Beauty at a distance: Romance and recollection in Ocean Waves
Ivan Radford | On 09, Feb 2020
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Cast: Toshihiko Seki, Nobuo Tobita, Yōko Sakamoto
Watch Ocean Waves online in the UK: Netflix UK
“She’s so beautiful!” exclaims Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki), a student at high school in Kōchi, to his best friend, Taku (Nobuo Tobita). They are talking of Rikako (Yōko Sakamoto), a new girl who has just transferred to their school from Tokyo. It’s an unusual moment in a Studio Ghibli film, switching up focus from the anime powerhouse’s usual female protagonists to give us a romance from the perspective of two men – and that male gaze is notably out in force from Ocean Wave’s opening scenes.
The TV movie follows the duo as they vie for her affections – a rivalry that ultimately impacts their own affections for each other. The frustrating thing is that it’s never very easy to see why both of them become so infatuated with her; she’s presented to us an aloof, self-centred figure, a big city girl who has moved to the small town on the island of Shikoku against her will, due to her parents splitting up. We first see her as an adult, when Taku spots her in the distance at a train station, sparking a lengthy flashback, and it never feels like we get much closer to knowing her.
Taku swiftly appears to be the one farther ahead in the race to win her heart, but her interactions with him mainly involve using him to borrow money or getting him to help her wriggle out of an awkward catch-up with an old flame; compared to some of Ghibli’s romances, and even friendships, there’s a distinct lack of depth to their connection, caused by her inconsistent behaviour. You suspect the problem either needs more screentime to be reversed (the runtime is just 72 minutes) or the story needs to be refocused around her.
The film itself was an initiative to give Studio Ghibli’s younger staff members a chance to make a film on the cheap (the film was the first Ghibli anime not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata), although it ended up taking more time and money than expected. It’s possible that relative lack of experience is the cause of the shallow, uninvolving romance, or it could be the source material (the film is based on Saeko Himuro’s novel I Can Hear the Sea).
What’s clear is that the youthful creatives at the anime studio certainly aren’t lacking in ambition or skill; they deftly manage to conjure up a pastel-tinted portrait of nostalgia, and they weave the intangible nature of memory with a strikingly details depiction of every location and background. Compared to Miyazaki’s work, this is a grounded, realistic world, one that takes us to Tokyo and Hawaii without ever feeling like we’ve left these characters’ skilfully rendered orbit.
One moment, in particular, presents Taku’s thoughts in a photo frame that increasingly gets smaller in the centre of the screen – a deft expression of the remote nature of remembering, of the gulf that opens up between the then and the now. There’s a nuanced poignancy to the storytelling that aches with a maturity and sense of perspective that belies the age of the people behind the project. It’s beautiful; it’s just a shame that there aren’t the characters to go with it.
Ocean Waves is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.