Studio Ghibli #7: Ocean Waves (1993)

Ocean Waves has the honour of being the first Studio Ghibli film to be directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, although I would argue the latter proved to be a big influence on the style and experimental aspect of this made-for-television film. At 72 minutes the film is also the shortest Ghibli film to date, but I would argue that neither of these two elements proves to be a detriment on the product as a whole. The film’s production was an interesting one, as Ghibli used this film as an attempt to make an anime using only the younger members of staff in the company, mostly staff in their 20’s and 30’s, with the 34-year old Tomomi Mochizuki leading the production as director. The production ended up running over budget and past schedule, but while it is one of the more lesser known Ghibli films, I think it is supremely underrated and a really charming film within the Ghibli filmography.

Centered around a love triangle between three high-school students; Taku Morisaki, the main protagonist and narrator, his best friend Yutaka Matsuno, and newly transferred Rikako Muto. The framing device of the film is Taku reminiscing on his time spent with Rikako as he prepares to head back to his hometown of Kōchi for his school’s reunion. One way in which the film portrays Taku’s reminiscing is through these stunning freeze frames in the centre of the screen surrounded by a white border, sometimes varying in size. Through this Mochizuki is representing memory, and how humans will remember particular details of memories; the way the bike rack looked, the way the clouds moved into each other, the top of Kōchi castle looking out behind the trees. Through these stylistic shots the film reminds us that we’re rooted in Taku’s memories, and how the stories and feelings he gets from these memories connect him to his friends and time at school. It’s a very human presentation of memory and one that reminds me of the techniques that Takahata used in Only Yesterday in a lot of ways. 

We follow Taku’s reminiscing from the first day he saw Rikako, with a couple of further flashbacks to how his friendship with Taku started as well. Taku is clearly fascinated, and possibly infatuated, with Rikako, but from the very start he knows that Yutaka is in love with her. As Rikako struggles to accept her new life in Kōchi, as well as the divorce of her parents that forced her to move to the small town to begin with, Taku interacts with Yutaka, lending her money on a school trip and accompanying her when she runs off to Tokyo, but the relationship always feels distanced. Initially this seems like it’s because Taku finds Yutaka abrasive and arrogant, but as the two interact more you can feel Taku questioning the nature of their relationship, especially with regard to Yutaka’s feelings. The storyline has an elegant beauty to it, there’s no big threat and as the film unfolds in front of you all you’re provided with is these almost anecdotal story threads and subtle emotions under the surface that tie up beautifully by the end. The use of memory is a great framing device for this as how Taku reflects and reminisces on his time is exactly how the characters and events are portrayed to the audience. A great example of this is when Yutaka meets her ex-boyfriend with Taku in Tokyo, in this scene in a jarring shift Yutaka becomes a grating presence and acts completely differently to how we’ve seen her before, she later admits she acted differently to impress the boyfriend but I think the film takes it further than this, because it is in this interaction that Taku sees her differently and rejects her personality and thus the filmmakers translate this memory of the event to the audience in a jarring tonal shift.

For a team made up of the junior and younger staff members of Studio Ghibli, the animation retains the charm that can be seen in any Ghibli feature. This is easily the most realistically stylised film made by Studio Ghibli so far, I think the film clearly took a lot of influence from Only Yesterday, from both the memory aspects to the story, but definitely through the attempt at realistic animation both utilise. The animation really utilises the kinetic moments as well as bringing a poetic air to the static shots, which you may remember was one of my biggest issues with the previous Ghibli film (Porco Rosso). While static shots can often detract from a film, Ocean Waves cleverly utilises them in poignant moments or shots of architecture that serve as moments of rumination. Meanwhile the movements of the characters, the setting and scenery of the film all contribute so much to the overall product. Everything feels so real that you feel like you’re  transported to the community of Kōchi, with its quirks and aesthetic, you can sense the claustrophobic feeling for the characters who yearn to escape, meanwhile the film also makes you privy to the close knit community, both it’s quaint charm as well as the wildfire spread of rumours.

While the film only runs at a mere 72 minutes, it’s easy to get lost in the characters and tangled in their love triangle. The film feels incredibly human, which allows it to be incredibly meaningful, despite its fleeting runtime. Despite Tomomi Mochizuki not directing another feature film for Studio Ghibli, his work on this film leaves a lasting, and criminally underrated, impact on the Ghibli filmography.  

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