Writer/director Masaaki Yuasa continues to be one of the most distinctive voices in anime today, with a clear and unique style that has garnered him something of a fan following with both light family fare like Lu Over the Wall and the very, very not-family-friendly Devilman Crybaby. Yuasa’s films and series have a distinct and inimitable rhythm, a mile-a-minute pace that comes with a love of the surreal and the absurd that makes for delirious, breathless works. But rather than be boxed in with distinctive style, Yuasa often branches out to pursue different moods and atmospheres, which leads us to his latest work, Ride Your Wave.
It’s a more sedate film than some might be hoping for, a lovely tale of loss and family that still has many of Yuasa’s earmarks, but is a bit more measured and restrained than something like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. This could easily leave Yuasa’s fans a bit lukewarm on the film if they expect too much, but there’s still a lot to love here, and comparisons between this and Yuasa’s other, more lively works might lead some to not give the film its fair due.
The action primarily follows Hinako, a scatterbrained young woman with a love of surfing. She moves to a seaside town and meets handsome firefighter Minato, who sweeps her off her feet and into a picturesque romance. A decent portion of the first act is devoted to their blossoming love, a relationship so chock full of romance and bliss that one can almost see the other shoe looming overhead, menacing passing airplanes. Sure enough, Minato tragically dies while rescuing a drowning swimmer, leaving Hinako devastated by grief. But Minato reappears as a kind of water ghost, appearing inside bodies of water whenever Hinako sings a certain tune. At first it appears as though this is their second chance, but dating a ghost made out of water turns out much harder than you’d expect.
As previously mentioned, Ride Your Wave doesn’t quite share the rhythm and tone of some of Yuasa’s other works, and it could be said that the director’s oeuvre is this film’s worst enemy. Comparing this work to previous ones like Mindgame or Tatami Galaxy will in the end only lead to disappointment, but taken entirely on its own merits, Ride Your Wave is a beautiful work of animation bolstered by a strong cast of characters. While Minato and Hisako’s romance is certainly idyllic and saccharine, it also feels very real and sincere. You can see what draws the characters to each other, as well as how they work as a couple, with their respective strengths and failings working in tandem. The relationship could have been the make or break of the film, with a shallowly developed central romance being fairly key in works like this one. Thankfully, the film sets aside enough time to help invest you in the pair, which generates enough emotional investment to help carry the rest of the work.
On the animation front, Ride Your Wave is quite often breathtaking, combining Yuasa’s signature look of very flat, stylized character models with luscious, vibrant backgrounds to stunning effect. Some CGI effects are mixed in, but these are only rarely out of place or distracting. Again, there’s a divergence from Yuasa’s style, as seen in works like Devilman or Tatami Galaxy, but a divergence from the norm need not be a bad thing.
The harshest critics of Ride Your Wave will be those audience members expecting it to be something it isn’t — a stylistic continuation of works like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl or others of Yuasa’s more stylistically driven movies and series. But it’s important to weigh works like this on their own rather than comparing them to what came before, and when given its full due and recognized for its own merits rather than being unfairly compared to its fellows within Masaaki Yuasa’s body of work, the director’s latest can be seen as the fun, emotionally driven film it was intended to be.