Movie Review: Ocean Waves (Umi ga kikoeru)
The wonderful thing about the traveling film festival Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata & the Masters of Studio Ghibli, is its ability to not only expose larger groups of people to many unknown gems of Japanese animation, but also showcase several films from the studio that have never been released in the United States.
One of those films, is titled Ocean Waves. Originally titled as Umi ga kikoeru (which in Japanese means I Can Hear the Sea), it starts out with a young man named Taku, who is seen taking a plane from Tokyo, to Kochi (a smaller city in Southern Japan). As the plane takes off, he begins to reminisce (and narrate) about two people from his years in Junior High and High School.
The first is a young man with glasses named Yutaka Matsuno. After their Junior High class trip was cancelled due to low test scores, Taku and Yutaka are the only two students to question this decision. This is the beginning of their friendship, that carries on over into High School.
In high school, a new student transfers from Tokyo, named Rikako. Rikako soon becomes a “beautiful girl of mystery” among the male students, and it seems to Taku that Yutaka has a crush on her. However, Rikako truly seems an enigma. While she excels highly in school studies, she rarely speaks to any of the other girls, or participates in group activities.
In fact, Taku doesn’t even have a conversation with Rikako, until his school class goes on a trip to Hawaii. Taku’s narration then informs the audience, that this trip ‘ruined his life.’
From there, Ocean Waves weaves a story that some may have thought would be predictable (two best friends + new girl = awkward love triangle), but the film manages to shy away from many conventions regarding this sort of thing. What follows as Taku continues to narrate the story, becomes something that almost has to be seen to be believed.
Once the film was over, I immediately flashed to another unseen Ghibli film, Only Yesterday. Both stories carry through with the lead protagonist taking a trip that leads to reminiscences of the past. However, out of both of these films Yesterday is by far the strongest.
That’s not to say that Ocean is a bad movie (I’ve never seen a ‘bad’ Ghibli-produced film), but this film doesn’t soar to the heights of such masterpieces as Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies. Some might think of Ocean Waves the way some PIXAR fans think of films like Cars and A Bug’s Life: Good, but not great. (note: This is one reason why Ocean Waves did not earn a slot in my blog category, Great Films You’ve Never Seen).
Art-wise, the film doesn’t falter in the visuals we’ve come to know from Ghibli. The artists do a great job rendering the cityscapes of Tokyo, and even the lesser-seen city of Kochi. Prevalent in numerous shots of Kochi is its landmark castle, which seems to tower over everything.
When I saw Only Yesterday, I was intrigued by how the character designs differed from Hayao Miyazaki’s depiction of human adults. Here, the characters seem more Japanese in appearance than in any of the studio’s productions I’ve seen. That may be key to how the film is depicted. Unlike other films from the studio’s catalogue, Ocean is devoid of flights-of-fancy, or dreamlike landscapes. The closest we get is a framing device, whereby a white bordered frame shows us images as if we had chanced upon a photograph.
The production of Ocean Waves also singles it out as an anomaly in the studio’s production history:
1) It was not a theatrical release, but a made-for-television movie (hence, its running time of only 72 minutes).
2) The film predates Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart by 2 years, and is actually the first ‘film’ not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata for the company.
Originally based on a novel by Saeko Himuro, Kaori Nakamura handled screenplay duties, with directorial work being done by Tomomi Mochizuki. It is notable that Mochizuki’s credits prior to Ocean Waves proves that he was very well suited for the job. He had worked on relationship-oriented anime series such as Maison Ikkoku, and Kimagure Orange Road.
Aside from a few lines of dialogue from one girl about her period, there’s very little that I can see that would keep this film from being released. However, it is included under the distribution deal that Walt Disney Pictures has with Studio Ghibli, and given their penchant to now go through and re-release titles on Blu-Ray, we’ll probably get previously-released works first before we (possibly) see this film on Region 1 DVD/Blu-Ray.