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August 5, 2017

Umi ga kikoeru

by Franz Patrick


Umi ga kikoeru (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

The plot of the picture could have easily set the template for yet another typical romance between teenagers on the verge of adulthood, but “Ocean Waves,” based on the novel by Saeko Himuro, aspires to say something beyond love at first sight or romantic love. Instead, the material turns attention on events that unfold within and around the characters’ lives which then force them to undergo changes—even if, or especially when, they aren’t for ready these changes. The source of the story’s drama is so rooted in reality that this could have been made into a live-action film. But because the choice of medium is animation, it is elevated toward timelessness.

Notice that for the film’s entire duration, there is no sudden proclamation of love, no speech made in a public place, not one rose is handed out—not even cheap, bad-tasting chocolates because supposedly it’s the thought that counts. This is because the screenplay by Keiko Niwa had something else on its brain: how to make these animated characters feel as real as possible even though they are made up of lines and colors. The magic is in showing how an actual person might behave when confronted by her peers, when expectations do not meet reality, when he realizes that a male friend is more than “friend material” but a potential lifelong partner, a comrade, especially when life gets tough.

The push and pull of various challenges the characters face lead to unexpected solutions, at times lack thereof. More interesting is the latter circumstance. For instance, we get to a point in which we wonder whether a relationship can be mended. Suddenly the narration can be heard and the next scene denotes a passage of time. I admired that the film captures friendship, how fragile it really is even if for a time it feels unbreakable. The next thing you know, a year or two had passed since you’ve been on speaking terms and you’ve both grown, aware that what was can never be again.

There is something about Japanese animation that I find to be particularly brave. I know with certainty that there are certain subjects mainstream American animation will not dare mention, let alone touch. Here, characters are able to bring up that they are menstruating that day and that might explain the moodiness or that they are jealous of their best friend because he or she seems to have a better relationship with the opposite sex. These small, sometimes surprising, admissions or confessions add up and when the viewer looks back on the entire experience, these elements are loyal to the material’s overarching themes. They are not there simply for shock value or because it’s “daring.”

Also known as “I Can Hear the Sea,” “Umi ga kikoeru,” directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, features beautiful and highly expressive old-fashioned animation, and the material aims to respect young adults—its target audience—by consistently being true to what thoughtful teenagers care about when one belongs in that age group. It doesn’t manipulate the audience with plot points; the approach is gentle, honest, and understated. It inspires contemplation.

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