If you’re still looking for romance the week after Valentine’s Day, or perhaps if you’re desperate for something warm and colorful to beat the winter blahs, Masaaki Yuasa’s new anime feature, Ride Your Wave, might be just the pick-me-up you need. Yuasa has directed a number of anime works, most notably The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017); Lu Over the Wall (2017); and Devilman: Crybaby (2018). He has also worked in the animation and writing departments for numerous other feature films and TV shows. His resume reveals the wide range of styles, moods, and genres that anime can encompass. Yuasa’s latest feature, Ride Your Wave, is a teen romance that delves into the supernatural while maintaining the carefree flair of a lighthearted summer beach flick.
In typical Romeo and Juliet fashion, Ride Your Wave’s young lovers, Hinako and Minato, fall in love almost instantly after their first encounter. Hinako has just returned to the beach town where she grew up with plans to pursue her love of the sea by studying oceanography at the local university. She is much more excited by the opportunity to start surfing again, however, than she is by her studies. When her building goes up in flames one night, a charming and dedicated young firefighter named Minato comes to her rescue. The two soon meet up again for a surfing/coffee date and fall for each during a music video montage set to their favorite song. Almost as soon as the daring firefighter comes into Hinako’s life, however, an accident takes him away, leaving the once enthusiastic Hinako devastated and uninterested in everything that once brought her joy. Soon, Hinako accidentally stumbles upon a way to communicate with Minato from beyond the grave: she can call up his ghost inside any body of water by singing their special song. While Hinako jumps at the chance to recreate a life with the water-bound spirit, her friends and family wonder if she will ever be able to move on. Uplifting and sweet, Ride Your Wave packs the classic themes of teen romance and coming-of-age.
From its opening shots as Hinako bursts through the doors of her new apartment to catch some waves, Ride Your Wave has a bright, colorful, and comforting visual style. While the “water” and “wave” themes are pushed a bit too forcefully as Minato repeatedly tells his surfer girlfriend to “ride the waves” of her life, the water imagery throughout is enticing and refreshing. The waves, puddles, water balloons, and watering cans bring the film to life and paint pictures of nostalgic boardwalk summers. The soft orange in Hinako’s signature cardigan and surfboard nicely compliment the bright blue of the ocean and sky, providing the perfect visual hook for this romantic story. Ride Your Wave also pulls from a stockpile of heartwarming images to set the tone, creating memorable visuals with Christmas lights, beach campfires, and sunsets. The overall visual effect of Ride Your Wave is one of pleasant familiarity.
While the ghost-lover storyline is certainly not a new one (think of the classic Ghost or the Alan Rickman romance, Truly, Madly, Deeply, both released in 1990), Ride Your Wave holds its own as a unique iteration of the popular trope. In these stories, there’s always questions about how and why the dead lover managed to return and under what conditions, exactly, he or she may stick around in the world of the living. In Ride Your Wave, Hinako has total control over when Minato comes and goes. Rather than waiting anxiously for Minato’s ghost to pop up or getting surprised by him at inconvenient times, Hinako can call him forth whenever she misses him. This gives Hinako a tremendous amount of personal agency. She faces the task of actively choosing to let Minato go rather than slowly losing him to mysterious supernatural laws of the ghost world. Hinako’s motivations bolster the narrative tension, adding a riveting emotional bite to the story. While many aspects of Ride Your Wave lean toward the clichés of classic romance, Hinako’s ability to choose gives her a refreshing amount of agency while also acknowledging her deep emotional attachment to Minato.
Ride Your Wave also takes a bold step with its ghost-boyfriend character by including one or two shots from his perspective. While, in one moment, the camera is objectively observing Hinako as she swoons over Minato’s spirit trapped in her water bottle, in the next moment the camera is inside the water bottle with Minato, looking out at the world through the distortive glass. Ride Your Wave could have explored this technique more and experimented with ways to tell the story from Minato’s perspective, giving this hallucination/ghost his own consciousness. However, since most of the story highlights Hinako’s perspective and inner conflict, the two or three shots from Minato’s point of view are jarring and distracting.
However charming it may be, Ride Your Wave greatly suffers from pacing problems. Hinako and Minato fall in love over the course of a cute-date montage, a sequence that would make for an adorable stand-alone music video but that fails to develop the strong emotional attachment needed for this feature-length narrative. The trite romantic development detracts from the emotional impact, making the tragedy and Hinako’s subsequent personal growth less believable and less meaningful. The various threads of the narrative are also isolated and choppy. Like any good story, there are several side-plots and back stories in Ride Your Wave that must somehow come together at the end. However, the resolutions to these plots follow one after another in a staccato lineup of disconnected scenes in the last half of the movie, disrupting the conflict resolution and leaving the audience wondering which scene will actually be the last.
Ride Your Wave is visually heartwarming and raises several interesting talking points. It is cute and enjoyable, but cliché and uneven. The story does have quite a lot of potential, and perhaps Ride Your Wave would work more effectively as a TV series with specific mini-plots and themes in each episode. To its credit, Ride Your Wave boldly parades its clichés in an attractive style with beautiful visuals and endearing characters, avoiding the embarrassing and cringe-worthy moments that so often haunt cinematic romances. It’s a feel-good movie with a positive, hopeful message, and it may be just what audiences need to brighten things up this winter.
In select theaters February 19th, 2020.
To find a screening near you, head to the Ride Your Wave official site.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.