Ocean Waves (1993)

Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki
Written by Kaori Nakamura

To this point in Studio Ghibli, the films have centered around the artistic imaginations of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. But with Ocean Waves, the studio is taking a completely different direction. Not only is the director a name we have not seen before, but the studio initially released this film as a television movie, which makes it unique in the canon, but not any less artistic or impactful in his strength of narrative. And speaking of narrative, with Ocean Waves, we also see a slight adjustment to the worlds previously seen in Ghibli films. While Grave of the Fireflies sees itself the outlier to this point, with Miyazaki’s imaginative fantasy worlds largely dominating the landscape, Ocean Waves joins Fireflies as a more grounded, drama styled narrative which just so happens to take place in an animated world.

Taku is a regular, rural high school kid who goes about his days with his studies and spending time with his friend Yutaka. But these rural kids soon have their lives turned upside down when an interesting girl from Tokyo, Rikako, arrives in their rural town, bringing with her beauty, big city style, and drama. Ocean Waves tells the story of how the friendship between Taku and Yutaka becomes strained under the attraction of Rikako, and how Rikako manages to turn their turmoil into an unforgettable lesson on growing up, losing innocence, and seeing the world outside the pristine windows of the rural school Taku and Yutaka typically spend their time.

The film, which as I mentioned was originally made for television, is a rather short 72 minutes, but I think in the end, Ocean Waves is the right length, given the story and format the studio chose for delivery of its film. Even though it only spanned those 72 minutes, the film felt longer, but I’m not sure that is a reflection necessarily on quality or even pacing of the film. Instead, I think this is reflective of the rather casual story being told on screen. It is not one with great fantasy worlds to build, or exciting action to depict. Ocean Waves takes its time with the characters, creating a rather slow yet endearing narrative to follow. By the end of the film, each character is felt for the position in which they are in, where they come from, and where their future may rest. By the end the characters are fully developed. I used the term “by the end”, which is often used by critics to explain a particular phenomenon where the film is rather slow and boring, but will reward those viewers who persevered through and paid enough attention for the astounding third act to pay emotional dividends.

Ocean Waves is similar to this phenomenon. I wouldn’t go nearly as far as to call the film slow or boring in the first two acts, but it also was not the most engaging during this time either. The issue with a narrative like this is including enough interest and intrigue with these characters to keep the audience going, to expect and anticipate the dramatic finale. Ocean Waves does this, for while I never knew quite how it would end, I needed to see it. And I am certainly glad I stuck around, as the emotional payoff of the finale, the final few moments of the film, are truly poignant and in many ways validate everything that came before it. These types of movies are often hard to categorize, as I almost want to go back and rewatch the film to potentially pick up on any number of hidden nuggets I just may not have noticed the first time though, but which, with the knowledge of the conclusion of the film, may be more discernible and enlightening a second time.

The growing up and angst of Taku in this film, as he learns some hard lessons from his attraction to Rikako not just about relationships, but also what he learns about himself and perhaps most importantly about his friendship with Yutaka, is a fairly universal coming of age story. Mochizuki and Ghibli do this story justice however, managing to take a short 72 minute made for television film, and yet make it endearing and endlessly cinematic. This elevates the film, for the animation is consistent with the Studio’s other works. Even without fantastic worlds, and maybe especially because of their absence, the natural world of burgeoning love, heartbreak and growing up from adolescence is animated as beautifully as anything from NausicaaTotoro, or any of the other films from Ghibli. Ocean Waves is the type of film that doesn’t need to be animated, but whose animated adds another layer to a wonderful story.

*** – Good

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