Studio Ghibli is an animation studio that rarely misses. Since they got their start in 1985, they have made such amazing and unique animated films that have left a mark on both the animation and film industry with their special charm, whimsy, and creativity. Within their catalog, one of the films you probably don't know that much about is their film from 1993 called "Ocean Waves". Before this film, the films of Studio Ghibli were directed by its co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and this was to be the first film not to be directed by either of them with a young group of animators at the studio getting their chance to spread their wings to make a film that would initially be aired on television. I'm also someone who is a sucker for teenage dramas and coming of age stories since I can really connect with the characters and the struggles they face. Curious about this film, I was eagerly awaiting to see what "Ocean Waves" had in store and to see if it was another fantastic film from Ghibli. Alas, that is not the case here. This is the first film from the prestigious animation studio that I would consider a misfire as I could not get invested within the film and found myself rather bored and constantly checking my watch. This film is a mess.
At a Tokyo subway station, a college student named Taku (Nobuo Tobita) catches glimpse of a girl he used to go to high school with named Rikako (Yōko Sakamoto). He is entranced by her and on his trip back home to Kōchi for a high school reunion, he suddenly reminisces about his time in high school and recounts how he met Rikako, who had just moved down from Tokyo, through his best friend Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) who seems to have a crush on her. One day during a school trip to Hawaii, Rikako meets Taku asking for help and from there, a crazy and overly melodramatic story with a love triangle unfolds and things just spiral out of control.
Much like "Only Yesterday", this film took a while to reach the United States. However, where I struggled to understand why it took so long for that film to get released, I can understand why this didn't get released in the US for years since it's not a very good film. This film was such a mess from start to finish. As I was watching it, questions were constantly floating through my mind about how Studio Ghibli could struggle with a film like this. From what I read, this is an animated film that had a troubled production. The upper heads of the studio wanted to give the younger animators an attempt to make their own film with a small budget to see what they can do which I think is a smart decision, but it seems that the film went way over budget and way over schedule and the results are shown on the screen. This is a film that feels very unclear on what it's trying to say or accomplish and it results in a story that I just found very boring and messy. I've never been a huge fan of stories with love triangles in them since they mostly come across as tiresome and dull and this film is no exception. It starts off on an interesting note with the opening scene and has some nice scenes including how certain characters meet each other and a fun scene near the end of the film at a restaurant. However, when the film cuts to the Hawaiian school trip where Rikako asks Taku for some money that she lost, it's all downhill from there. Throughout most of the film, we see these characters talk a lot about their lives and their frustrations without getting to experience it and I found it rather lazy and uncompelling. Most of the scenes also play out very melodramatically and over the top that it was hard for me to seriously relate or connect with the film. There's even a moment where Taku calls the situation he is in similar to a bad soap opera. That line stuck with me throughout the rest of the film in all the worst ways. The thing that Studio Ghibli has always succeeded at in their film was making the events feel very natural and calming so they didn't come across as over the top or melodramatic and sadly the filmmakers dropped the ball badly here.
Even as far as films with nostalgia and reminiscing go, it pales badly in comparison to Ghibli's own "Only Yesterday" which came out only two years before this film. In that film, the way the memories, including some of the more dramatic moments, were presented in a very naturalistic way without feeling overdone. It gave me a lot of reason to care about Taeko as a character. This film is so over the top that I struggled to understand what the theme or message this film was trying to showcase was. It also doesn't help that the characters were very unlikable and uninteresting which is ultimately this film's biggest downfall. Taku is such an uninteresting and unmemorable protagonist. He's a blank slate of a character and I couldn't understand what his motivation or goal was until the end of the film. The only thing I know about him is that he works as a busboy at a restaurant and that's it. There's otherwise no personality to him since I know nothing about what he's interested in, what he wants to do with his life, or even what his relationship with his family is like. Yutaka is also even more mysterious as I couldn't really grasp who his character is either and while he has a nice friendship between him and Taku, their personalities are so dull and uninspired that I don't really know a lot about them and their connection to each other apart from they met in junior high when a class trip was canceled and they were the only two upset about it. The only character I got a grasp of by the end of the film was Rikako and she's the worst character of the film. Throughout most of the film, she does the most selfish and vain things possible and is exceptionally rude to everyone she meets even if they're trying to help her out in the best way they can. It's clear that she seems troubled despite being talented at sports and a very smart student, but we never see it. The worst sequence of the film is the trip to Tokyo where Taku tries to help out Rikako and it shows her at her absolute worst. There's a scene in which she brings Taku downstairs so she can meet with an ex-boyfriend of hers and it's eventually revealed that she did this just so she can lie to her ex that she's now dating a much more handsome guy just to boost her confidence. And we're supposed to like this character? It really makes the ending of the film feel very unearned. If there's anything positive I can say about the film besides some of the scenes, it's the animation is very good. Despite the low budget, I do think the animators did a stellar job working with what they had and it resulted in another beautifully animated film from Studio Ghibli. Unfortunately, it doesn't make up for the lackluster story and characters.
"Ocean Waves" is an unimpressive film. Despite the animation being gorgeous and a few good scenes in the film, the story is mostly boring and melodramatic and the characters are very thin and unlikable. This is the first film from Studio Ghibli that I can say I don't really recommend watching. I know this film has its fans and I guess I can see why, but this didn't work for me at all. Many of Ghibli's films have certainly made waves, but I'm sad to say this is not one of them.