Amongst anime fans, Masaaki Yuasa is a divisive director. For every fervent evangelist of Netflix’s gory, intense Devilman Crybaby, there’s a detractor who hates the tone and subject matter. For every fan who cites The Tatami Galaxy as an epistle from God that speaks directly to their heart, there’s another who shrugs “Meh, just wasn’t my thing.” I’m very new to his works, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from his latest feature film, though I am very thoroughly enjoying his current TV show Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Yuasa’s works are nothing if not varied in scope and subject matter. I first encountered his work in an episode of Space Dandy and a random, surreal episode of Adventure Time. To me, he is associated with wild, experimental animation styles and oddly-proportioned characters with loose fluid movements - a kind of modern-day art-house Max Fleischer, I suppose. I appreciated Devilman Crybaby for its smart yet faithful update of a manga classic, though found the sheer visceral yuk-factor off-putting. My eldest son noped-out after the first episode, so clearly I am made of sterner stuff as I clung on until the truly nihilistic ending.
I was very lucky to catch a screening of Ride Your Wave at this week’s re-run of a selection of films from 2019's Scotland Loves Anime film festival. Thanks to The Belmont Filmhouse for bringing anime to the frozen north. To my knowledge, so far this film has only been shown outside of Japan at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and at Scotland Loves Anime. A US release is planned by GKIDS later in 2020. For this reason, I’d like this review to remain as spoiler-free as possible... But it will be very difficult to do it justice without spoiling the one major plot point that is given away in the trailers anyway.
IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN UNSPOILED YOU NEED TO STOP READING NOW.
Ride Your Wave is an unexpectedly straightforward film for a director with such a reputation as Yuasa. At its core this is a romantic comedy, though there is a twist in that within the first 20 minutes or so, the male romantic lead dies. The death of a lead character doesn’t stop Yuasa from exploring themes of emotional co-dependence, finding one’s place in the world and growing up enough to navigate problems independently. What happens when you meet your perfect soulmate, you both fall head-over-heels in soppy, all-encompassing, dumb and thrilling love and then one of you is snatched cruelly and suddenly from this world? You start to hallucinate wet anime boys in every water receptacle, every puddle, every toilet bowl...
Yes, main character, ace surfer and general ditz Hinako Mukaimizu becomes properly mentally unwell in a heartbreaking examination of grief in a person who is unwilling and unable to move on. Much like the first few minutes of Pixar’s Up, Ride Your Wave invests time in building the central relationship, only to tear it apart with tragedy. I did not feel as completely devastated I did with Up, but Ride Your Wave successfully invests the viewer in this young, fun romance enough to tug the heartstrings when tragedy strikes.
Minato Hinageshi is a firefighter who admires Hinako’s surfing from a distance and gets to meet her when he rescues her from her burning apartment. He’s a hardworking, motivated guy and sweeps her off her feet. After Minato’s death while trying to rescue a drowning person, Hinako falls apart, gives up the surfing she loves because the sea makes her sad and moves inland. She pushes away friends and family and wallows in grief so deep she can barely comprehend it. When she starts to see visions of her deceased boyfriend in whatever water sources are close to her she is initially confused. She realises she can “summon” his spirit by staring into water and by singing a song they both loved - in a somewhat meta touch, this is the film’s theme song “Brand New Story”. You’d better like this track, because the characters sing it. A lot. Throughout the entire film.
Hinako’s journey is to come to an acceptance of her loss while fighting her attachment to the ghostly lover only she can see but never touch. For a movie about grief, it is full of light and funny scenes of her dancing with a water-filled inflatable dolphin or talking to a water bottle while onlookers stare in horror. Minato’s acid-tongued sister Yoko and work colleague Wasabi are the only other characters of note. At one point I worried it would veer into uncomfortable love triangle territory, but thankfully that is deftly avoided. Hinako is given time to breathe and to process without leaping into another relationship. She doesn’t need a man to fix her, she needs to do this herself. As the movie itself puts it, she needs to learn to ride her waves - not just in the sea, but in life. This is a nice metaphor and the film explores it well. At a relatively short 96 minutes, this is a much briefer experience than any of the other films this week, so it doesn’t become an extended treatise on self-help or grief management.
Bookending the film are two sequences involving fire that act as a contrast to this otherwise water-saturated story. The climactic sequence especially is a masterwork of depicting motion. With some animated films one can wonder if the same story could also have been told in live action. This is not the case with Ride Your Wave. Here we have a visionary director at the height of his technical powers, with full mastery of his chosen medium. I cannot see how anything other than 2D animation could possibly come close to the fantastic depictions of moving water during the surfing scenes. Even if the rest of the film is remarkably restrained by Yuasa’s standards, with almost normally-proportioned characters that are barely even rubbery or bendy, you can see the sheer unbridled love of the animation medium poured into every frame.
I’m sure I don’t have to labour the point that I loved this movie. I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost sight of the concept of beauty when it comes to popular entertainment. With our modern obsessions of darkness, grittiness and even ugliness overtaking old-fashioned notions that perhaps looking at pretty things might be good for the soul, I’m so glad that films like Ride Your Wave exist. Do your soul a favour and seek out a screening when you can.
Ride Your Wave
Directed by: Masaaki Yuasa
Written by: Reiko Yoshida
Produced by: Science Saru
Japanese cinematic release: June 21st 2019
Runtime: 96 minutes
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