Thursday, February 20, 2020


(Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara)

2019 Japan/2020 USA
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Written by Reiko Yoshida

Spoiler alert: moderate

Here's an observation that maybe doesn't get made enough: Masaaki Yuasa is prolific as hell, to the point that it's barely even credible.  He's churned out three feature-length cartoons in less than three years—three featute-length cartoons that never skimp on Yuasa's usual craft and stylistic innovation, either—and that's in addition to his work on TV, plus the time spent managing Science Saru, the anime production house he built alongside longtime collaborator Eunyoung Choi in order to make all those movies and TV shows in the first place.  It's enough to wonder if he's gone Walt, and he probably has, a little.  But then you see it, and there it is after all, and Ride Your Wave is absolutely Yuasa, built upon everything else that he's done up till now.  Not that it's a culmination, nor anything so grandiose; but it still feels like a new milestone on an extremely personal journey.

Oddly, this cuts against the critical consensus on the thing, and it's not too hard to find a largely positive discussion of Wave which also bemoans it as Yuasa doing a "normal."  It's a critique that seems like it should have worn itself out already, given that it tends to echo the response to the work it most resembles in Yuasa's filmography, Lu Over the Wall (and it surely doesn't help impressions that Lu was also his last film, and it came out only two years ago); Lu was also pretty darned strange, but evidently not strange enough.  Well, you can at least see where they're coming from this time.  For starters, there's no hiding the basic repetition of the thing.  Indeed, both of Yuasa's last two pictures have been big-hearted, Reiko Yoshida-scripted coming-of-age fantasies, each revolving around ocean magic and freighted with a heavy component of loss.  The biggest difference here is that Wave is a lot more focused on the actual mechanics of a raw and recent loss, rather than Lu's broader, shallower evocations of loss.

Meanwhile, for all that both Lu and Wave remain extremely committed to Yuasa's career-long fascinations with, one, the visual and thematic properties of water and, two, the unfair limits placed on human existence, both films (and especially Wave) genuinely are more domesticated iterations of those chaotic impulses, or, at least, they are in comparison to Mindgame, The Tatami Galaxy, or The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl.  This is on top of the not-inapt claim that Lu was "merely" pastiche, specifically of Hayao Miyazaki; and while I've only seen it noted rarely, probably because the filmmakers are peer competitors and it would be very uncool and inevitably fannish to put them head-to-head like that, it's hard not to feel that Wave is a bit of its own pastiche, too, because intentionally or not (and born of mercenary motivation or not), there is a whole lot of Makoto Shinkai in this Yuasa cartoon.  Which is hardly any strike against it in my book, of course.  Besides, if Your Name or Weathering With You have somehow become your baseline for "normal" (let alone Mindgame or Night Is Short, which are basically art films), then I humbly offer that you're approaching movies—even anime movies—with one wildly miscalibrated set of critical tools.

Of course, by "normal," folks may only really mean "it has a boilerplate screenplay," which is true.  It has an intermittently Goddamn abominable screenplay, to be perfectly blunt about it, and I can't say exactly why Yuasa—producer, director, auteur—did not get co-writing credit this time, since if he was trying to be nice to Yoshida, big oops, and since I do not believe for one single second that the really awful parts weren't his fault, especially as the wonderful bits of magical realism commingled with melodrama (that is, Yoshida's jam) get bent out of shape entirely to service a final act of film-breakingly unmotivated batshit spectacle (which is Yuasa's).

The screenplay Yoshida wrote, anyway, can be fairly neatly divided into three distinct parts and, in turn, three distinct genres: the first is a banal (but, I'd hazard, intentionally banal) and very sweet impressionistic whirlwind of a romance, shared by somewhat-ditzy surfer girl Hinako (Rina Kawaei) and her perfect humanoid firefighter boyfriend Minato (Ryota Katayose), who has been impressed by her from afar, and finally gets the chance to meet her when he saves her from the roof of her highrise after it lights up like a Roman candle, thanks to some errant fireworks.  This first part idles inside their happiness, and it's almost obscenely pleasant.  The second part begins when the only thing Minato apparently can't do, and the one thing Hinako is aces at—surf—turns out to be a fatal weakness indeed, and he drowns in the process of trying to save a hapless jetskier.  This is the longest part of the movie, and the best: a psychological horror-comedy that soaks deeply in Hinako's profound grief, though it livens up considerably when, one day, she absently sings "their song," "Brand New Story" (which is, quite literally, Minato's song, Katayose being the lead singer of the band that made it a 2012 hit, Generations from Exile Tribe; and I take back everything negative I ever said about Radwimps).

Now a summoning invocation, whenever their song plays, the insubstantial ghost of Minato appears in whatever water happens to be nearby.  No one else can see him, or hear him, but he is there for her, and Hinako spends a solid half hour of this movie dating a water bottle, amongst other various containers, and it's barely even an open question of whether she's gone nuts, which is naturally the conclusion reached by Minato's sneering sister Yuko (Honoka Matsumoto) and his milquetoast best friend and fellow firefighter Wasabi (Kentaro Ito).  In fact, for a good long while, the most overtly magical thing about Ride Your Wave is that Hinako has no trouble lugging around the giant porpoise blow-up doll she has retrofitted into a body for her possibly-imaginary beau, despite the fact that, once she's filled it up with water, it's got to weigh 400 pounds.

Finally, the third part returns us to the PSA about fireworks safety that was, apparently, already in progress.  It's fairly miserable work: not solely because it's a shamelessly contrived excuse for an action scene and not even worth it, though neither one of those things help, but also because this is the part where the coming-of-age theme words, "you need to learn to ride your wave" (or some extremely minor variation thereof), are uttered the most frequently, and they've already been uttered a great deal in Ride Your Wave, when they needed to be uttered once or perhaps zero times for them to have had their maximum emotional effect.

Before that, though, Wave has approached and even hit levels of aching perfection: the impressionistic romance part works better in context with the tragedy, obviously, and Wave never really pretends that it's not manipulating your awareness of where we're headed, though by the same token it honestly does seem as taken with Hinako and Minato's courtship as they are with each other, turning every gesture into something grandly jeweled; the psychological horror-comedy that it sets up, on the other hand, is genuinely extraordinary, colored by the fond memories it's already presented, and which Hinako would very much prefer to abandon herself within, though it's also impossible not to laugh as well as cry at the deeply goofy form Hinako's grief has taken.  (Finally, even Minato himself must gently remind her, "you're talking to a toilet bowl.")

It gets at the absurdity of existence in ways that Yuasa probably hasn't since Mindgame fifteen years ago, except it's much sadder because of the intense focus on the reality of death: there is an all-time great moment of animated cinema that just sits with Hinako in her shock and despair, and in the middle of it, we take on her point-of-view, and watch through her eyes as she watches her toes fiddling with each other, half out of nervous mania and half out of the recognition that she is just sitting there, almost dissociative, and waiting for something she probably can't name.  Anybody who has ever lost someone can recognize that moment, where you start to get fidgety about doing nothing, not exactly because you're bored, but in a sense you are: for life without them has now become devoid of purpose.  But then, there's another all-time great moment of animated cinema, where she dances like crazy with a porpoise blow-up doll with her dead boyfriend's ghost in it, and it's beautiful, and giddy, and horrifying, because it's so beautiful.

And there's a winning case to be made that Wave is Yuasa's most drop-dead gorgeous movie.  On the level of saturated, vibrate-off-the-screen color, there's not even any contest: besides the intelligence behind its use of color (it's hardly subtle, but the shift from a magic hour in heaven ocean sunset to a black-and-gray beach in hell inside a single cut hits like a bomb), this movie luxuriates in a near-abstract minimalism that feels more like maximalism.  The most frequent background is nothing but the overpowering radiance of the ocean itself, rendered as a not-quite-solid-mass of two-tone shimmering blues or glowing golds, textured just enough to provide an enormous sense of tactility while still withholding any greater detail that would lower it from Yuasa's chosen register of fult-tilt hyperreality.  (Water is inevitably a huge part of the film even away from the ocean, and it builds directly from Lu; even the hydromantic pylons make their re-appearance.  But in every instance in Wave the water feels more real yet also more magical, simultaneously.)  The characters, too, are color-coded yellow and blue—there is something happening with elemental fire and water in this movie beyond their plot function, and though I'm not sure exactly what, it works for the contrast, if nothing else.  Still, as I respond best to brainless prettiness, the moment I thought "masterpiece?" was Hinako's narratively-meaningless walk through a pitch-black aquarium with a neon rainbow of tanks floating in the dark.

So the big thing is the effects animation, but the amalgam of romance, psychodrama, and comedy is driven even more by the fluid, can-barely-even-call-it-Flash character animation, utilizing some of the loosey-goosiest designs in Yuasa's canon (so you know that means they're real dang loosey-goosey), basically color cutouts themselves, defined by inordinately thin outlines, and brought to life as collections of gangly, overlong limbs on stretched-out bodies topped by oddly-tiny heads.  They're endlessly dynamic figures, prone to being warped out of even their own already-strained proportions, and this happens even more often than it did in Night Is Short, which was practically a dedicated exercise in deforming its characters' proportions already; here it comes by way of one certifiably crazed camera, by sudden movements toward the screen, and, in Minato's case, the acknowledged absence of any real physicality in the first place.  This works outstandingly well, especially in the ocean scenes, all kicking legs and thrashing arms, but it somehow works everywhere else, capable of contorting to fit emotions too big for anything human to safely handle.  (Your mileage may vary considerably: my girlfriend hates this movie to death, actually, and besides the screenplay, she pins it on the viscerally negative response she had to the Giocometti figures Yuasa decided to populate his cartoon with.)

For my part, I loved just about every second of it visually; but even visually, that third act is a let-down.  Psychotically determined to reach an action sequence that was so conceptually rad that Yuasa couldn't not force Yoshida to write it, once we get there I have no idea why he bothered: entirely dependent on the wacky far-out spectacle of an idea that could only have ever worked in animation, somehow Yuasa allowed it to be storyboarded as if, actually, it had to be done in live action, unhappily wedding a scene that demands scope to the most unrewarding series of mostly medium-shots possible.  It looks exactly like what would have happened if a movie from 1960 had had to visualize somebody surfing a wave down a burning skyscraper; that is, other than the fact it is still a cartoon, it looks exactly like an actor on a surfboard in front of a rear-projection screen, with disjointed cutaways to extremely long shots of a burning skyscraper model.  And considering that this sequence was the point of a third act that's already meandered much too far away from Hinako, to the extent you wonder if it's getting bored with her, that leaves Ride Your Wave in possession of one of the worst things a movie can have: a real shitty climax.  Even a damned solid epilogue can only do so much.  It's a shame, because up till then, this was at least my second-favorite Yuasa.  It'll have to make do with being dead last.  Even so, that's not exactly a place of dishonor.

Score: 8/10

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