Movie Review: OCEAN WAVES
As a part of another excellent screening series “Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, & the Masters of Studio Ghibli,” courtesy of Aero and Egyptian Theatres, and American Cinemateque; OCEAN WAVES (transliterated as UMI GA KIKOERU: I CAN HEAR THE OCEAN) was shown on Thursday, February 2nd for the very first time in Los Angeles. Immensely enjoyable, the audience was laughing intermittently, recognizing those silly patterns of teenage love, that awkward, rough-around-the-edges, cringe-worthy seriousness, which accompanies growing up.
This animated film itself is like a wave, a wave of nostalgia, that is. World of adolescence opens up, and adults are magically reminded what they cared about as children, and why they cared so much. The subdued quiet quality, yet high precision of the animation work makes the experience almost tangible. Watching a high school hallway, bathed in the afternoon sun is a near tactile experience. You see the outfits and you remember that shirt you loved to wear, with the same wide stripe as can be seen on the heroine. Transported, I could feel the chalkboard under my fingers, the rough surfaces of the desks, in my case – contrasting the movie – quite badly vandalized. Not to draw and write on them was a sin; cutting deep into the wood was a must. A week before the summer break, the teachers would make us sand them down. So, year after year, they got thinner and thinner and thinner. I wonder if they were replaced yet? Did they wither to nothing but a translucent sheet with metal legs too sturdy to match it? Impossible! I am not that old, after all.
The protagonists of OCEAN WAVES are not all squeaky-clean, well behaved and perfectly adjusted either. Their desks may not be covered in graffiti, but they board planes and skip town without bothering to notify parents; they borrow large amounts of money they expect their fathers to repay; they slap and punch each other; they gang up on one another; they don’t think twice about shouting put-downs; they get drunk and sleep in bathtubs. Yeah, kids. No: people. Adolescence, after all, is a search for rectitude; carving out one’s own path only to discover it is a struggle that never ends.
Director Tomomi Mochizuki lets the story unfold as a series of flashbacks narrated by Taku Morisaki. One of the film’s defining moments is placed before you gently, without fanfare. Taku finds a new appreciation for his schoolmate Yutaka, when they both oppose school’s decision to discipline students for poor results. The challenge for adults is to retain this ability: to think the world of someone, to view a fellow traveler with admiration and respect, not as competition. Taku takes this perhaps too far, when he removes himself completely, denying his feeling for the new girl in town, Rikako, because his friend Yutaka openly fancies her from the minute she shows up. So much so, that he does not hesitate calling Taku at the restaurant where he works, asking him to leave early, just to have a look at this marvel of a woman. She turns out to be a handful, and anything but sweet. Well…no, definitely not sweet.
So, there is no open rivalry, there are a few quarrels. The conflict lies in dealing with a stubborn teenage girl who is crestfallen after her parents divorce. Rikako learns the hard way that past is not something to get back, because it does not exist anymore. Disappointments are palatable. Still, comprehending that one cannot possess everything one desires, is a lesson worth the reminder.
Earthy color tones keep the film grounded, like a large calm river it flows, without flashy ornament. Even the ocean shimmers golden, as the sun sets down on it, when the two male friends are having a heart to heart on the dock. The Kochi castle is glowing a soft white in the dark, while Taku looks on, thinking, what a waste of electricity is it. The subtle humor is truly a joy. It stems from the logic of a teenage mind and its insistence. The laughter is an understanding that emerges from gazing back.
Localized jokes have found a response, as well. As much as Taku acts disinterested, he still secures a couple of “candid shots” of Rikako in a swimsuit from a schoolmate for a fee. No headshaking allowed, if you are getting your updates about your love interest(s) from social networks or other online resources.
Advancing the Studio Ghibli tradition, humanity of the narrative resounds throughout, like an ocean would. We cannot see it yet, but the sound and the salty air betrays the adventure that is just around the corner. The wide-eyed hopefulness of a life that is not yet set, a path that waits to be created with the steps you take. Saeko Himuro, the author of the novel that served as basis for the film, and Kaori Nakamura (screenplay) captured this careless optimism without any false sentimentality.
Overall, OCEAN WAVES offers a pleasant experience both visually and conceptually. The story arc may not be complicated, the characters either, but it warms your heart, and makes you feel closer to your own experience as a child, whether you still are one or not. Spoiler: there are no underdogs. There are no winners. Nobody makes a boatload of money. Nobody gets married. People graduate from high school, that’s it. And it’s beautiful.