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Buried Treasure
Ocean Waves

by Justin Sevakis,

Studio Ghibli is easily the most famous of the anime studios, and it's pretty obvious why: they inhabit the same place in the anime market as Pixar does in the American animation market. They only churn out one film every other year or so, but they're nearly always masterworks. Even on the off chance one film isn't all that great, it's often still better than the vast majority of other studio's releases. Since Disney started bringing out the Ghibli library in the US, more and more Americans have been discovering the studio. Some fans may argue that Disney hasn't done enough to promote the library, but month after month those discs outsell every other anime title in the US.

There are, however, a few Ghibli projects that are not licensed by Disney. Some of them are intensely boring, like a Takahata-produced documentary on the various waterways and canals of Japan. But others, like Miyazaki's various short films, are absolutely worth checking out.

My favorite of these is a short made-for-television feature called "I Can Hear the Sea".

Ocean Waves: I Can Hear the Sea (Umi ga Kikoeru)

Ocean Waves was an attempt by Studio Ghibli to showcase the talents of the younger generation of talent at Studio Ghibli. Unfortunately, the experiment didn't work out so well, spiraling ridiculously over budget and over schedule, to the point where future projects along this vein were cancelled. (Most of the blame can likely be laid at the feet of newbie producer Nozomu Takahashi, who had previously served as production manager on several high profile Ghibli films. He didn't get to produce again until Ghiblis, seven years later.)

Directed by the prolific Tomomi Mochizuki (Kimagure Orange Road, Princess Nine, Zettai Shonen), I Can Hear the Sea is an intricately detailed slice-of-life portrait of a young man on the cusp of adulthood named Taku, and his at-times strained relationship with his best friend Matsuno, and Rikako the strange girl that's come into his life.

Told in flashback from two years hence, Taku narrates as he was called from his part-time job back to school by Matsuno to get a look at her. She's quite a looker, and Matsuno is excited because he's been asked to show her around. (He IS the class president, after all.)

Taku has taken the part time job to help pay his way on his school trip to Hawaii -- which is ridiculously extravagant. The theory is that it's the school's apology for cancelling their Jr. High class trip. As a passive aggressive sort of rebellion, this job prevents him from attending the summer college prep classes, much to his teacher's annoyance. Amusingly, it was during the student's angry reaction that both Taku and Matsuno became friends. Funny, how life works.

Anyway, as the fall term starts, Rikako reveals herself to not quite be the definition of feminine grace they were expecting. She's strong, tough, and kind of a paraiah. She's also smart, and could have gone to a top high school had she not been forced to move out of Tokyo, Taku notices. Matsuno is still trying to make a good impression on her, clearly smitten. Taku simply observes.

Months later, the school trip arrives ("the trip that would ruin my life," Taku notes in the narration). Unable to go to the beach due to an upset stomach, Taku wanders aimlessly around the hotel lobby until Rikako notices him. "Could you lend me some money?" she asks.

What ensues is a subtle drama between the three, as Taku finds himself somewhat attracted to Rikako despite her brusque nature. Matsuno can't help but notice this, and while nothing really happens, paranoia and easily hurt feelings eventually drive the two apart. It's not till the end of the film that we learn that Taku, those years later and now a college student, is on his way back to his hometown for a class reunion. He and Matsuno never had regained their closeness, and Rikako doesn't even seem like she'll show up. But maybe...

For me, anime has the potential to provide an abstraction: an artistic prism that focuses one's attention on the important details of a character and allows us to see deeper into it. We're freed from thoughts like, "this is an actor, I wonder what it was like shooting this film," or worse, "I can tell this is fake. The sets/acting/etc are so cheesy." What's more, Ocean Waves feels more like a Japanese live action art house movie, a la Shunji Iwai or Hirokazu Kore-eda, than an anime. It has that sense of cinema verité, a feeling of day-to-day intimacy well beyond what even some of the best anime provides.

Having anime and Japanese style cinema verité together doesn't happen very often, and when it does it often goes very wrong. (Too easily, such anime become indescribably boring.) But this doesn't happen in Ocean Waves, and that's thanks entirely to its characters. Taku is interesting not because he's special (in fact, we get the feeling that beyond being a good student, he's quite ordinary), but because he's so realistic. We see not only ourselves in him, but a reflection of daily life well beyond what we're used to seeing not only in anime, but in any filmed entertainment. Rikako is less ordinary; almost a proto-Haruhi Suzumiya. She's a touch narcissistic, self-absorbed and oblivious to the needs and thoughts of others. And that, to Taku, is fascinating. It's hard to not appreciate how the two personalities play off against each other.

At the same time, the film makes a good point that the fiery emotions of youth really result in a lot more drama than most situations warrant: it's the end of the world only because that world you inhabit is so small. It also reminded me of my favorite quote, from French photographer Jacques Henri Lartique: "And if I'm so happy, happy and content, it's because my memory embellishes everything. It erases ugly things and gives such a sweet and beautiful (and also a bit melancholy) aspect to the smallest incidents of my life, even the most ordinary; that life itself is an enchantment: All you need to do is remember, instead of paying attention 'as you go along.'"

That said, Ocean Waves is likely the least accessible Studio Ghibli anime ever made. It's slow and decidedly art-house fare. Its lack of any clear story arc or literal conclusion will absolutely be a turn-off for those who demand such things, and that's no doubt a vast majority of viewers. But for those who can enjoy a brief window into the lives of others, those who can personalize such an experience, this is possibly one of the more accomplished films in the Ghibli catalog.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only, no English version.
R5 Import only, and out of print.
R6 Import out of print and rare.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Do digital fansubs exist*? YES
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com. *at the time of writing, to the best of our knowledge.

How to get it:
I must admit I'm a little surprised a Ghibli film has gone completely unlicensed for so long (though, given the subject matter, maybe that isn't so surprising). However, this isn't such a big deal, as the import DVD has very good English subtitles, and it's fairly inexpensive for an import. (Granted, that's still US$50, but still...)

Images ©Saeko Himuro•TNG/1993.

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