Review: Studio Ghibli's 'Ocean Waves' Was Worth The 20-Year Wait

With the famed animation house Studio Ghibli having shuttered its doors, the best we can probably hope for are new projects from former employees. But this holiday season comes with a special gift, one American audiences have been waiting 23 years for, and that's the release of 1993's TV movie Ocean Waves, which has never played on our shores until now. Keep in mind this isn't going to chart up with their with Ghibli's fantasy efforts like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but for those who love their simple, grounded dramas the long wait will have been worth it.

Clocking in at a little over an hour in length, and taking a cool, gradual pace the whole way, Ocean Waves tells a simple and familiar story of friendship, first love, and nostalgia. It is, in a lot of ways, a perfect companion to the recently-released Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, which touched on similar themes. Directed by  Tomomi Mochizuki, the film features animation by some of Ghibli's less-experienced staff, but you'd never know it. Visually it is as stunning and vivid as anything we've seen from them, which is saying a lot because the story is quite simple and common. The level of detail put into the animation is anything but, though.

There isn't a ton of story to be found in this adaptation of Saeko Himuro's novel, but the characters are so well-drawn that we become engrossed nonetheless.  University student Taku (Nobuo Tobita) has caught a glimpse of a familiar face in a crowded train station, and with it comes a rush of memories to his high school days. He and best friend Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) have seen their senior year upended by the arrival of Rikako (Yoko Sakamoto), an mid-term exchange student at a time when such things are rare.The bookish Yutaka instantly falls for her, but the rest of the school despises her for being so athletic and academic. Taku keeps a respectful distance until she comes to him looking for a loan to float by during their high school trip to Hawaii. He agrees, only out of respect for his friend, but it turns out Rikako can be pretty demanding, at least when she's not being flaky about her true motivations.

Turns out, not being totally honest is kind of a thing with Rikako, and her lies somehow end up with Taku accompanying her to Tokyo for an impromptu vacation. It's here that the film begins to pick up, if you can call it that because there's a decided lack of momentum throughout. Not that it's ever boring, it's just you won't find many twists and turns or overblown theatrical displays. The emotions are complicated and entangle in many different ways, as is prone to happen when you're talking about hormonal teenagers. Rikako can be mercurial, her feelings towards Taku running hot and cold. He's stuck in a frustrating place between liking her and a desire not to cockblock Yutaka.

The film is always at its quiet best when putting the whirlwind emotions of youth on full display. Chances are everyone can related to at least one of the central characters for having walked through similar experiences. But it's also undeniable that Ocean Waves is a bit outdated, especially in the women are portrayed. Rikako, and all of the other girls for that matter, are objectified and diminished. And there's a shocking bit of violence that would NEVER hold up today. That said, the film is told largely from Taku's perspective so it makes sense we often see Rikako in extremes. It's the moments in-between where they connect that are magical. It's a reminder of just how good Studio Ghibli was at telling human stories both great and small. Count Ocean Waves as another that has managed to stand the test of time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5