Even today, Studio Ghibli has the reputation (in the United States, anyway) of being the company that makes Miyazaki Hayao's films - oh, and these others ones, over here. That's not fair at all, of course: as of this writing, Ghibli has released 16 films* (lucky number 17 is on the way), and exactly half of them were directed by Miyazaki. Which does, yes, mean that he's the company's primary artist, but it also means that somebody else directed exactly half - soon to be more than half - of Ghibli's estimable output.
This situation was even worse, once upon a time; of the first four Ghibli features, Miyazaki directed three of them. That this was an undesirable state of affairs was known; for indeed the fourth of these films, Kiki's Delivery Service, was initially conceived as an inexpensive 45-minute project that would showcase the skills of the studio's younger generation: this fell apart once the film entered pre-production, and Miyazaki found that he couldn't stop himself from taking an increasingly hands-on interest in the story's development, and eventually he took it over himself. Thus did the inexpensive 45-minute movie turn into a 103-minute feature produced with all the resources Ghibli had to offer.
A few years later, the company tried again: this was to be a television movie adapted from Himuro Saeko's novel Umi ga kikoeru, inexpensively made by the younger staffers at Ghibli, and helmed by a young director: in this case, the executives went outside the company to find Mochizuki Tomomi, a 33-year-old who had hopped from one studio to another directing episodes of series here and there over the preceding ten years. The subsequent film, known variously as I Can Hear the Sea (the literal translation) or The Ocean Waves (the title officially given to it by Ghibli years after the fact, after English-speaking fans had gotten used to the other one), did end up meeting some of its most important goals: it did showcase the talents of Ghibli's younger members; and it did premiere on TV in 1993, all of 72 minutes long, without blowing up to a theatrical feature. However, it was not inexpensive. It went over-budget and over-schedule. Tellingly, Ghibli never again tried to make a cheap TV movie afterwards; I suppose the experience taught the powers that be that the company was just too damn invested in making honest-to-God art for that kind of thing.
The seventh Ghibli film - the third not directed by Miyazaki, for those keeping score at home - is superficially similar to the company's 1991 Only Yesterday: both are set in a remarkably unexceptional world that looks a lot like what you could see by poking your head out the window (and unlike Only Yesterday, The Ocean Waves doesn't even have the fig leaf of taking place several years before the movie was produced), they're both fairly mature love stories, both look at school days from the perspective of sometime in the future (though we never learn from exactly what point in time the narrator of Ocean Waves is looking back). That's not much, but it's enough to link the two films as a loose pair within the context of the studio's overall output. And yet even the superficial differences between the two make it clear that Ocean Waves is very much its own thing: it takes place in high school, it has a male protagonist (a distinct rarity in the Ghibli canon at the time, though less so now), and the tone is much less one of nostalgia and more one of in-your-face immediacy about the frequently hellish awkwardness of adolescence.
After opening with a scene that won't make sense until the very end, the film introduces us to Morisaki Taku (Tobita Nobuo), a high school student living in Kōchi, the capital city of Kōchi Prefecture, and one of the biggest cities on Shikoku, the smallest and most (relatively) rural of Japan's four islands. In other words, Kōchi is the sticks, which isn't a fact that really hits home with Taku, nor his very good friend Matsuno Yutaka (Seki Toshihiko), nor apparently anybody else in their school, until the arrival of a transfer student from Tokyo, Muto Rikako (Sakamoto Yoko). The arrival of this new face is the center of everyone's universe for a while, all the more so since her background is a mystery: why did her mother take her from Tokyo? why is she so shy? does she have a crush on anyone? and so on.
The tale is in the answering of those questions, though you get no points for guessing ahead of time that Taku falls a bit for the mystery girl, but doesn't allow himself to acknowledge that fact since he knows it would hurt Yutaka. And anyway, The Ocean Waves isn't about the revelations of its virtually nonexistent plot, but what those revelations reveal about character motivation; mostly Rikako's as she is the Prime Mover of the film, and Taku is simply caught up in her orbit and changed as a result of it. In this the film is not unlike the clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, although Rikako is hardly a Dream Girl - she's frustrating, temperamental, erratic, and quite possibly a danger to Taku's sanity. The fact that he can't ignore or forget about her despite these things is the heart of the film's story about love: it strikes whether you want it to or not, and you can't always live with it. Happily, the movie is not cynical, and it presents us with the sight of people learning to be better than they are, a coming-of-age story of the finest sort, since it is well and truly about maturation, and not just an experience that makes a boy into a boy in a man's body.
So quiet, so subtle, so deceptively simple - you can almost wonder if there's anything going on with the movie at all. And this is the other way in which it recalls Only Yesterday: it entirely lacks fireworks of any sort. But the deep understanding of human behavior that Mochizuki and his collaborators reveal in their work belies any argument that it's a film about nothing.
The stripped-down narrative is reflected in the animation, which is by no means "cheap" (like all of Ghibli's films, it possesses a fluidity that suggests a much higher framerate than is customary in Japanese animation), but certainly has an indefinite quality that makes it easy to believe that it was a television project. Mostly, I think, this is due to the color palette, which has a bleached-out quality. Not "pastel", not in the way of Only Yesterday or My Neighbor Totoro, but something stripped of affect and emotion.
I suspect that what we're meant to take away is that the visuals are not the star here: the characters and their feelings are, and those feelings are situated in the tortured wasteland that all teenagers imagine for themselves. The lack of particularly lush imagery reinforces that, by surrounding the figures in the movie with a world literally devoid of color, that is the details of beauty and warmth and vibrancy that might give them some pleasure if they had the bearing to see beyond themselves. It's no accident that the most traditionally "beautiful" shots are clustered in the end of the film, when the characters have learned more about themselves and the world.
Before that point, the movie's visuals are entirely taken up with the most routine, unexceptional images you could imagine. Even a trip to Hawai'i includes no more exotic tropical vistas than are required by the conventions of the establishing shot. Otherwise, everything we see is so barbarically normal that you half-wonder why it appears in an animated film. Perhaps the explanation is that by showing these views in animation, Mochizuki is stressing their very banality: what would look unremarkably quotidian in live-action is made to seem that much more oppressively bland in a medium that's "supposed" to be about impossible sights and fantasies.
Set against this not-very-interesting world of high school students, the emotions involved become that much more involving and fascinating and necessary. The Ocean Waves is not particularly romantic about adolescence; it hesitates not at all in portraying the rise into more stable adult emotions as a very, very good thing. But at the same time, it does not belittle or condescend to its teenager protagonists, treating their experience as just the fodder for adulthood. It is a pragmatic and thus deeply moving depiction of human experience at the time which is for most of us the greatest personal upheaval we'll ever know, honoring the feelings associated with those days while never wallowing in them. Adolescence is an important thing, and it is good that it ends, says the film; and as slight as the movie might seem from the outside, the sterling humanism with which it expresses that theme make it one of the most intelligent, lovely stories about teenagers and their emotions - which makes it a story about all the emotions of life, since it is as teenagers that we allow ourselves the most access to feelings that keep cropping up for all the days after - that I've ever seen put to film, no matter if the characters are flesh and blood humans or simple drawings.