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While I love the vibrant and constantly creative world of foreign animation, it’s not always easy to find theaters that are willing to play them. It doesn’t help either that most of them are Fathom Events that don’t get wider releases. There are so many incredible experiences with these films, but most people are not able to see them, and it’s frustrating. For example, while they are amazing distributors like GKids, Elevenarts, Shout! Factory, and so on, their word of mouth campaigning doesn’t always work. This is especially frustrating when GKids’ distribution of today’s film, Ride Your Wave, is not getting that many screenings.
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, Ride Your Wave is his newest film that was released last year in June, having its world premiere at the 2019 Annecy International Film Festival. It also won some major awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival, Fantasia International Film Festival, and the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival. Sadly, it seems like, to me, it was overshadowed by the release of Weathering With You and I Lost My Body. Did it get overlooked for a reason? Or should everyone watch this film?
Our story follows a college woman named Hinako Mukaimizu, voiced by Rina Kawaei. She recently moved to an ocean-side city town to go to college and surf. One night, her apartment complex catches fire, and she is saved by a male firefighter named Minato Hinageshi, voiced by Ryota Katayose. They bond and fall in love with one another. Minato even gets into surfing because of Hinako. Sadly, on a stormy day, Minato ends up dying at sea, which sends Hinako into a spiraling depression. Then, out of the blue, when she starts to sing a song that they bonded with, Minato appears within the water. What is going on? Why is Minato appearing in the water? Will Hinako be able to move on and ride her waves through life?
So, let’s do our best to ride a surfboard, and surf our way through the good aspects of this flick! For one, I have to disagree with a few people feeling disappointed by how “tame” this film is, in terms of Masaaki Yuasa as a filmmaker. I think this one is more focused in terms of tone and themes. I love The Night is Short, Walk on Girl and Lu Over the Wall, but to me, Ride Your Wave has the best balance. If you didn’t see the trailers, the film’s theme is finding your way in life, which is something I’m sure most young adults after high school try to find. Even adults at one point or another think about where they are going, and what kind of life they want to live. You think you know where you are going, but then become unsure, due to incidences that send you off the rails, or in this case, wiping out. It’s a touching theme that is handled well throughout the entire film. The script by writer Reiko Yoshida, who also wrote the script for The Cat Returns and A Silent Voice is full of charm and young adults who feel fairly realistic. Some of them have typical anime traits, but even with the joke that this is Japan’s Shape of Water, I felt very invested with the characters. A lot of the time is spent with the young leads talking to one another, and the Yuasa weirdness only comes in when necessary.
Animation-wise, it’s gorgeous. I know many despise the fact that studios like Yuasa’s Science Saru are using flash or computer over traditional 2D animation, but you wouldn’t know that if I didn’t already tell you. There always seems to be this tendency with animation fans thinking that flash animation or 2D digital animation is inferior to traditional 2D, but as usual, it’s not the tool, it’s the person behind the tool that gives you the results that show how incredible the quality is. The character designs are expressive, and the cartoony exaggerations are more controlled this time than what you see in Lu Over the Wall or The Night is Short. That style of cartoony stretch and squash is important for animation, but it, like any rule in animation, needs to be in control of what kind of film you are making. The voice cast does a great job, and while I wish there was an English dub, I get why they kept it to just the Japanese language track. Even though they made it work with Lu Over the Wall, I think there is a difference when a licensed song is used, and they probably didn’t want to deal with retranslating it to make it work. Plus, just like Parasite‘s Bong Joon-Ho said, once you get over the 1-inch barrier, you will be fine. The music is pretty good, but be prepared to hear the main song the film uses over and over. It’s almost its own drinking game due to how it’s intertwined with the story.
The one downside I have for the film is how the third act happen. Due to how Ride Your Wave moves at the pace of low-key animated features like My Neighbor Totoro, the conflict to start the third or so act never happens fluidly. It’s abrupt. I always wonder what happens in these films that make the filmmaker go, “Man, we need to find a way for the film to have a satisfying closing act”. It’s not a terrible ending by the way. The film wraps itself up quite nicely.
While it might not have the same zany energy to Masaaki Yuasa’s previous films, I find Ride Your Wave to be his best film. The animation is wonderful, the characters are likable, and I highly recommend everyone try to catch the one-night screening of the film on February 19th, and to buy the film when it comes out on Blu-ray. Well, now we must move onto ride our own waves, and next time, I’ll be talking about Keichi Haara’s newest film The Wonderland.