The Source of Life: “Ride Your Wave” Film Review

While I never pretend to be some kind of distanced critic of anime, I find it virtually impossible to approach director Yuasa Masaaki and producer Eunyoung Choi’s latest film, Ride Your Wave, with any kind of staunch objectivity. It’s a heartfelt story of love, loss, and learning to see yourself in a new light, and having watched it right at a point in life where its messages and emotions resonate with me deeply and cause my eyes to well up, I have basically nothing but praise for this movie.

Ride Your Wave (aka Kimi to, Nami o Noretara in Japanese) follows Hinako, a bright and energetic surfer girl who wants to live on her own by the ocean. After her apartment accidentally catches fire, she’s rescued by a handsome fireman named Minato, and the two start a loving relationship. However, after Minato loses his life rescuing people from some dangerous waters, Hinako becomes unable to even think about the ocean, let alone surf. But then she discovers that she can “see” Minato in any water source by singing their favorite song, and it drives her to re-discover her happiness and her inspiration to keep on living.

Love is about as common a topic in fiction as you can possibly get, but I feel it’s actually rare to see characters who come across as genuinely in love with each other. There’s a kind of “dramatic love” you often see, and there’s narratives revolving around characters finding their love, but you don’t often see the kind of love borne out of small, everyday gestures that you find in real life. Ride Your Wave’s depiction of Hinako and Minato is extremely powerful in this regard, and the tragedy hits ten times harder as a result.

But much like Pixar’s Up (a favorite of mine), that’s only the beginning of the story, and where Ride Your Wave takes its characters is uplifting while acknowledging the pain and tears. It all feels so raw and beautiful—the joy and the sorrow alike. In recent days, I’ve found myself dwelling on the fear that comes with the possibility of suddenly losing someone you hold dear, without any warning, and Ride Your Wave prompted me to confront how I might feel if thrown in that situation. I don’t think I’ve quite felt this way since I watched Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises, which also struck me at just the right time to basically electrify me to my core.

I will make one note about the aesthetic aspect of the film. Ever since founding his studio Science Saru, Yuasa Masaaki’s works have hit a kind of accessibility not as present in his older works, and Ride Your Wave furthers this trend. But rather than being a concession to mainstream sensibilities, it’s more a compromise that uses the loose and expressive aesthetics characteristic of Yuasa to tell an emotional story about love, loss, and finding yourself again. It’s identifiably Yuasa, but this is not just a film for animation buffs, or those who like a more daring artistic style.

Ride Your Wave had a one-day-only theater release through Fathom Events, and I hope it gets a wider release. It really deserves every accolade it can get. Now, if only I could get that song out of my head…

Have Beer, Will Travel: The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl adapts Japanese novelist Morimi Tomihiko’s work into an animated film where magic, fantasy, and reality blend together seamlessly into a pleasant yet frenetic experience. Directed by Yuasa Masaaki, whose credits include Devilman Crybaby, Ping Pong and The Tatami Galaxy (also based on a Morimi novel), the work fits Yuasa’s strengths to a tee.

The Night is Short, Walk On Girl follows two unnamed characters: a Japanese college girl referred to as “the black-haired girl” (kurokami no otome) and her upperclassman/senpai. The senpai has nursed a crush on the girl for ages, and has engineered a life where he “coincidentally” keeps running into her in the hopes of sparking something more. Unfortunately for him, it has yet to work. The girl, for her part, is more focused on enjoying life at night, which involves a lot of drinking and looking for the next adventure.

The story progresses in various unpredictable directions, touching on the supernatural in ways that make it difficult to tell who’s more bizarre: the humans or the gods. Following the girl’s exploration of the night, her pursuit of the next interesting drink, and the senpai’s continued attempts to get her to notice him feels like being on a winding path whose seeming meandering is actually welcomed rather than shunned. Yuasa’s signature style allows the nebulous mix of the real and fantastic to shine through.

The film was distributed in the US for two nights by GKIDS, and the showing included a recorded interview with Yuasa, where he discusses the on-again, off-again nature of a heavily delayed production. Another notable thing mentioned is that the film takes what is essentially a story told via vignettes over all four seasons and combines them into a single dramatic evening. Thus, the film and the novel provide substantially different experiences, making it more worthwhile to experience both. Fortunately, the novel itself is coming out in English courtesy of Yen Press.

Faces and Feet: Lu Over the Wall

Director and animator Yuasa Masaaki has gone from being the darling of animation connoisseurs to mainstream success story thanks to the success of Devilman Crybaby. In many ways, that series embodies what Yuasa is best known for—experimental animation that moves and undulates with a dream-like quality. His 2017 film (and the subject of this review), Lu Over the Wall, tackles a different yet challenging audience in its own right: children.

Kai is a middle schooler living in Hinashi, a small fishing village known for its sheer lack of sunlight. A DJing hobbyist, his online videos are discovered by two classmates—Kunio and Yuuho—who try to get him to join their band. Uninterested at first, Kai discovers that practicing with them will give him the opportunity to explore the merfolk legends surrounding the town, which results in the three meeting a real live music-loving mermaid named Lu. What ensues is a popping, lyrical exploration of the way dreams and curiosity affect generations of families, as well as the power of discovering when to uphold traditions, and when to move on from them.

There is a very human quality to the movie, especially in the way that Kai’s mood swings are never explicitly explained. When he transitions from deadpan introspection to energetically enthusiastic, is it that the legends he’s been reading about are real? Or is it that Yuuho and Kai are providing him the peer emotional support he never realized he needed? The characters shift and evolve in subtle and realistic ways. Growth doesn’t come as one continuous wave, but in ebbs and flows that only truly stand out when stepping back to view an individual (or a community) as a whole. Perhaps it might be better to compare their development with music—at times fast, at times slow, but with a sense of rhythm that says something is going to happen, and you’d better be ready for it.

As expected, the animation quality itself is big on expressiveness. Characters move and emote constantly, their motions feeling akin to a more subdued and subtle Ping Pong: The Animation. That is, until the dancing starts or the action gets moving. At that point, it veers somewhere between Yuasa as seen in Kaiba and the classic cartoons of Tex Avery. While his non-standard aesthetic might garner worry that it would not fly with kids, this wasn’t the case at all. Laughs and voiced indicators of understanding could be heard throughout the young audience viewing the film. As impressive as the visuals were, they never eclipsed the story nor the theme of small-town dreams.

While it’s easy to assume that his form of twisted and eerie animation could only work on an audience of refined animation experts, Lu Over the Wall shows how Yuasa’s style is more versatile than first impressions give. It’s uplifting, thought-provoking, and still just plain fun.

My Donation to Kick-Heart Was Not an Obligation

I recently donated to Kick-Heart, and it was my very first Kickstarter donation.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s an animation project by Japanese animator/director Yuasa Masaaki, a man whose style can best be described as “experimental and unorthodox.” As someone who not only enjoys variety in animation but also appreciates Yuasa’s work (particularly the brilliant Kaiba), I ended up pledging, but I want everyone to understand that this was my own conclusion, and not one I necessarily expect from others. 

As people have rallied for Kick-Heart there’s been good, but there’s also been this problematic message attached to it wherein Kick-Heart is seen as a potential savior of not just the anime industry but of creativity and imagination in anime itself. To some extent, they have a point: there are certain anime that are more commercially viable than others, and this is usually based on what’s trending at the time combined with the economic realities of the time. In that sense, funding this Kickstarter is useful for figuring out if there really is an audience for Yuasa’s brand of works, enough to justify at least a 10-minute animation piece. But then if you’re not part of the audience in the sense that you have little interest in Yuasa’s work, then you shouldn’t feel obligated to maintain a lie just because people are making you feel like you’re industry poison.

I said why I decided to join in, and if my or anyone else’s reasons for donating to Kick-Heart convinced you to donate, feel free to do so. What you shouldn’t feel, however, is pressured to donate out of the “greater good.” Kick-Heart isn’t an intimidation tactic, and it shouldn’t be talked about as such.