Ocean Waves (1993) remains an oddity in Studio Ghibli’s vast catalogue of fantastical tales. Heavy-handed use of melodrama is absent, as is any sprinkling of childlike magic often found in a Ghibli production. It gently serenades you over the course of its brief seventy-two minute runtime, moving along at a leisurely pace. Not that the film needs any additional time to convey its story – there’s precious little to be told. The main attraction here isn’t the one-dimensional plot, but rather the gorgeous hand-drawn snapshots of 90s Japan. Warm summer tones are expertly weaved with haunting instrumentals, the former paired expertly with the latter, always without fail. It’s easy, then, to dismiss this film as an arts showcase, a convenient excuse to display the talents of Ghibli’s greenhorns. However, if you’re able to look past the jaded and predictable storyline, Ocean Waves opens up a captivating slice of reality that’s moving in spite of its simplicity.
The coastal town of Kōchi serves as the primary backdrop for much of the film, and it’s here where we meet Taku, our budding romantic. The film opens with Taku briefly catching sight of a familiar face across a train platform, before we’re quickly whisked away to the past. We are introduced to Taku’s best friend, Yutaka, early on. The stern, self-assured Yutaka serves as the perfect foil for Taku, whose youthful naivety is apparent throughout the story. A stereotypical love triangle emerges when they meet Rikaku, a transfer student from Tokyo. Rikaku is shrouded in mystery for much of the film, but her inclinations are gradually made clear.
There’s a brooding intensity to her that almost leaps off the screen, and it’s this complexity in individual characters that makes up for the generic storyline. All three of our protagonists are dusted with lifelike quirks, and the supporting cast is also surprisingly effective in framing the story. It’s truly fascinating to see such astute nuances being portrayed in animation, even more so given that the film’s commitment to hyper-realism doesn’t extend to character design.
Ocean Waves is very much a tale of missed opportunity, the all-too-familiar consequence of not following one’s true desires. Loyalty between friends is put to the test, as are the morals of our protagonists as they struggle with the turmoils of coming-of-age. The overarching schoolhouse drama is punctuated by various memorable scenes, with Taku and Rikaku’s spontaneous trip to Tokyo being the undoubted highlight. One cannot help but feel for Taku as he was being manipulated by Rikaku, but plot points like this are what drive the slow-burning story forward, providing our characters with opportunities for growth.
As the film tiptoes towards its end, we are treated to everyone’s favourite high school reunion, an electric mix of alcohol and fond memories. Such events are a poignant reminder of the passing of time, and the bittersweet way in which Ocean Waves unfolded conveys this complicated blend of emotions excellently. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say the film leaves viewers with a sense of hope rather than pessimism, a wise choice to ensure audiences aren’t left feeling disillusioned. As often the case, time apart from one another did our love triangle well. Clichéd as it might sound, one always gains a better understanding when looking back.
I didn’t have my own high school romance story, yet Ocean Waves sent me reeling with its familiarity and filled me with innocent nostalgia. Each and every scene in the film served a purpose, from meandering monologues to hillside vistas. There’s poetry to be found in every aspect of the story, and it’s this surgical precision in presentation that underlies the facade of a straightforward, feel-good flick. Many claim they only fell in love with the film upon re-watching it – and while I didn’t have decades between viewings to judge this notion for myself, its immediate, crushing impact on my psyche demonstrates its timelessness. Love and loss transcends time periods, and this film stands testament to this.
Ocean Waves awoke a longing within me – both for the past and for the future, both of which presently beyond reach.