Monday, January 19, 2015

MR Ocean Waves

An underrated Studio Ghibli film. It exists!

Find more Studio Ghibli animated classics reviewed here!
Pre-Ghibli films: HorusPanda Go Panda / Castle of Cagliostro / Chie / Gauche / Nausicaä
Ghibli films - 1986 to 1991: LaputaGrave of the FirefliesTotoroKiki / Omohide Poro Poro
1992 to 1999: Porco Rosso

Movie: Ocean Waves also known as I Can Hear the Sea (in Japanese Umi ga Kikoeru)
Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki
Release date 1993
Genre School drama/Romance/Slice of Life/Anime TV film
Country Japan

Following the release of Porco Rosso in 1994, Isao Takahata was hard at work on the finishing touches of his next film Pom Poko and Hayao Miyazaki was probably just about starting the initial plotline and first few storyboards of what would become Princess Mononoke. In the meanwhile, it was decided to let some new directors work on the first feature films without one of Studio Ghibli 's creators at the head of the project.

Amongst those were the highly promising Yoshifumi Kondō who was selected to direct the first theatrical film release without Takahata or Miyazaki's guidance.

A much smaller production was also launched on the side. The idea was to give full control to the younger staff to work on a much simpler story of their own, something much cheaper to produce. That was Studio Ghibli's first TV film, Umi ga Kikoeru aka Ocean Waves (also known as "I Can Hear the Sea " in several worldwide releases).

Ocean Waves was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Saeko Himuro. The film adaptation itself was directed by Tomomi Mochizuki who worked as a director and storyboard artist  on some cult classic series such as Ranma ½ and Kimagure Orange Road.

Most of the staff animating this film was in their 20s, the general idea was to produce this film "quickly, cheaply and with quality". The screenplay was written by Kaori Nakamura. The film itself doesn't try matching Miyazaki's art style like much of these recent films have been doing these last few years, instead the art direction was Katsuya Kondō's illustrations for the original 1993 novel.

To animated the film they actually got some help from Madhouse Studios and Oh! Production. They were free to make the film as they wanted, without Hayao Miyazaki nor Isao Takahata overseeing the project, neither Walt Disney Studios had a thing to say unlike some later production. With little surprise here, the film also ended up kinda over-budget and over the estimated schedule.

The TV special first aired on Nippon TV in May 1993.

The story revolves around a love triangle between two friends and this new transfer student that just arrived at their high school...

Our story is set in the city of Kōchi, in the island of Shikoku.

It all begins in a train station with our protagonist and narrator Taku Morisaki. Taku is returning home after his first year away in college.

Taku thinks he just glimpsed someone he knew on the other platform on the opposite side. He starts reminiscing his past days of high school. The rest of the film is then mostly told through flashbacks.

It was two years ago. Taku used to work part-time at a restaurant. His friend Yutaka Matsuno called to meet him at school. He finds him looking at this new girl, a transfer student form Tokyo. Yutaka has to show her around. The two friends continue talking about the upcoming school trip to Hawaii.

They get introduced to the new girl, Rikako Muto. And despite not realizing it yet, both actually develop a crush on her. This Rikako seems to be great at everything she does at school, but she can also be kind of a pain and really arrogant. They learn a divorce between her parents brought her to town. Yutaka discovers she's actually living alone, away from home.

The year slowly comes to an end, it's time for the trip to Hawaii finally! Rikako asks Taku to lend her some money, since he has this part-time job to help. Time goes by and she never returns Taku's money. It turns out she was about to take a trip to Tokyo with the money she never paid back! Taku decides to accompany her since it was his money to begin with!

Back in Tokyo she gets mad when she finds out her father has moved on with a new girlfriend. Rikako's dad pay Taku back to thank him and arranges a room for him at a nearby hotel. Rikako later comes by the hotel room, still angry and sad. She ends up staying and sleeping on his bed while Taku sleeps in the bathtub. The next day she seems back to her usual self. Taku decides to wander around the city when suddenly Rikako calls him when she needs his help from this ex-boyfriend bully.

The two return to Kōchi, and Rikako is back ignoring him again. She tells his best friend Yutaka they spent the night "together" (though nothing really happened). Taku gets mad at Rikako and decides to confront her later in class... and she just slaps him!... to which he slaps her back!!

Autumn finally arrives, Rikako's getting more and more distant from the other girls at school. It all turns for the worse during the festival and Rikako, Taku and Yutaka don't even talk to each other for the rest of the year.

We're back in the present, Taku's plane lands. His friend Yutaka is waiting to pick him up and give him a lift home. Taku finds out Rikako was back in Tokyo and she won't be able to make it to their school reunion. Taku still has some feeling for her. Back on his way to Tokyo Taku sees her again on the next platform.. only this time he decides to run to meet her...

Ocean Waves marked the first Studio Ghibli film directed by someone. It's a detailed slice of adolescence, a story of friendship being tested. Revolving around this complicated young girl that seems to switch from one moment to the new between being flirty and then acting melancholic. Adolescence!

The film has some really nice visuals. They ditched the usual more pronounced "typical anime" tropes for a teenager drama that actually feels "real".

It has a much more mature tone from the rest of the studio's motion pictures usually aimed at a younger audience. And for a good reason. The protagonists are all in their late-teens, living in the 1990s. The film has some real heart. The modern urban setting is detailed and realistic. I would say it's rivaling some of the best live-action films on the same subject.

This time it's a Studio Ghibli film not really rooted in fantasy, although it retains a certain poesy to it. But the story does away with the usual otaku stories. This is a tale of simple normal high school kids, a normal story you could find in the actual life of any Japanese teenagers at the time.

Usually animes exploring these same themes use lots of over-the-top action and slapstick violence. It was a voluntary decision to do here something radically different. Just "normal". The complete opposite of standard Japanese animes. The film is perhaps a bit on the short side, but it feels like it never misses a beat. They were even able to allow some time for characters introspection and quieter moments. 

The film had perhaps a more artistic ambition, it almost feels like one of these indie movies. It's certainly not for children, in that you probably need some actual life experience to enjoy the film. It plays with this romantic nostalgia for teenage days, reminiscing memories and acting upon your regrets. (No wonder Disney never really released this one, the underage drinking which happens in real life despite what Hollywood might tell you certainly didn't help.) Targeting a more adult audience.

Instead of Ghibli's regular Joe Hisaishi, Shigeru Nagata composed the score for the film this time. Which feels kinda upbeat, it has almost a typical 1990s comedy sound to it. It's fun and light, it really works with the film (but also reminds me of some early 90s RPG games for some reason..).

Overall, Ocean Waves can be said to be perhaps the only truly obscure film made by Studio Ghibli. Partly because it was a TV film, but also due to its subject and themes.

Thanks to the popularity of the film, the original novel ended up getting a sequel in 1995, "I Can Hear the Sea II: Because There Is Love" (which hasn't been adapted in another anime, although a live action film following both novels back to back combined was made later).

Personally I really like the film but even so I gotta recognize, "realistic setting" or not, the film kinda seems lacking that little original Ghibli touch. It's a good film, mind you. But it doesn't has the same nature as the rest of the studio's filmography.

Without the end credits and Ghibli's logo, it's hard to notice this is another Studio Ghibli production. Compared to the usual more expressive protagonists in the other films, here our characters are more reserved, due to the very real nature of their personalities (they only really get relax and have fun at the reunion in the end). The lighter coloring and tones are kinda reminiscent of Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday two years earlier, where most of this staff worked on. It even follows the same idea exploring past memories and recalled some missed opportunities.

I really like how natural and normal it all felt. It's a slice of real life human drama, but downplayed by the fact it couldn't be allowed more budget or to run longer. But it's no glorified student film either, it has some really decent quality, art direction and animation almost close to matching a theatrical level.

The art direction, backgrounds and music are really what help sell this movie and make it standout, a lot of emphasis is put emotion more than the big spectacle Ghibli usually relies on.

On a similar subject, Takahata's own Only Yesterday or the later 1995 Whisper of the Heart did much better exploring generally the same themes and realistic setting.

I can only recommend this one for fans of the studio trying to watch all their features. If you're a fan, be sure to Check It Out!

I give it:
1.5 / 3 DonPatchis!

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