Reviewby Todd Ciolek,
Returning to his hometown, college kid Taku Morisaki thinks back to his last years in high school. He recalls foremost how a transfer student named Rikako Mutou was a whirlwind of trouble for him and his best friend, Yutaka. Moving from Tokyo after her parents separated, Rikako was aloof and manipulative, and somehow Taku couldn't tear himself away from her.
Studio Ghibli rarely touches teenage romance. Most of their films present love within the innocence of childhood or the subtler currents of the adult world. Even offerings like Whisper of the Heart take an optimistic and precious view of adolescents struggling with their emotions and their place in the world. Ocean Waves isn't like that. A short made-for-TV film directed by neither Ghibli founder, it delves into the messy, disappointing, frequently hurtful realm of high-school relationships. It's perhaps the most obscure film in Ghibli's catalog, both for its origins and its limited pedigree, but it's a standout in at least one way.
Taku Morisaki is back in his hometown for a high school reunion not long after he graduated. Soon he's reminiscing about his school days: he was boring but happy, with good grades and a good friend in Yutaka Matsuno—whom he met when the two of them challenged the school administration over a canceled junior-high class trip. This was apparently the sole dramatic event in Taku's ordinary life, but another arises as the last stretch of high school nears and Yutaka points out a transfer student named Rikako Mutou.
At first, Taku doesn't care. Rikako transferred from a Tokyo school after her parents separated, and she's distant and vaguely snobbish even as her classmates remark on her exceptional grades and elegant appearance. Yutaka seems far more interested in pursuing Rikako, and Taku is content to let him.
Everything changes during a class trip to Hawaii. Rikako finds Taku in a hotel lobby and tells him she's lost all of her trip money (because traveler's checks are for peasants). It's the first time they've really talked, and they seem on the verge of connecting when Rikako asks Taku if he'll lend her some cash—which she's sure he has, as she's seen him working at his part-time job. Taku, for reasons he doesn't fully comprehend, forks over his trip funds. Oh, well. A lot of teenage boys blow their cash on girls, just not all in one go.
The trip ends, Rikako ignores Taku at school, and Taku stays surprisingly laid-back about his loan going unrepaid. One day he learns that she's at the airport, trying to convince a friend to fly to Tokyo with her. Taku confronts Rikako before she departs, as he's finally having figured out that she conned him into paying for her plane tickets. Yet he learns more: Rikako wants to see her father again, and she promises to get Taku's money back to him.
Against all common sense, Taku goes with her and realizes along the way just why Rikako's a conniving mess of a person. It's enough to make him, in an annoyingly on-the-nose moment, compare the whole thing to a soap opera. Perhaps, Taku, but you're its star.
Ocean Waves idealizes little. Taku is an earnest but clueless kid, and Rikako is a childish brat who can't handle the one-two punch of moving and her parents' divorce. A lot goes on between them in a small amount of time, and Taku can only watch as Rikako realizes that the Tokyo life she knew is in shambles, from a father who's already redecorated her room to a former classmate who's dating her former friend. And then they return to a school buzzing with rumors about their Tokyo getaway, which sits none too well with Yutaka.
They're hardly the first trio of teenagers drawn together by convenience and pushed apart by misunderstandings, but Ocean Waves refuses to take the easy way out. There are no instant turnarounds, no sudden jolts of true love shocking everything into place.
It's a quietly refreshing movie. Teenage relationships are idealized and fetishized across all fiction, but Ocean Waves never shows Taku and Rikako as anything other than dumb kids who barely understand themselves, much less other people. Taku doesn't realize why he's so interested in this mercurial snob who makes him sleep in the bathtub, and Rikako doesn't realize why she's shoving away everyone who might understand her. Neither of them can handle anything resembling a relationship, and instead they're left to sort it out with rumors, obfuscations, and a literal slapfight that's just a tad disturbing. No one gets away unhurt, and like high school itself, it all matters a lot less once that teenage murk sloughs away.
Yet that's about all Ocean Waves does. At seventy-five minutes, it's much shorter than the typical Studio Ghibli film and far less striking. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata built Studio Ghibli and helmed every film prior to this one, but Ocean Waves fell under direct Tomomi Mochizuki and a staff of younger animators. There are no wonderful flights of animated fancy, no charming, otherworldly flourishes beyond a background cameo from Porco Rosso. He apparently stopped by for a snack.
It's far more mundane than the usual Ghibli movie, despite the familiar look of Koji Kondo's character designs, built with a realistic touch that emerges mostly in casual movements and backgrounds. Mochizuki's dealt with this sort of story before, but usually with some supernatural conceit or extended TV plot arc to empower teenage protagonists. He makes no such cop-outs here.
Ocean Waves often ranks low among Ghibli movies, and not just because it's a brief and simple creation. The film ate up more budget and time than the studio expected, and its limited notice and made-for-TV status kept it unlicensed in North America even as Disney snapped up most of the Ghibli catalog. That catalog is tough company; at least a dozen Ghibli films are essential viewing for just about anyone, and Ocean Waves is merely an unpretentious little movie. It's a nice polished stone among much prettier gems.
Yet Ocean Waves at least has the spirit of a good Ghibli film, and that's all it needs. Despite finding Taku and Rikako in a morass of teenage awkwardness and alienation, it bookends their story with visions of characters grown up just enough to know who they are and where they stand. If Miyazaki once said that he wished to make films that tell children, “It's good to be alive,” Ocean Waves tells adolescents, “You might be too confused and angry to love anyone right now, but someday you'd be ready.”
Ocean Waves can't compare with the best Ghibli films. It lacks the vision, the instant appeal, and the fanciful yet emotionally resonant imagery that put the studio atop of the animation world. Within its humble core, however, lies a nuanced story about the first awkward steps beyond high school, and that's enough to make a mark. Ocean Waves may look bland and inconsequential among the best Ghibli movies, but it stands up well on its own.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ A straightforward story of derailed teenage romance, with pleasantly realistic style
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