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Ocean Waves (Celebrate Studio Ghibli)

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Just before returning home for his high school reunion, 18 year-old Taku Morisaki (Nobuo Tobita) thinks he sees a former classmate – Rikako Muto (Yoko Sakamoto) – on a Tokyo train platform. While flying home, Taku reminisces on when Rikako transferred to his school and the complicated love triangle that ensued between them and Taku’s best friend Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki).

Ocean Waves is probably the least well-known and certainly the least seen of Studio Ghibli’s feature-length works. Unlike the studio’s other features it was produced for Japanese television. When it was made, Ocean Waves was intended to be a ‘breather’ project between theatrical features: it was the first Ghibli production not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, and was intended to give the studio’s junior animators their own project with which to prove themselves. After running over schedule and over budget, it was seen internally as something of a failure. For viewers, it is an odd little addition to the Ghibli canon. It is by no means as accomplished a film as the company’s usual fare, but for the dedicated fans it is a pleasant enough extra to track down and sample. As far as I can work out, it is receiving its Australian theatrical debut this month as part of Madman’s Celebrate Studio Ghibli festival.

Ocean Waves is directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, who had previously directed two animated feature films based on the popular manga Kimagure Orange Road. This is no surprise; both that series and Ocean Waves present a very similar sort of high school soap opera. In fact stylistically the film hews much more closely to those television anime serials than in does to the rest of Ghibli’s work.

That in itself is not a criticism; Throw in many of Takahata’s works – The Tale of Princess Kaguya, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and so on – and Ghibli clearly spans a broad range of styles and subject matter. Given the constraints of its television budget Ocean Waves has solid production values, and its slightly sketchy, loose art style gives it an awful lot of warmth. It is a film that comes across as very comfortable with itself, and at 72 minutes in total it never risks outstaying its welcome.

The one major problem that hampers the film is its characters: they feel weirdly arbitrary and under-motivated. Rikako for one is a weirdly unlikeable person, who lies to her friends to borrow money from them and slaps them in the face when they say things she does not like. Characters mention that she is unhappy and troubled, but the film does not show precisely what is going on to make her that way. Similarly both Taku and Yutaka pine romantically for Rikako without her ever really justifying their affections or making their emotions seem anything more complex than teenage lust. In the end this hand-waved characterisation drags down the whole film.

It ultimately leaves Ocean Waves more as a curiosity than as an attractive film in its own right. It is the film that Studio Ghibli fans watch because they have already seen everything else. It gains a little bit of an exclusivity cache as a result; everybody has heard of My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away, but only ‘true fans’ know about Ocean Waves. For the hardcore it’s certainly worth 72 minutes of their time. For anybody else Ghibli has many superior anime features available to watch.

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From up on Poppy Hill (Celebrate Studio Ghibli)

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In 2006 Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro made his directorial debut with the relatively unpopular Tales from Earthsea. When the younger Miyazaki returned five years later with his sophomore effort From up on Poppy Hill, more than a few Studio Ghibli fans appeared rather apprehensive about his chances. Thankfully their fears were unfounded. This grounded, sweet drama about a teenage girl in 1960s Yokohama was not only vastly superior, it sat quite comfortably among earlier Studio Ghibli productions such as Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995). It was, and remains, a wonderfully charming character piece.

The film follows Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Masami Nagasawa), a 16 year-old high schooler living in Yokohama. In her mother’s absence she manages and cooks for the family boarding house in between her academic studies. Umi connects with the editor of the school’s student newsletter, Shun Kazuma (Junichi Okada), and they grow closer while working to save the school’s decrepit student clubhouse from demolition.

It is a beautifully observed and animated film, with a genuine richness of emotion and character. Why Goro Miyazaki’s second film succeeds where his first faltered is likely down to Poppy Hill’s amiable, gentle screenplay. Unlike Earthsea it was co-written by his father, and the elder Miyazaki’s fingerprints are all over it. There is a classic Studio Ghibli warmth that fills this film but which felt absent from Earthsea.

There is an argument to be made that, as it features no fantastical or visually outlandish content, Poppy Hill could have been shot just as easily in live-action, and that as an animation it is a little redundant. This argument ignores the immense subtlety and more importantly the visual simplicity that the film gets as a result of being animated. While it could have been made in live-action, it would not have been half as engaging or emotionally effective. In a slightly perverse sense, this is the sort of film that demonstrates just now versatile animation can be: it isn’t simply about showcasing visuals that are impossible to achieve in reality, it’s about giving small intimate moments a level of abstraction as well.

The background scenery is particularly beautiful, with judicious use of CGI enhancing rather than supplanting the hand-drawn animation. Key animation is, broadly speaking, very good, however there are a few uncharacteristic moments where the quality wavers – generally when a bunch of characters are singing together. The film did have a slightly fraught production period, with the animation process coinciding with the 2011 tsunami, and the studio did rush to complete work to meet the original release date. In the end it is a minor problem. The film’s soundtrack is excellent, with the prominent use of Kyu Sakamoto’s “I Shall Walk Looking Up” (better known in the West as “Sukiyaki”) adding a nice element of period and thematic detail.

The huge jump in quality from Earthsea to Poppy Hill suggests a solid future for Goro Miyazaki’s career. Since completing this second film he has directed an entire anime television series, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter. I really hope he returns to direct a third feature soon; he has so much demonstrated potential.