From the legendary Studio Ghibli, creators of Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, comes a poignant and wonderfully nuanced story of adolescence and growing up. Taku and his best friend Yutaka are headed back to school for what looks like another uneventful year. But they soon find their friendship tested by the arrival of Rikako, a beautiful new transfer student from Tokyo whose attitude shifts wildly from flirty and flippant to melancholic. When Taku joins Rikako on a trip to Tokyo, the school erupts with rumors, and the three friends are forced to come to terms with their changing relationships. Never before released in North America, Ocean Waves is a beautifully animated adaptation of Saeko Himuro's best-selling novel, and a true discovery.
For me, Studio Ghibli is typically always on point with their films. As wild, odd and out-there as they may be, I can always find something that I love in each one – that is, until now. I blindly walked into Ocean Waves and, while watching it, sat there emotionlessly asking myself, 'Ghibli made this?!'
One element that I appreciate the most about Ghibli is that all of their films – be it a childish kids movie like Ponyo or a serious adult-themed film like The Wind Rises - is that there's always a deeper underlying meaning for the grown-up viewers. In other words, all Ghibli films are designed with deeper meanings. The big disappointment with Ocean Waves stems from that blanket statement no longer holding true to all Ghibli films. What you see is what you get, and what you see isn't very good.
Have you ever seen a film about two characters bound to a "will they or won't they" relationship? That dynamic can be compelling. It can emotionally pull you in - but if you mentally recognize that the combination of character personalities is toxic, then everything is for naught. With a character clash like that, you don't care if the two end up together or not. Let me introduce you to Ocean Waves.
Ghibli's 24-year-old film tells the story of a boy, Taku, and the one that got away from him. Their story begins in Taku's hometown of Kochi, Japan. While working as an after-school dishwasher, Taku gets a phone call from a friend, Yutaka, claiming to need Taku in that very moment. As if Yutaka's world was being burned down by a fire that only Taku could put out, Taku races from the restaurant. When he gets to Yutaka, he finds Yutaka sitting at a window entirely speechless. We immediately fear that he has terrible news; however, that's not the case. It turns out that Yutaka called Taku in distress because of a beautiful new girl, Rikako, that just moved to town and will be joining their middle school classes. For me, this classic act of adolescent boyhood started the film off on the right foot. I recall attractive girls having that same effect on me as a teenage boy. And the way the filmmakers executed it was perfect.
Unfortunately, that's the only charm that exists within the film. Our two leading characters, Taku and Rikako, are entirely selfish. We follow their friendship/relationship as they mature, yet their selfishness never reduces. They constantly throw others – and even one another – under the bus just to fulfill their selfish desires. This results in each of them being extremely unlikable. If you don't root for at least one of your main characters, then there's nothing worth investing in.
After watching the film, I did my due diligence of online research as prep for this review. It was then that I learned the sad history of the film: Ocean Waves isn't a Ghibli film; it's a Ghibli made-for-television movie. It wasn't created by the bright and creative minds of the studio's beloved titles. It was made by a bunch of youngsters that the studio heads deemed up-and-coming. Ocean Waves was their experiment. Considering it was made for television, it's no wonder that it has the feel of a '90s teenage high school drama. Series like 90210 and Dawson's Creek were popular at this time. Ocean Waves is like an animated version of those.
I didn't like teenage drama as a teenager and I certainly don't like it as thirty-something seeking on-screen entertainment. With Ocean Waves playing out like a standard CW high school series – love triangle and all – it didn't take long to not only lose me, but keep me at a great distance. Nothing that happens after the stellar opening sequence had the power to make me smile or believe that the film was headed in the right direction. Nothing that follows is worthy of the movie's great intro scene, making this Ghibli production a total bust.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Universal has given Ocean Waves a combo pack release that includes a Region-free BD-50 and a DVD – but not a digital copy. Both discs come in a standard two-disc Elite keepcase. A glossy and embossed cardboard slipcover is included that features a classy banner on the top that reads "A Studio Ghibli Film." (As good as it looks, I personally prefer Disney's consistent packaging style of Ghibli releases over Universal's.) Some pre-menu content plays when you start the disc, including trailers for Only Yesterday, When Marnie Was There and Miss Hokusaki, but all of it is skippable.
It's worth pointing out that Ocean Waves does not contain an English-language audio track. Instead, it features a solitary Japanese 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track and optional English subtitles.
Based on the quality of this new 4K restoration, you'd never know that Ocean Waves was a made-for-TV movie. Aside from the occasional fade-to-blacks where commercial breaks used to fit, you'd swear this this transfer came from a theatrical release. I can't find any documentation that points to where this new scan originated – film negative, original art, etc. – but it looks fantastic.
The imagery of Ocean Waves is so crisp and clear that unless you knew better, you'd assume that it was a new Ghibli film. There's not a blemish to be seen on-screen. No specks of debris or dirt. No noise. No bands, aliasing or artifacts. Fine lines are free of jagged edges. Colors are vibrant and consistent. Distant background imagery features a dream-like watercolor backdrop. It simply couldn't look better.
The only fault that I could find were a few select scenes with side-to-side jutter. In addition, I don't know if this is the fault of the remaster of if the film originally contained these odd edits, but on a few occasions, before a scene ends, we see one- or two-second visual clips of the next scene's settings. The audio continues as normal, but the video doesn't. If that was a directorial decision, it's a baffling one.
The original Japanese audio track has been converted to a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Unlike most American-distributed Ghibli films, there's no English-dub track here. The Japanese track is it – but that's not a bad thing. Despite being confined to two channels, the mix makes good use of its space. The music, effects and dialog never trump one another.
The piano and flute-driven, synth-backed score sounds great. It rings out clearly and brings a great mood along with it. It doesn't show a single sign of its age. No warbling, no warping and no clicks, pops or thumps.
Effects are layered throughout the mix perfectly. Despite not having dedicated channels, the sounds of crashing waves, buzzing cicadas, bustling cars and other elements bring their environments to life. Voices are projected with clarity. The only fault to be found is in one escalated scene where yelled dialog is distorted and blown out. Aside from that, it's solid.
Looking Back: Staff Reunion (HD, 50:08) – While this feature is presented in HD, the source content is unmistakably standard definition. Created in May 2003, watch the once-young staff of this experimental project get back together for a retrospective retreat to discuss the making of their TV movie.
The Ghiblies – Episode 2 (HD, 24:29) – Presented with Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, this feature is the second episode of an odd CG-animated series that Studio Ghibli produced. Unless you like wacky and out-there Asian TV (like the very weird Korean series Larva), I recommend staying away from this feature. Like Ocean Waves, it has the potential to impact your love for Studio Ghibli.
U.S. Trailer (HD, 1:18)
Ocean Waves is the first Studio Ghibli movie that doesn't feature the deeper meanings found within other Ghibli movies – including the ones seemingly made for children. Instead, with teen angst, a love triangle and will-they-or-won't-they central couple with a toxic relationship, the made-for-TV experimental movie plays in the same league as America's teen-fueled TV dramas. Ghibli is better than that. The great video and audio qualities and solid special features can't make it rise above that. For the first time, I'm recommending that you skip a Ghibli title.