Castles in the Sky: The Ocean Waves, by Aaron Pinkston
As far as I can tell, there are three major distinctions for The Ocean Waves (known as I Can Hear the Sea in Japan) in regards to the Castles in the Sky series. First, it is the only Ghibli film that I can tell was actually produced exclusively for Japanese television. Along with the delightful Only Yesterday, it is one of the two Ghibli films not previously released in the United States in theaters or DVD. It also is the first (and potentially only) film in the series told from the male perspective, this time with a boy in the middle, dealing with young love and growing up.
Narratively, the film’s closest companion is the other film American audiences haven’t seen, Only Yesterday. The story is set in Kōchi, a smallish urban center, and follows two young men and their strange high school love affairs with the mysteriously serious Rikako. It is told mostly through flashback of the characters’ last year of high school around the week of their reunion in Kōchi. Each character has gone their separate ways — one studied in Tokyo, one in Kyoto and the third stayed in the area — and are reuniting after a series of falling outs based around their romantic entanglements. It is a pretty simple love triangle, with the two friends both liking the girl, while she doesn’t really get either too much of a chance.
Coming from the perspective of a male character is certainly interesting, especially considering that I am a male person, but it doesn’t quite offer enough. In the best of the Ghibli films, you can really get inside of the young girls’ heads and fully understand them as young girls. I don’t feel you could substitute the gender of any main characters and keep the same film, but we simply don’t know enough about how Taku thinks and feels to get much of a sense of him. If the film was two girls fighting over a young man it may come with slightly different perspective, but you could hold many of the major plot elements. Overall, I’m disappointed that The Ocean Waves wasn’t able to use this male perspective in a more honest or innovative way — it fails at being a suitable complement to the scores of young women’s stories the studio beautifully tells.
Strangely enough, the more minor role of Rikako is a much more interesting character — does this have something to do with the people at Ghibli just being better at creating young women? She is much different than most of Ghibli’s girls, though, as she isn’t the cute type. Though not exactly a match, she has elements of the “manic pixie dream girl.” She is equal parts mysterious and plain hard-to-grasp, which obviously plays a part in why our two protagonists are so taken. Otherwise, she’s not exactly nice to them — constantly scheming them into doing her favors or boldly putting them down. Still, there is a charm and quirkiness to her that is undeniably attractive, despite her worst qualities.
The Ocean Waves is the only film where Hayao Miyazaki had no production role. Even the films he didn’t serve as director were influenced with him as writer or producer. Instead, this film was intended to be given to the younger writers and animators at the production studio, allowing them to make a film strictly from their vision. I think this is a pretty awesome idea, something Pixar has sort of done without being as up-front about it, but Miyazaki’s absence is sorely felt. The film just doesn’t have the magical touches in the narrative or animation. It’s incredibly minor in all aspects — only 72 minutes long, it breezes by with a “that’s it” feeling by the end.