or dramatically, but it wasn't meant to be. There's also much to study in it for how a modest scope or realistic setting for an animated project does not have to function as a constraint; closely observing the world we actually live in can be as creative as inventing something from whole cloth.
Close fans of Ghibli know full well the studio does not revolve exclusively around director Hayao Miyazaki, although it can sure seem like that. Ocean Waves was directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, but his career was neither built at nor fostered at Ghibli; he started elsewhere and has continued to work elsewhere. But his roster is impressive: he directed the remarkable anime adaptation of Natsume Ono's manga House Of Five Leaves, the underappreciated baseball drama Princess Nine, and a number of other titles that deserve to be discussed anew (Here Is Greenwood). Maybe the better way to think of Ocean Waves is as a Mochizuki title, not a Ghibli title. Not as a ding on Ghibli, though.