Two-and-a-half months in, and 2020 has given the world a lot of things to consider. An impeachment. The rumblings of war with Iran. A whack-as-hell primary season. An online-school-inducing, business-closing, all-around-scary pandemic that maybe makes reviewing theater-exclusive movies a public health hazard?
But never mind all that. The first quarter of 2020 has also given US-based anime fans some interesting, maybe perplexing, things to chew on: namely, a trifecta of water-themed fantasy teen anime movies, only months apart. This aquatic trio started off in January with Makoto Shinkai’s “Weathering With You,” a movie featuring a mythical “sunshine girl” with the ability to dispel rain. The end of April, barring postponements, will bring Ayumu Watanabe’s “Children of the Sea,” which tells the tale of two young boys raised by dugongs (yes, by dugongs). But in February and March, in the midst of global strife and confusion, anime and surfing fans alike can take some measure of glee in the US release, “Ride Your Wave,” from the famously idiosyncratic director Masaaki Yuasa (“The Night is Short, Walk on Girl”).
Seemingly the hot new thing to do after the record-breaking success of Shinkai’s “Your Name,” “Ride Your Wave” tells a syrupy love story between two budding adults set to a soundtrack of bubbly J-pop tunes. The love story part is pretty standard romantic fare: college student and avid surfer Hinako (Rina Kawai, “Ajin: Demi-Human”) meets firefighter Minato (Ryota Katayose, “Ani ni Aisaresugite”) after he saves her life in the course of his manly-man firefighting duties. As they bond over their shared appreciation for omurice, pop music and finless porpoises, the film swiftly falls into a procession of tried and true romance scenes that may be too cloying or cringey for some viewers: handholding, tandem surfing, starlit walks and even some PG-13 sexy times.
“Ride Your Wave” takes said “bubbly J-pop tunes” from the “Your Name” formula a step further. Where “Your Name” and “Weathering With You” had Radwimps, “Ride Your Wave” has the boy band Generations from Exile Tribe. One of its seven members is even the voice of Minato, and their song “Brand New Story” figures heavily into the film, shifting between diegetic and non-diegetic as Hinako and Minato alternately sing along. This may prove overbearing for some (you hear “Brand New Story” just about a hundred times), but it serves as an interesting plot element — it’s not just there to underscore the romance and maritime themes.
You see, “Ride Your Wave” isn’t just a love story. It’s only after the first act that you get to the sunshine girl, raised-by-dugongs element, but it’s there. In a selfless at-sea rescue attempt, Minato loses his life. But he’s not really gone! Any time Hinako sings “Brand New Story,” his spirit manifests in some nearby quantity of water, whether it be a river, a simple glass or a big inflatable porpoise (that last bit leads to a cute parody of the aforementioned standard romantic fare).
It’s here that the film begins to prove itself as a brand new story. The film’s not so much about Hinako being saved by the manly-man firefighter, or even really about their love at all. It’s about grief, grappling with loss, learning to move on. About finding one’s own strength to be a better version of themselves. In short, it’s about riding your own wave.
Pretty on the nose, right? That’s also the film’s biggest flaw. It won’t let the audience figure this out, despite it being the actual title. Instead, it inflicts a fusillade of cheesy, water-themed lines like “I just don’t know in which way I should be paddling,” “if you stay with your head underwater, you’ll never learn to ride the waves,” and “the next wave is always just on the horizon, waiting to be caught.” At one point Minato tells Hinako that he “can be like (her) harbor.” Google tells me that “Minato” does, in fact, mean harbor in Japanese. And as fun and refreshing it was to see a romance movie about grief set to scenes of dancing porpoises possessed by ghost boys, the film doesn’t handle this tonal balance well; the shifts from gooey romance to quirky grief story to all-out-fantasy in the final act come off as uneven and a little confused.
That being said, it is a romance story about a ghost boy possessing an inflatable porpoise. Uneven, overwrought and way on the nose, yes — but fun, gutsy and incredibly earnest as well. Pair this earnestness with the soft, delicate and easy-to-look-at animation style, along with the giga-jolt of optimistic and effervescent J-pop, and “Ride Your Wave” isn’t the worst thing to watch in the middle of a pandemic.