A rare Ghibli treat reaches UK shores this week, and it’s especially exciting because it has never been released outside of Japan before.
Ocean Waves was the first Ghibli production not directed by the studio creators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and it is therefore in the curious position of inheriting much of the atmosphere and style I’ve come to love at Ghibli, but at the same time departing in a big way from many of its themes.
The story is essentially a nostalgic look at a teenager’s first love; a common theme in Japanese TV series’ aimed at the demographic. Tomomi Mochizuki, the film’s director, deploys a naturalistic neo-realist style which creates an atmosphere that is somehow incredibly intimate and honest, and fosters a feeling of familiarity and closeness to its characters. This feeling exuded by the film is crucial, as there is no emotional grandstanding, no big speeches, and no huge events. The realism extends far beyond the naturalistic tones of the imagery itself, reaching right to the core of the characters and the plot which are admirably accessible and down-to-earth.
These kind of descriptions are utterly alien to those who have come to expect the creative excesses of Miyazaki, particularly in his masterpiece (arguably) Spirited Away and in less celebrated works like Howl’s Moving Castle and the forthcoming Ponyo (12.02.10 U.K.) But that’s not to say that many of the elements that made this animation studio great did not transfer into this unusual offering.
The way in which Mochizuki weaves together the nuances of main character Taki Morisaki’s experiences is an impressive example of subtle character-building. The almost infathomable extremes of his infatuation with mysterious and aloof new girl Rikako Muto are hinted at in the strangest of momentary connections, moments which left me at once dumbfounded at how he could be falling in love with this girl and absolutely sympathetic to the frustration of the whole affair. Meanwhile his relationship with close friend (and fellow admirer of Rikako) Yutaka is portrayed with similar subtlety, as the pair display the archetypally Japanese restraint in the majority of their time together but occasionally explode in scenes of great emotion.
It’s not all seriousness though, there is a quiet sense of humour that underscores much of the story. From the wry nods at the difficulties of high school politics to classic rom-com confusions, the ironies and excesses of youthful romance are lovingly poked fun at throughout the film.
It’s a genuinely different experience from a majority of the Ghibli films I’ve watched, and at the end of it I had mixed feelings about that. But on the whole it was an interesting, amusing, and cleverly composed story of first love that satisfies on most counts.
My biggest criticism, though, is one which I find all too often on UK DVDs: there are pretty much no extras. It’s the first time this film is released in the UK, it’s by a largely unknown director, and its a departure from studio standards. All of that screams for interviews, sketches, commentaries and other background material to explain and enliven the experience. But alas, it was not to be.