The most modest and least celebrated of the films produced by Japan’s peerless Studio Ghibli, “Ocean Waves” was conceived as an opportunity for the company’s younger talent to make something on the cheap. In spite of those simple aspirations, the project came in late and over budget, eventually airing on local television in 1993 and failing to make much of a splash. Since then, the sentimental high school drama has existed just outside the Ghibli legend, more of a curiosity than part of the canon, unseen to all but the studio’s most dedicated completists.
The first Ghibli film that wasn’t directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, “Ocean Waves” is glaringly absent the former’s flair for fantasy or the latter’s gift for minimalist heartbreak. In both scale and subject, it cleaves closer to the delicate wistfulness of a Haruki Murakami novel — one of his earlier, more earthbound books — than it does the enchanted wistfulness of “My Neighbor Totoro” or the crushing melodrama of “Grave of the Fireflies.” Although it was broadcast before Ghibli had fully solidified its standing as the Disney of the East, a breezy slice-of-life story already seemed like an anomaly for the animation giant.
These days, however, as Ghibli has downshifted towards dormancy and largely abandoned Western audiences to the likes of “Sing” and “Cars 3,” it’s easier than ever to appreciate the delicate beauty of the studio’s work, and lament how there may not be much more of it to come. That’s true of their masterpieces (e.g. “Spirited Away”), and it’s doubly true of “Ocean Waves,” a relative misfire about perspective, regret, and all the ways in which the world can seem too small for people to recognize the immensity of the things in front of them. Newly restored and set to wash ashore for a limited theatrical run in advance of a Blu-ray release in the spring, hindsight has revealed the quiet resonance that’s been humming inside this tiny film ever since it first set out to sea.
Nostalgic even in its own time, this sweet little story begins with a young man named Taku standing on a Tokyo train platform and glimpsing a familiar face across the tracks. She’s swallowed by the crowd almost as soon he sees her, the girl blinking in and out of sight so fast that our dumbstruck hero can’t tell if he’s actually crossed paths with his teenage crush, or if he’s just been a victim of his own wishful thinking. Her name is Rikaku, and Taku met her when he was growing up in the beachside city of Kōchi. Alas, Taku’s best friend, Yutaka, met her first. And so the stage is set for a classic love triangle, told in flashback, governed by the emotional stupidity of adolescence, and paced with the unevenness of memory. Nothing much really happens, but the film uses its framing device well, and it isn’t afraid to be governed by the irrational impulses of teenage logic.
“Ocean Waves” spreads its paper-thin story across a stodgy 72 minutes, but there’s a warmth to it that prevents the film from ever feeling as two-dimensional as it appears. The hyper-real environments have a lot more personality than any of the generic characters who inhabit them — Taku is the insecure protagonist, Yutaka is the steely and mature classmate, and Rikaku is the erratic girl who turns their lives upside down with the wild indifference of a typhoon — but director Tomomi Mochizuki ekes out real signs of life from this overly familiar plot.
Look at the way Taku curls himself into a hotel bathtub when Rikaku uses him as a prop on a harebrained trip to Tokyo, or how a bird perches on the railing of a boat as it bobs in the water. There’s poetry here, and that bleeds directly into the people; and this is a film about people, how they think and how they change. Even if these people aren’t particularly interesting, they feel alive. You can hear them thinking their uninteresting thoughts. Sure, “Ocean Waves” feels slight if you hold it up to much of Ghibli’s other work, but compare it to contemporary American animation and it feels like an entirely different medium, attuned to nuance rather than spectacle. Watching the soft precision with which Mochizuki renders Taku’s memories is enough to make a viewer question why it is that so many of the best animated films seem as though they could have been shot as live-action.
Dramatically undernourished though it is, “Ocean Waves” is a charming and effective illustration of a how a little bit of distance can go a long way. Just as Taku’s understanding of Rikaku undergoes a radical change in the span of two years’ time, it’s impossible to watch this film about them through the same lens that audiences might have seen it when it aired on Japanese TV more than two decades ago. Things change with the tides, and yesterday’s throwaways become today’s treasures. Not because we’ve lowered our standards, but because we’re standing on different shores.
“Ocean Waves” opens on December 28th at the IFC Center, and will also play that night at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles.