For the vast majority of its history, Studio Ghibli has been a two-man show. Recent years have seen new directors like Goro Miyazaki (2006’s disaster Tales from Earthsea) and Hiromasa Yonebayashi (last month’s reportedly excellent The Borrower Arrietty), but Ghibli’s filmography is essentially a long list of films directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata.
This isn’t a complaint: these two directors have an amazing track record, but considering their ever-advancing ages and ever-receding Metacritic scores, one wonders whether Ghibli has begun to find new blood with enough haste.
In fact, though, there have been several attempts through the years to launch new talent at Ghibli. The first of these attempts took place in 1993 with the film I Can Hear the Sea, known officially in English as Ocean Waves.
Ocean Waves, based on a romance novel serialized in Animage, was a project to be created exclusively by Ghibli staff in their 20s and 30s. To handle direction, Ghibli brought in someone from outside the company: Tomomi Mochizuki, known at the time for directing the Kimagure Orange Road and Maison Ikkoku films. Designed as a TV movie to be made on the cheap, Ocean Waves went over schedule and over budget, causing consternation, no doubt, among anyone at Ghibli not named Miyazaki or Takahata with directorial ambitions.
Ocean Waves’ main character is Taku, a university student who spots an old friend at a train station, causing him to think back on his high school days in Kochi, a city on Shikoku, Japan’s smallest major island.
Taku’s best friend, Yutaka, calls him to school one summer day to meet Rikako, a girl who’s just transferred from Tokyo. Yutaka is attracted to Rikako, but she seemingly wants nothing to do with anyone at her new school, shunning friendships and after-school activities.
On a school trip, Rikako borrows money from Taku, claiming she’d lost hers, only to use his loan to fly to Tokyo to see her father. Taku comes with her, feeling obligated to make sure she’s safe, and has a miserable trip, discovering Rikako is manipulative, self-centered and immature.
To top it off, when he returns he has a fight with his friend Yutaka, who assumes the trip was romantic, and gets slapped by Rikako, who he confronts about it. It’s the worst kind of love triangle, with best friends fighting over a emotionally unattractive girl who doesn’t like either of them.
Of course, then, Taku returns to the present from his nostalgic reverie to realize he was in love with her the whole time, just as he they run into each other at the station (natch) and stare longingly into each others’ eyes. This is the weak point of the film, for me. It feels like such wish-fulfillment fantasy: the girl who stole your money and jerked you around in high school decides she really loves you. And, for no good reason, you love her back.
In other ways, though, Ocean Waves is a very effective film. Taku’s high school days, with his bike, part-time job, and chirping cicadas, are portrayed nostalgically and idyllically, as in many Ghibli films. At the same time, the realism in the film is impressive, with many locations a picture-perfect rendition of their real-life counterparts.
This realism doesn’t just pertain to the setting. The film, though melodramatic, is an unpretentious, plausible high school story. In other words, it’s one of those unique pieces of Japanese animation that, like many of Isao Takahata’s films, feels like it could have just as easily been a live action film.
Missing from those Takahata films, though, are those extra tiny details, like the addition of random passersby or a character absentmindedly rocking back and forth on their heels, that make Ghibli films really stand out. Whether this comes down to director Mochizuki or the limited TV budget, it’s a shame not to have that extra level of detail.
To call Ocean Waves an underrated gem would be an overstatement (and a terrible, terrible cliche) but it does deserve more than a footnote in the Ghibli history book. Unfortunately, along with Only Yesterday, it is one of only two Ghibli films to never have been released in the United States.