Ride Your Wave
Japan's latest animated standout spins a sensitive and perceptive story about love, life and coping with loss.
February 27, 2020
In the type of scene familiar from many a film, 19-year-old Hinako (voiced by Rina Kawaei) frolics around a seaside spot with her boyfriend Minato (Ryota Katayose). In the scenic Japanese city of Chiba, the pair chat, laugh, stroll and sightsee, as plenty of couples have in similar situations. Actually, this duo does so twice. The first time plays out exactly as everyone expects but, occurring well into Ride Your Wave, the lovestruck duo's repeat romantic rendezvous comes with a twist. In the kind of image that can only really be brought to the screen via animation, Hinako isn't spending time with Minato in the flesh the second time around — instead, she's dragging around an inflatable porpoise filled with water that, when she hums the pair's favourite song, manifests her boyfriend's spirit from beyond the grave.
Basically, Hinako is now dating a ghost in the guise of a blow-up aquatic mammal — a spectre that can appear in anything else that's wet, such as a glass of water and even a toilet bowl, too. It's a heartfelt yet clearly strange sight, and it's an image that filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa builds his whole sweet, sensitive and charming movie around. Already known for offbeat and distinctive animated efforts such as Night Is Short, Walk on Girl and Lu Over the Wall, the Japanese director blends his fondness for weirdness with a perceptive exploration of love and loss that belongs in the same company as huge recent global hits Your Name and Weathering with You.
As brought to life, vocally, by former Japanese pop idol Kawaei and fellow local pop star Katayose (whose boy band, Generations from Exile Tribe, provides the film's pivotal — and extremely catchy — tune), Hinako and Minato's story begins much earlier. Initially, she's a surf-obsessed newcomer arriving in town to study oceanography, while he's a dutiful local firefighter. They cross paths on several occasions — she frequently hits the waves near his fire station, as he just-as-frequently notices — but they don't properly connect until Minato comes to Hinako's rescue when her apartment building is set ablaze. And, if tragedy didn't strike, perhaps they would've simply lived happily ever after. As Ride Your Wave astutely realises, though, those kinds of blissful, uncomplicated tales aren't the norm for everyone.
Japan's plethora of big-screen animated gems have always received ample praise for their visual prowess; given how gorgeous and glorious everything from Studio Ghibli's greats to Yuasa's own filmic back catalogue looks, that's understandable. But movies such as Ride Your Wave don't surf their way into viewers' hearts based solely on eye-popping imagery alone. At their best, these films ripple with emotional depth and resonance — and while there's much about Ride Your Wave that threatens to veer into cheesiness at times, it remains an insightful, moving and charming example of the genre. On the surface, it might appear to be just another supernatural teen romance; however from the moment that Hinako is forced to face her future alone, this is a thoughtful, delicate and observant portrait of a woman struggling with one of the worst things that can happen.
As whimsical as it might sometimes seem — and as it definitely sounds on paper — there's a rich vein of melancholy in Hinako's escapades with Minato's spirit. As she continues to hold onto him in any way she can, Yuasa and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida (A Silent Voice, Okko's Inn) show a raw and profound understanding of grief, its all-encompassing impact and the reality that, to those in mourning, absolutely everything reminds them of the person they're missing. Everyone who has lost someone has returned to places they once visited together and seen memories of happier times linger at every corner. Everyone in the same position has felt their heart skip a beat when a significant song plays, too. As well as being cute and quirky, the literal inflatable porpoise in Ride Your Wave's frames gives these common and relatable experiences a physical dimension.
Don't go expecting this film to receive a live-action remake any time soon, of course, not that any animated movie ever needs one. Disney might currently be obsessed with turning its cartoon hits into flesh and blood (or photorealistic approximations), but Japan's animators are well aware that their chosen medium is far more expressive — especially when it comes to matters of the heart. There's a rhythm, flow and glow to Ride Your Wave that perfectly captures its protagonist's complicated situation, and that simply wouldn't translate to any other format. There's also the feeling that, through its seemingly fanciful narrative gimmick, Ride Your Wave tackles tough emotional terrain with unflinching, heart-swelling honesty.
Image: ©Ride Your Wave Film Partners.