The 1993 Studio Ghibli television movie Ocean Waves (I Can Hear the Sea/海がきこえる) is a beautifully animated, though perhaps undercooked slice of life story.
In the film, we meet Taku on his way from Tokyo to Kochi for a class reunion. During his flight, he reminisces about a few seminal moments in his high school life. First, becoming friends with Yutaka when they jointly protest the school cancelling their junior class trip. Second, a class trip to Hawaii where Tokyo transfer student Rikako asks to borrow money. Then, Taku accompanying Rikako to Tokyo to see her father. And finally, the falling out between Taku and Yutaka after that Tokyo trip due in part to Yutaka’s romantic feelings for Rikako and Rikako’s troubled family life and antisocial behavior at school.
Being a film that recounts several events by way of Taku’s narration, it becomes a plot driven story that comes at the expense of giving the reasonably stock characters more of a personality or depth.
The lack of defined characters, even when we have only three of them at the focus, really prevents the story from taking off toward heights that the premise is capable of reaching.
Ocean Waves is undoubtedly a slice of life story. But it lacks a bit of the emotional magic that is present in many Studio Ghibli productions.
Comparing it to similar Ghibli films like Only Yesterday or Whisper of the Heart, all released around the same time in the early 90s, Ocean Waves seems to lack the same amount of sincerity and emotion.
While it feels nostalgic enough reminding us of a time with no cell phones to easily connect one another, its setting in Kochi isn’t even fully utilized as its own character. Unlike the similar countryside or quiet neighborhood settings in the previously mentioned films.
The last quarter of the film takes place in the present day as Taku arrives in Kochi and attends the reunion where he appears to come to a realization about his true feelings.
That kind of realization would often be the emotional climax of a story like this. But instead, it merely came across as just another moment in this slice of Taku’s life.
Perhaps that was the intention all along.
The animation in Ocean Waves is definitely up to par. Beautifully realistic and kinetic, even if simple by today’s computer-generated standards. But the plot-heavy story and lack of character development and connection sadly hold the film back from being able to truly stand aside its studio brethren.