In Masaaki Yuasa’s poignant and playful Ride Your Wave, the director crafts an inventive story that turns the romantic dramedy genre on its head. 19-year-old Hinako has just moved to an oceanside town to study oceanography, but she feels a bit of trepidation about her future. She has an extreme love for the ocean, but no other aspect of her life really seems to be coming together like she thought it would. After a close call with death, she falls for a seemingly perfect firefighter with a heart of gold, Minato, and things click together like never before. Minato has a penchant for cooking and making artisanal coffee, along with other similar endeavors that make him seem almost unreal. The film provides a sugary sweet montage of their relationship that is just on the precipice of being too cloying. They have fallen hard, they have adopted a popular, catchy song to be “their song,” and they have begun making serious plans as each of them slowly become more comfortable with living in the adult world.
For those wanting to go into the movie almost completely blind, it would be advisable for you to skip over the next paragraph. Most reviews, plot descriptions and trailers make note of the following elements, but it could ruin what would otherwise be a surprise. In the thick of this burgeoning romance, as they realize they are just about perfect for one another, a tragedy befalls Minato that leaves Hinako broken and alone. The development is sudden, and it breaks your heart for this young couple who were only just beginning to experience something beautiful. She has lost the one person that made her feel like she could do anything. This just so happens to be the time where director Yuasa lets his more offbeat tendencies shine through. As this is an anime film, the rules of reality are not adhered to with a strict authority. Hinako discovers that if she sings the special song between Minato and herself, she can summon him in his new form as a water spirit. She becomes obsessed with summoning him all the time to keep him nearby, and some of the creative places they serve up Minato are quite fun. This second chance is a joyous one for Hinako, but there are inherent issues that keep this from being a long-term solution for the heart.
Our main two characters are not exactly living in a bubble. A highlight of the film is Minato’s prickly younger sister, Yoko, who freely speaks her mind while pushing away pretty much anyone who dares come close. There is also the self-conscious firefighter buddy of Minato, Wasabi, who feels conflicted about his own feelings for Hinako. These characters draw closer to Hinako as the movie unfolds and they grow more concerned about her. Hinako and Minato once again share a joyous montage that is just as sweet with even more humor to draw you in. Devoting herself to Minato may not be the healthiest option for her, but she loves the way she feels when she is around him. A hard lesson to learn in life, though, is just because something feels right, it does not mean you should be doing it. The main issue with this story is the lack of agency that is given to Hinako. There is a convenient revelation late in the film that proves how tough she was, even as a child. This does not seem to track with the grown up Hinako that we know is a lovely person, but seems incapable of accomplishing much without guidance from Minato. The not very subtle point of the film is for Hinako to forge her own path in life, but the story makes her way more helpless than she needs to be to resonate thematically.
Ride Your Wave is a bit of a mixed bag overall. There are a lot of moments that are truly touching or joyous in equal measure. The film effortlessly gets you invested in these characters, but it stumbles a bit when it comes to making them well rounded. The film lacks the depth to elevate this beyond a breezy summer viewing with heart. The animation is simplistic, but beautifully drawn with impressive attention to detail in subtle features such as fireworks or ocean waves. When you reach the end of this journey, you will be very glad that you spent time with these characters, but it would be very surprising if this film stuck in your mind for longer than a few days. Yuasa appears to be reaching for the mainstream success that some of his contemporaries have achieved in recent years, and the attempt shows. While not reinventing the wheel, Ride Your Wave offers up a harmless love story that has flashes of greatness.
Ride Your Wave will be available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on August 4, 2020 through GKIDS and Shout Factory.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.