Sun, sea and sand is the backdrop for Masaki Yuasa's Ride Your Wave -- the perfect setting for summer romance and, as is so often the case with young lovers, winter heartbreak. At the start of the film, we're introduced to 21-year-old Minato, a young trainee fireman, who gazes out across the ocean as a female surfer fearlessly conquers the waves. "That girl is my hero," he tells his best friend.
The girl is 19-year-old, Hinako, who recently moved to the quiet, oceanside town to be as close to the sea as possible. But, despite being able to surf as much as her heart desires, she's listless and unfulfilled -- evidenced by the comically high stacks of unpacked boxes in her new apartment. She tries to replicate her mom's home cooked food and becomes disheartened when she fails miserably and her days are filled counting down the hours until she can hit the waves. Then, one fateful day when a group of wayward kids sets off a bunch of fireworks on her apartment block, Minato becomes Hinako's hero as he gallantly rescues her from the flames.
There's instant chemistry between them: they're both outdoorsy types and they both love the same pop song from their childhood, "Brand New Story," which you'll be humming to yourself for the rest of the day after watching the film. Even though they can perform a cute duet together, Hinako has her reservations about becoming dependent on someone else. Gradually, however, she succumbs, and the pair fall totally -- and sickeningly -- in love.
Any audiences who know their romance stories well will know to expect the "but" that follows the overly-saccharine montage of them becoming ever more entwined in each other's lives. Total bliss isn't really conducive to interesting drama, after all. From this point, Ride Your Wave also takes a supernatural turn in the mold of Ghost, taking the idea of co-dependency and the difficulty of moving on from something as potent as first love to magical and absurdist heights. One scene, in particular, of a toilet bowl being used to make a video call to another plane of existence is particularly funny.
In fact, scriptwriter, Reiki Yoshida's balance of comedy, romance and drama are exactly right: the film brings tears to your eyes one moment and laugh-out-loud gags the next. The characters, particularly Hinako as well as Minato's sharp-tongued sister, Yōko, are easy to like; helped by strong vocal performances and drawn in Yuasa's typical long-necked, thinly-outlined style. Though the film doesn't have the same experimental edge as his recent output: The Night is Short, Walk on Girl or Devilman: Crybaby, the animation still has that same bright and breezy looseness that marries itself well to a story so closely tied to the ocean. Color Designer Aiku Nakamura's shimmering, day-glo palette just makes you want to jump in your car and hit the beach.
It's hard not to compare supernatural romances like this to the work of the current anime king of the subgenre, Makoto Shinkai -- especially with his latest film, Weathering With You, dominating Japanese cinemas at the moment. Ride Your Wave is a smaller, quieter story in both its localized setting and its stakes, than Weathering With You, though it does build to a similarly watery crescendo at the end. This works in its favor, however, with the heartache feeling that much more personal and the character development given the space it needs to as we move through the various stages of healing with them.
Ride Your Wave might not be a groundbreaking film but it still offers plenty of surprises, spinning its mournful subject matter into an uplifting story of rebuilding and regrowth. As well as being genuinely emotionally affecting, its strength lies in how it frames the magical within the real; the collision of which leads to a strange mix of tragicomedy -- a "laughing through the tears" madness that working through grief can often feel like.
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, Ride Your Wave is scheduled to come to U.S cinemas soon.