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Ocean Waves

Andrew Osmond on a Studio Ghibli “obscurity”

Ocean Waves

Two male high-school friends, Taku and Yutaka, are intrigued by a girl transfer student, Rikako. Beautiful but withdrawn, Rikako approaches Taku one day and asks to borrow money. Gradually, Taku learns about her personal life, but where will their strange relationship go?

Ocean Waves is the only feature anime by the world-famous Studio Ghibli which might be called obscure. It wasn’t made for cinemas but television, broadcast on Japan’s NTV network in 1993. Moreover, it wasn’t among the Ghibli films acquired by Disney, so don’t expect a star-studded dub. Actually, there’s no dub at all – the DVD release is subs only.

In the UK, Optimum cannily released Ocean Waves on DVD to coincide with the release of Ponyo in cinemas, but anyone expecting twisty surrealism and eye-popping imagery would have been disappointed. Ocean Waves (which is not by Miyazaki) is a wistful, bittersweet drama about youngsters growing up unsure about what they feel, what their peers feel, and if they understand one another at all.

Yes, there’s a boy and a girl (and the boy’s best friend), but this is no glib romcom. Ocean Waves is the only Ghibli feature without fantasy elements; even when the characters fly, they use an aeroplane. At 72 minutes, this feels like a short story, centred round a few simple anecdotes. The girl, Rikako, borrows a large sum of money from Taku, who’s not sure why she needs it. When he learns the truth, he must accompany her on an impromptu journey, trying to understand what makes this annoying but engaging girl tick.

The main story, incidentally, takes place in Kochi City on the small Japanese island of Shikoku. This is important, and it’s a shame Optimum doesn’t flag it up in an explanatory caption. Rikako, who’s a Tokyo girl, feels lost in Kochi, where the locals see her as an exotic outsider. There’s an amusing exchange where Taku complains that Rikako’s Tokyo accent is aggressive, and she confesses she thought people only had accents like his in the movies. (Compare Rikako to the fish-out-of-water females in Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue.)

Ocean Waves

The gently humorous drama should resonate if you’ve ever experienced an awkward, not-quite-friendship; or if you’ve felt disappointed or ill-used by someone you tried to respect; or just if you’ve wondered why everything bad rebounds on you. The director is Tomomi Mochizuki, whose non-Ghibli work often concerns tentative youngsters, including Here is Greenwood and parts of Maison Ikkoku and Kimagure Orange Road. In the Orange Road film, I Want to Return to that Day, Mochizuki smashed that franchise’s teen love-triangle amid trauma and tears (and that was just the fans).

Would we know that Ocean Waves was a Ghibli film, without the credits and Totoro logo? As usual with Ghibli, there are no manga-style gags or comic deformities, but studio in-jokes for the eagle-eyed (look at the backgrounds in the last scene). On the other hand, Ghibli films usually include elastically expressive characters, whether kids, adults or tanuki. Ocean Waves’ characters are drawn with warmth and humour, but they’re reserved and wary, scared of making missteps with even their close friends. It’s only at the end, at a sometime-later reunion party, that we see them finally relax, have fun, and get pissed.

The pale pastels and white spaces recall the childhood scenes in Isao Takahata’s Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, made two years earlier. Both anime are about memory, and how we only understand and learn from incidents that seemed random and shameful later on in our lives. Ocean Waves expresses this in its closing scene, where a perspective gracefully rotates to show something that’s obvious, and yet brand new.

You may find some sources referring to this film as I Can Hear the Sea, or I Can Hear the Ocean. Both are translations of the Japanese name, Umi ga Kikoeru (and we reckon they capture the nostalgic tone). However, Ocean Waves is Ghibli’s official English name for the film

Ocean Waves is playing as part of the Studio Ghibli season at London’s BFI Southbank on the 5th and 11th May 2014.

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