In Tomomi Mochizuki’s TV romance, much like life, teenage love can only lead to drama.
“The whole thing was starting to feel like a bad soap opera.”
In 1993, the creative at Studio Ghibli were asked by Nippon Television to produce a film adaptation of the Saeko Himuro novel I Can Hear the Sea. The studio had been going strong for 7 years, and was already a powerhouse of quality anime filmmaking, and this seemed like a good way for the studio heads to give the reins to the younger generation of creatives. Directing duties were handed to Tomomi Mochizuki who, at the time, had almost a decade of TV work. The idea was to make something cheaper and quicker than their usual theatrical releases and while it did go over time and budget, it would be a lie to say that it doesn’t show.
The film follows undergraduate student Taku Morisaki who, on his way to his school reunion, believes he sees his childhood friend Rikako, a girl who had transferred to his school during their final year of junior high. As he travels, he starts to remember the impact she had on him and his friend Yutaka. Rikako’s bratty attitude at school has made it hard for her to make friends, though Yutaka has an obvious crush on her. She doesn’t reciprocate the attraction, though she seems to be into Taku, even when she asks to borrow all of his travel money during their class trip to Hawaii.
A rift begins to form between himself and Yutaka during this time, and gets worse after Taku accompanies her to see her father in Tokyo, where they spend a(n innocent) night in the same hotel room. Rikako’s attitude continues to cause problems between the boys, whose own awkward tendencies do little to help, until things come to a heated finale. Back in the present day, and with the reunion getting closer, Taku wonders if Rikako will even show up.
Due to its flashback nature, there’s an inevitable comparison to be made to another of the studio’s films, released only two years prior: Only Yesterday. But while Takahata’s movie is able to connect the past and the present meaningfully by allowing the heroine of its story be affected by her memories, Ocean Waves doesn’t do a lot with its narrative device. The train station encounter which kickstarts the entire film does come back at the end, but it feels more like director Tomomi Mochizuki wanted to include a flashback more to illicit a nostalgic response from its audience over anything else.
It’s not like it doesn’t work – there’s much to like here – it’s just a lot more obvious about everything it’s trying to say. This is still a studio equally known for these slow, meaningful dramas as it is for its out-there fantasies and even in their lesser efforts, the quality shines through. The issue with Ocean Waves is less that it’s bad, rather that it never fully delivers on the ideas it’s trying to convey. The drama that escalates between the three main characters is interesting and has moments of realness, but the climax of it all feels rushed and resolved relatively quick. There’s some fun queer subtext that can be read between Taku and Yutaka, but again there isn’t much focus placed on that. That the film is barely 70 minutes long, and bookended by a lot of present-day stuff doesn’t help, as there’s less time for the story to really sink in.
Ocean Waves is lesser Ghibli. That it was largely created by its younger, less experienced staff members shows. The character designs are decent, if nothing particularly special, and the score – composed by Shigeru Nagata (in his second and final movie) – is simplistic and unassuming, but not remotely as memorable as the works of Hisaishi. The bar set by the studio is so high that ‘lesser’ doesn’t really mean anything. It was, after all, a television movie made by still talented individuals, and honestly is a damn sight better than just about any made-for-TV animated films I’ve ever seen. If you set your standards appropriately enough, it’s pretty decent. Ocean Waves shows that its studio can put out satisfying work, even when it’s operating at low tide.
Verdict: Not the studio’s finest efforts by a long shot, Ocean Waves is nevertheless wholly earnest, gorgeously animated, and never overlong.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Violence: One good punch/10
Sex: Not when you’re sleeping in a bathtub
Travellers’ Cheques: A scam. Only use cash
Sprite: Get that great lymon taste
Ocean Waves (1993)
Also known as: I Can Hear the Sea, 海がきこえる
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Writers: Saeko Himuro (novel), Kaori Nakamura (screenplay)
Nobuo Tobita – Taku Morisaki
Toshihiko Seki – Yutaka Matsuno
Yoko Sakamoto – Rikako Muto
Kae Araki – Yumi
Yuri Amano – Akiko
Junichi Kanemaru – Okada