animefringe july 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Umi ga Kikoeru - Studio Ghibli's Ocean Waves

On August 8th, Umi ga Kikoeru, literally I Can Hear the Ocean (Ocean Waves Stateside) is set to be one of the last films in Studio Ghibli's canon to see a DVD release (the only film left after Umi ga Kikoeru is Nausicaa). Umi ga Kikoeru is a touching drama, with the subtle, quiet charm that Studio Ghibli is known for. The film, which is based on a novel by Himuro Saeko, premiered on Japanese TV on December of 1993.

While there are several elements that Umi ga Kikoeru shares with other Studio Ghibli films, Umi is rather unique. It was directed by an outsider, Tomomi Mochizuki, who also directed the Kimagure Orange Road movies. The film was meant as a project for Ghibli's younger staff members, in their 20s and 30s (Mochizuki was 37 when directed it), though Ghibli veteran Isao Takahata was the film's producer. The age of the staff seems to have had a major impact on the film, as Umi is, at its heart, a teen drama. Don't get the wrong impression, however. This is not a clichéd look at teenage life through the lens of corporate bigwigs. The overriding theme of Ghibli films is, for the most part, nostalgia, either for an age in a person's life or a time in our shared past. In this respect, Umi is no different from its Ghibli brethren. However, the age it focuses on is very unique and, unlike other Studio Ghibli films that have had Takahata or Hayoa Miyazaki at the helm, Umi forgoes the supernatural to tell of a teenage love triangle. Indeed, it's easy to see the simple and charming film as the work of adults approaching midlife, nostalgically looking back at their joy and ambiguity of their teenage years. Indeed, Umi is an ode to secret crushes, classroom friendships, and a time that irrevocably ends at graduation.

The film opens with the main character, Taku, standing at train station. He sees an attractive girl, but almost as soon as he notices her, she is gone. After the title screen, the film moves to Taku's room in Tokyo. He gets ready to board a plane to his hometown of Kochi, when he notices a picture that has fallen out of his bag. It is of the girl he saw at the train station, in an orange bathing suit. Taku studies the photo for a moment before leaving for his flight at Tokyo's Haneda airport. As the flight takes off, Taku begins to narrate a series of flashbacks. "The first time Matsuno and I met Rikako was on a scorching summer like this. Two years ago when we were second year high school students..."

From there, Umi begins to tell the tale of a love triangle between Taku, his best friend Matsuno, and the new girl in town, Rikako. Taku and Matsuno meet in middle school, when they both protest the school's cancellation of their middle school trip, and become good friends. But a new transfer student, from glitzy Tokyo threatens to break up their friendship. However, as the film progresses, it is apparent that Rikako has problems all her own. Her parents are divorced, and her mother has brought her from Tokyo to Kochi. Rikako hates the little city and longs to move back to Tokyo with her father. Unfortunately for her, things can't go back to the way they were. If it's all begining to sound a bit like a grown up The Wonder Years, you might not be far off the mark. Both Taku and Matsuno have to understand their relationship with Rikako, while she must learn to grow up.

If you're familiar with the other Studio Ghibli films, you may be waiting for the magical punch, the bizarre conceit thrown into a normal world. There is none in Umi. There are no Japanese gods, floating islands, cat barons, or magical powers. The film's drama comes from the conflict the three main characters face (and a definite sense of awe at what crazy stunt the conceited Rikako will pull next).

The animation is really gorgeous. Though there is nothing supernatural in the film, the blue skies, castles, and other scenery are extremely well drawn. The animation is fluid and the character design is realistic, with a slight bend towards the trademark Ghibli look. The voice acting is superb, and while the music is not as great as Joe Hisashi's work for the studio, it is charming and simple, and fits in well with the film.

Umi ga Kikoeru was originally broadcast on TV in Japan in 1993. Since then, it has seen a 1999 VHS release and will be on DVD this September. Outside of Japan, the film has been released in the Chinese bootleg Studio Ghibli DVD box set and is available fansubbed. However, there has yet to be a legitimate release of Umi in the U.S. The film is not included in the world wide distribution deal between Disney and Tokuma. One the one hand, inclusion in the deal means that the film may have seen the light of day in the U.S., but it is impossible to say how Disney would have handled this film dealing with teenage life. While Spirited Away's Oscar win may be the catalyst for Disney to re-examine the Ghibli films, it doesn't seem likely that Umi ga Kikoeru will see release in the U.S.