Water, as a conduit for romance and spirituality, has been en vogue as of late in Japanese feature animation. Entries in this wet subgenre, where young characters grapple with torrential rain and oceans to dazzling effect, as well as life lessons submerged in nature-based metaphors, include Makoto Shinkai's box office hit "Weathering With You," Ayumu Watanabe's upcoming "Children of the Sea," and Masaaki Yuasa's mermaid tale "Lu Over the Wall."
Returning to that liquid magic, Yuasa, who produces films through his own company Science Saru, makes a new splash with his third feature in three years "Ride Your Wave," written by Reiko Yoshida, who also penned recent anime standouts "Okko's Inn," "A Silent Voice," and "Liz and the Blue Bird." Notwithstanding the saturation of H2O-fueled teen movies, the director-screenwriter pair filter a love story through an oddball premise addressing heroism and perseverance with robust notes of graphic originality.
Surfing on the shores of a small coastal town, oceanography student Hinako (voiced by Rina Kawaei), must not only steer literal waves under her board, but also brace herself for the choppy waters destiny has in store for her when she falls for firefighter Minato (Ryôta Katayose), a knight in shinning armor with a knack for cooking omelets and making artisanal coffee.
Peak syrupy displays of lovey-dovey affection come in a montage that succinctly summarizes all the ways in which they are perfect together. Later, as the movie transitions into its wackier second act, a candlelit conversation between the couple encapsulates the film's thesis: Withstanding our worst moments, as we long for sunnier days, is itself an act of bravery. "You are great at everything, aren't you?" inquires Hinako, feeling self-conscious about the skills she's sure she lacks, to which he responds, "I've never been especially good at anything," before confessing he obsessed over his shortcomings and overcompensated through overachieving.
Their discussion on insecurities and the promise of mutual support — with an emphasis on how much Hinako believes she needs him to get by, even if he reassures her otherwise — brim with utter sincerity. Such lucid introspection has almost become a signature trait of Yoshida's writing; her scripts expertly modulate gravitas with make-believe.
Here's when "Ride Your Wave" pulls the rug from under us with a deadly accident that engenders a liquefied apparition. Just like music called Lu out of the sea, here Hinako singing a song about, of course, water invokes the ghost of her beloved Minato back from the afterlife limbo, but only if there vital fluid is found nearby, in any form: inside a toilet, in a bottle, a pond, the ocean itself, or filling a blow-up finless porpoise (his favorite animal). Hinako asks all the same questions one has about the mechanics of his return, but gets few answers.
For Yuasa, whose fantastical animated creations tend to have elastic bodies for maximum expression, a character limited to appearing inside a flowing substance, as if perpetually swimming, feels perfectly appropriate. Less pronounced than in his more surrealist works like "Mind Game" to "The Night is Short, Walk on Girl," the looseness in movement that fascinates the director still present in Minato's intangible physiology and in how he interacts with Hinako.
Integrating digital effects (mostly in portraying the water and fireworks) with hand-drawn components, Yuasa and his team repurpose and elevate what they had mastered on a venture like "Lu Over the Wall."
A final set piece inside a building up in flames wrapped in an otherworldly body of water astounds, as do, more moderately, the use of silhouettes at sundown, the out-of-the-ordinary camera angles, and the use of Minato's first-person point of view. For visual humor, watch out for fun Easter eggs referencing Yuasa's filmography, especially Lu's merdoggie (a mermaid dog).
Satellite characters Yoko (Honoka Matsumoto), Minato's sharp-tongued sister, and Wasabi (Kentarô Itô), his shy fireman buddy, join Hinako in mourning as best they can, while in turn also battling self-doubt and searching for courage in small victories. Situating the film among a group of people linked to the fire department helps with transmitting the notion that everyone is heroic to an extent, with the exception of a revelation about the lovers' shared past in tragedy prevention that's far too handy.
However, where "Ride Your Wave" falls short is in letting the viewer make out its already protruding message without explicitly spelling it out. Minato and Hinako talk repeatedly about riding the waves of life, so much that at some point it loses a bit of its power and reads like overkill, unlike the approach taken by Trey Edward Shults' aptly titled "Waves" with the same concept.
Underappreciated in comparison to his peers, Yuasa is one of the most exciting and inventive animation directors working today. And while he doesn't always get the recognition his works merit, there's a vivaciousness, a musicality, and a rich eccentricity to his oeuvre that puts him on artistic island of his own.
Fancifully heartfelt, "Ride Your Wave" doesn't constitute his top effort, but it's inviting enough to persuade audiences unfamiliar with him to dip their feet and then fully dive into the profundity of his imagination, where wonder awaits.