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Ocean Waves / Umi ga Kikoeru / I Can Hear the Sea Review

Ocean Waves (Original title: 海がきこえる or “I can hear the sea”) is perhaps the least known of Ghibli’s works, and this partially owes to its origins – it was not a feature length film and was conceived as a small project for the younger members of Studio Ghibli.  It was aired on television in 1993, running at 72 minutes,  a length far shorter than most Ghibli films.  Its is spiritually similar to Omohide Poroporo and quite different from the majority of Studio Ghibli films.  Perhaps because of this, it is very hard to find and as far as I know, there are no official releases outside of Japan.  However, according to Wikipedia, a European company is planning to release subtitled versions of the film, so this may change in the near future.  As I am more familiar with the original Japanese title, Umi ga Kikoeru, I will refer to the film primarily by this name.

If you were a fan of Omohide Poroporo, you’ll find that this film provides a similar feeling of wistfulness, of looking back on faded memories.  In the opening scene, we see our main character, Morisaki Taku, getting ready to take a trip back to his hometown for a school reunion.  While boarding a train, he briefly catches a glimpse of someone who resembles a girl he had once known in high school, and he recounts to the viewers a story of his youth.  That story involves his best friend, Matsuno Yutaka, and the mentioned girl, Muto Rikako, who became known at school as an arrogant Tokyoite (the story takes place in seaside Kochi, and Muto has transferred there due to her parents’ divorce).  Through various events in the year, including a school trip, Muto and Morisaki form an odd relationship, more than acquaintances but not quite friends, which in turn affects the friendship between Morisaki and his best friend.

You may be wondering at this point if you should turn away from what is possibly a typical love triangle soap opera.  I can understand the weariness, because I am not a fan of most of those kind of stories, which are typically shallow and melodramatic.  Perhaps it is the Studio Ghibli touch, but Umi manages to deliver this familiar scenario in a very restrained and respectable manner.  In fact, most of the film really does not revolve around romance in a typical sense, it’s more about characterization and relationships which are developed in a more ambiguous manner than the typical high school romance.  For all it’s superficial resemblances, Umi Ga Kikoeru distinguishes itself by doing away with the angst.  Morisaki’s recollection of his school days feels genuine and sincere, and his narration of the story adds a great deal to the overall impact.  Perhaps I am just a sucker for gentle reminiscences of youth, looking back on the decisions of your less mature years with mixed feelings of nostalgia and regret.

Morisaki, the narrator, is genuinely likable and a very good window into the story.  Our perception of the events in the story are naturally shaped by his perspective, including our views of other characters.  The conversations and interaction between him and Matsuno are a very sweet portrayal of friendship.  I particularly liked the way that the film allowed us to look back briefly at how the two met and became friends.  However, this does introduce us to one of my criticisms of the film, which is that I would have liked to have seen more of Matsuno and more insight into him.  I can understand, of course, how this might be limited by our very firm attachment to Morisaki’s perspective.

My other criticism is a little more vague, and concerns Muto.  As a character, she is very much an accomplishment – I don’t think anyone can deny she is a realistically flawed, complex character, nor that her actions are understandable given her background.  Still, looking back at the sum of these scenes and her characterization, my disposition towards her as a person is still somewhat uncertain.  In other words, I just don’t know if in the end, I actually liked her character.

Regardless, I just think the film ought to be praised merely for its honest portrayal of the ambiguous nature of relationships  (in general) during adolescent years.  I like the lack of bold confessions or rivalries.  I like the fact that Morisaki doesn’t really contemplate or understand Muto and his thoughts about her until the end, when he is older.  And even if I have my reservations about Muto, I felt like I could understand her and the reasons for her sometimes unlikeable behavior.  There are so many subtleties in the film that reveal how childish typical anime in this genre really are.

The art is pleasant, the character designs are realistic and appealing, and the animation, while more static than Ghibli’s usual, is well-done nontheless.  The music score does have something of a low-budget feel, but the piano-heavy pieces as well as some of the more synthesizer-led ones manage to have a certain charm, and I don’t think that it was a hindrance in the end.  Hats off to the voice actors, who all deliver nuanced performances, but especially to Toshihiko Seki who gives real depth to Matsuno.

Despite being a relatively short film, Umi easily manages to craft a superior story to most of the longer, episodic anime with similar stories, and as a result feels more heartfelt.  If you’re a fan of slice-of-life anime (of the Honey and Clover, not K-On, variety) then I highly recommend what is certainly a standout.  Umi’s strengths lie in its little details, the realism of its dialogues and restraint in its portrayal of the period between childhood and adulthood.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but that part of the story is really what stood out in my mind rather than the directly romantic angle.  It will perhaps always be one of Ghibli’s more underrated works, and that’s a shame, because the younger staff at Ghibli did manage to produce something pretty special.

14 responses so far

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14 Responses to “Ocean Waves / Umi ga Kikoeru / I Can Hear the Sea Review”

  1. signorRossion Dec 29th 2009

    Universum Anime has released it this October as part of it’s Ghibli collection, but it provides only German (my mother tongue) subtitles/dub. Universum does quite a good job, the deluxe DVD cases are nice and the dub is well done, so even people who watch only dubbed movies can enjoy them, too. I prefer subs, though.
    Of course that doesn’t really help you, since you don’t speak German, I assume. 🙂

  2. signorRossion Dec 29th 2009

    Kommando zurück!
    It seems that Optimum Home Entertainment will release a subtitled English version in January, according to Amazon.co.uk. You don’t have a regionless DVD player, don’t you? 🙂

  3. Theowneon Dec 29th 2009

    Now that blows my mind. I would never have imagined that anyone would ever release a one hour TV film from 1992 nearly twenty years later, I had basically written off an English-oriented release. Well, they’ve got one customer waiting across the pond. Thanks for letting me know.

  4. magloron Dec 29th 2009

    I actually think Umi ga Kikoeru was one of the better Ghibli films and wish they had explored this type of films more.

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