Ride Your Wave (Kimi to, nami ni noretara)

Japan (2019) Dir. Masaaki Yuasa

Having a passion is great; finding someone to share it with isn’t always easy. If you do then you are very lucky, others struggle to persuade their partners even to care about their passions, let alone sharing it with them. But maybe encouraging them to join you in this sometimes isn’t the best idea after all.  

19 year-old Hinako Mukaimizu has recently moved from Chiba to a small seaside town to attend college but more importantly, so she can indulge in her hobby of surfing. Shortly after Hinako moves in to her apartment, fireworks set off by a group of thugs start a fire in the building, and she is rescued by dashing fireman Minato Hinageshi. They soon fall in love and Hinako teaches Minato how to surf.

Because Hinako had told Minato the waves are best during a winter storm, when it turns cold, Minato goes surfing on his own but drowns saving the life or a jet skier. This leaves Hinako so distraught with guilt she can no longer face the water anymore and quits surfing. But when Hinako sings a song that reminds her of Minato, he suddenly appears to her whenever she is around water, though nobody else can see him.

Reading the above plot summary then associating it with director Masaaki Yuasa might be the hardest thing to parse for some watching Ride Your Wave. Yuasa is known for his boundary pushing films and TV series, in both animation style and the stories he adapts, like the darkly surreal The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl to the psychedelic Ponyo-esque Lu Over The Wall, whereas this film is his most mainstream and linear offering yet.

Working from a script by the prolific Reiko Yoshida, Yuasa again echoes Miyazaki’s Ponyo with the film’s mystical conceit of transportation within water. The story is by and large a bittersweet romantic fantasy, which inculcates on the topics of finding one’s happiness and paying good deeds forward. The elliptical nature of the latter is a contrivance which doesn’t feel thoroughly thought out, despite its importance to the plot.

The story is rather straightforward but still with its quirks. Hinako is a bubbly, energetic, upbeat girl, Minato is a little more staid, driven by righteous and noble intentions, hence him being a fireman. Once the pair fall in love, their romance depicted through a dreamy if slightly mawkish montage set to the song we’ll hear snippets of for the remainder of the film, Minato makes a vow to always be by Hinako’s side, a sure fire sign tragedy is on the way.

Minato’s passing allows two secondary characters to step forward and act as proxies in Hinako’s life – Minato’s cynical younger sister Yoko, who thinks love makes people act stupid, and one of Minato’s junior colleagues, Wasabi. He actually meets Hinako first, soaking her during hose practice and she lends him her towel. Wasabi falls for Hinako but is too shy to say anything, seeing his chances slip further away when she and the seemingly perfect Minato hook up.

Except Minato isn’t completely gone. When Hinako sings “their” song in the rain, Minato appears in a puddle, then again in the sink at home, and in the bath. Having realised this is real, and Minato is back to be by her side as promised, Hinako takes a small version of Minato everywhere with her in a flask, and later in a large inflatable porpoise. Naturally, this draws odd looks from everyone as she is talking to flask of water but it gives Hinako her mojo back – just not for resuming surfing.

Now we have a situation where Hinako can only be close to Minato via water, the very thing she now actively avoids. Minato can bring the water with him which helps, creating a public spectacle in the process but does have its uses. However, Yoko berates Hinako for relying on Minato too much, and after getting over her annoyance with her, becomes her confidante, revealing what made Minato become a fireman in the first place, relating to the contrivance mentioned earlier.  

It’s not a bad twist per se, fitting in with the core themes of the story and offering a nice visual call back in the big finale; my issue is that for something as significant as this, how did the main characters not know such vital details at the time, or seek to learn them in the ensuing years? Granted, this revelation needed to be an ironic surprise but it rings a little hollow in the minutiae when under scrutiny.

Luckily, the pay off provides a feel good moment during the climax and the film a whole is charming and engaging enough that it easy to get over as a piece of dramatic licence – after all, a dead guy who can control water is realistically a tad harder to swallow. Like many fantasy anime and Yuasa’s prior films, it is easy to get lost in the whimsy of it all and embrace the likeable cast, though Yoko is mostly obnoxious until the end and Minato is too perfect, but it works.

Yuasa is noted for his loose art style and whilst that is somewhat true of the character designs here, they take on more of a Mamoru Hosoda veneer in not being so cartoonish. He must have noticed Makoto Shinkai’s recent global successes too, since the artwork and backgrounds are immaculately detailed, albeit without the usual kaleidoscopic colour palette, which some might see a betrayal of Yuasa’s individuality, though it is more likely he is simply fitting the art to the story.

Chances are some devoted Yuasa fans might find the romantic focus of Ride Your Wave at the expense of his celebrated surrealness and off-beat subversions a letdown. Yuasa may be making an effort to court a wider audience with this film, but it still has enough of his trademark style and attitude to appease any concerned long-term followers.

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