(Check out my previous Ghibli essay on Isao Takahata’s final film here: The Tale of Princess Kaguya)
Ocean Waves. Ocean Waves. I Can Hear The Sea. This 1993 film draws its title and story from a periodical novel by Saeko Himura, which was released between 1990 and early 1993. And in 1993, when Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki launched a new experiment within the studio to give young animators a shot at creating short TV anime films, director Tomomi Mochizuki and his team settled on the story they had been reading in serials for the past three years: I Can Hear The Sea.
The short feature (72 minutes) about a the memory of a love triangle between three high school students and their reunion years later was the first Studio Ghibli film not directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, the Studio’s founding directors. Once completed, the film was presented on Japanese television networks through Tokuma
Shoten (the studio that Toshio Suzuki worked for years before his move to Ghibli, and with whom he held strong professional ties) and Nippon Television Network. As such, as long as the film was delivered on time and on or under budget, it would make money for Studio Ghibli. Unfortunately, neither of these conditions were met (though the exact loss in money and in time is difficult to find online), which resulted in Suzuki shelving the project outright. In the fifteen years since, Studio Ghibli has never given a film project to an untested party within the company (minus Hayao’s son Goro that is- but that’s just nepotism).
The principal actors: Taku, our narrator; Yutaku, his friend and unrequited lover; and Rikako, the new transfer student from Tokyo who has the two boys in thrall. Set in Kochi, Shikoku, a relative backwoods of Japan, Rikako, who has been used to Tokyo life for most of her youth, excels in her new surroundings both academically and in sports. But she is not taken to well by the other girls who are jealous of her abilities and of the enchantment her beauty has on the boys and the consequent lack of attention the local girls are now getting on Rikako’s account. Yutaku is, like most of his fellow male classmates, immediately enamored with the girl. He tries to make her acquaintance and becomes friends with her. As Taku is friends with Yutaku, he too becomes friends with Rikako over time and the two develop a more natural affinity much to the distress of Yutaku. However, Taku doesn’t recognize Rikako’s feelings for him and instead tries to push her toward Yutaku.
Rikako’s parents are divorced. When they split up, Rikako’s mother took her to Kochi and her father remained in Tokyo. Her mother remarried, prompting Rikako to rebel and move out into an apartment on her own, while still in high school. She is now isolated from her family, from her old friends and life in Tokyo, and from her new potential friends and peers in Kochi who mostly ignore her out of spite (the girls) or out of shyness (the boys). When she first meets Taku it is during their senior class trip to Hawaii, where she borrows money from him, claiming she lost her own money. She knows that Taku is loaded comparatively as he has a job as a dishwasher at his parent’s restaurant. She later uses this money to buy tickets to Tokyo where she hopes her father will take her in with open arms, despite her not announcing her visit. She plans also, to drag her friend Yumi along with her in the guise of going to a concert in Osaka. Yumi, feeling slighted and tricked, naturally doesn’t want to go. She calls Taku who runs to the airport and ends up going on the trip in Yumi’s place, freeing her to go back home, and keeping Rikako from feeling lonely and scared in her trip back to the big city alone.
When they arrive in Tokyo, they show up to Rikako’s father’s home. He dismisses his girlfriend for a while, gives Taku money to reimburse him for his loan to Rikako and gets him a reservation at the local Hyatt hotel for the remainder of his two-day trip. It turns out that Rikako’s father is starting his own new family with his girlfriend. the two are already set to go on vacation for the weekend. Incensed, Rikako returns to Taku’s hotel and instead stays there with him for the night. The stay is relatively innocent and Taku sleeps in the bathtub, ceding the bed to Rikako. He gets a feeling for Rikako’s emotional instability during this period as she calls him the next day during a date with an old friend of hers, supposedly to save her from the guy. He finds instead, that she is attempting to brag about her interesting friend and life in Tokyo. This backfires as Taku finds them both to be extreme bores with nothing interesting to say and storms off and back to the hotel.
When the two return to Kochi and to school, Rikako ignores Taku in public. But the rumors fly about the weekend together the two shared in a Tokyo hotel room. Yutaku asks Rikako about the incident and is told matter of factly that is happened and is none of his business. He replies with an impassioned cry revealing that he has fallen for her. But Rikako is taken aback, realizing that she loves Taku, that Taku doesn’t know, and that Taku has been encouraging a relationship between her an Yutaku the whole time. She responds viciously that she hates Kochi, the Kochi dialect, and finds Kochi boys disgusting and runs off. Later, Taku will learn about this encounter from his friend Yutaku, who has understood himself that Taku is the one Rikako desires. Before he can recount this information to Taku, Taku runs off, finds Rikako, and calls her out for her cruelty to Yutaku. She slaps Taku, he slaps her back, and she runs away with a concatenation of mixed and confusing feelings.
Later, Rikako is being bullied by her fellow female classmates for not being interested in the school fair and for only thinking of herself. Taku overhears the conversation and sees the bullying, but does nothing. Rikako sees him moments later and he ironically, sardonically even, states his admiration for the way she handled those bullies (subtly making nods to the effect that she should be more engaged and work together with them in the fair preparations). She smacks him again and runs off enraged and hurt that he didn’t help her out. Yutaku arrives on the scene and asks why he didn’t help her in that moment, punches him, and calls him an idiot. The three, having broken ties through violence and indecision, through lack of foresight and the cruelty of innocence, don’t speak to each other for the rest of their time in high school.
But years later, their high school class has a reunion. Taku and Yutaku become reconciled to the events of the past and become friends once more. But when the reunion party occurs, Rikako doesn’t show up. Her old friend Yumi mentions that she ran into Rikako recently and that she is going to University in Tokyo, like Taku. The two haven’t crossed paths, except in an enigmatic dream sequence at the film’s beginning wherein Taku sees her on the train platform across from him, a train arrives on her side, and she disappears before he can reach her. Yumi explains that Rikako often talks of how she is looking for someone in Tokyo who likes to sleep in bathtubs (a reference to her and Taku’s stay at the Hyatt Regency years prior). The film ends with everyone parting ways and Taku returning to school in Tokyo, where the scene at the film’s opening occurs once more, but this time in real life. As Taku recognizes Rikako from across the station, he runs below ground and across to her platform, where she is waiting there for him with a smile, and the two lovers are reunited.
The film is a strong attempt at realism within the anime medium as colors are rarely highly saturated. Though when they are, they tend to err on the side of warm tones rather than pastels. The city is animated with a realism that more once creates a double take, causing once to question whether the backgrounds are photos or pure animation. All of this heightens the reality of the scenes and makes Ocean Waves into one of the strongest of Studio Ghibli’s films in terms of emotional affective power.
The score, on first listen is a modest, unassuming affair. Unobtrusive and akin to elevator music. However, Shigeru Nagata’s compositions owe more to synth-pop and experimental scores from Japanese acts like Maria Takeuchi, Casiopea, and especially, Haruomi Hosono. Its use of synthpads, synth-sax, and classical piano expressively to build dreamscapes and moodscapes perfectly in keeping with the themes of the film is commendable, and the visceral power of the score brings much to the film’s mise-en-scene. Pieces from Nagata’s score, and images from the film, fit perfectly within many synth-pop compilation albums on YouTube, and should be familiar to denizens of those spaces. And maybe that’s what is most important about the film in the end analysis. Nothing is totally far-out experimentally within it, and nothing is thematically or emotionally novel, but the total effect of the work is something that is bound to stay with viewer’s of a somber, thoughtful temperament in a way that almost nothing else within the Ghibli canon does or can. And for this reviewer, that is exactly what it has done.
[Next up: Whisper of the Heart]