Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Calming the Waves of Life
Masaaki Yuasa is one of the most versatile animation directors around and Ride Your Wave is probably his most grounded film to date. Hinako Mukaimizu moves closer to the beach to indulge her surfing hobby while going to school for oceanography. One night, Hinako’s building catches on fire due to someone setting off professional fireworks. She’s rescued by a firefighter named Minato Hinageshi and the two hit it off through a simple surfing invitation. Just when things seem to be at their best, Minato dies while surfing without Hinako. Devastated, Hinako gives up surfing, but soon realizes that Minato appears in water close to her whenever she sings the song, “Brand New Story,” a song that essentially was and continues to be the foundation of their relationship.
Yuasa’s films have always danced around the fantastical or have added an element of fantasy to a realistic subject. Mind Game dealt with what happens when we die, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl is about love and alcohol, Lu Over the Wall is basically Yuasa’s Ponyo/ The Little Mermaid, and even the episode of Adventure Time Yuasa directed boils down to the food chain and what we eat to survive. For the basis of a lot of Yuasa’s work, there’s also a strong relationship or bond that typically circles back around to love. While Yuasa didn’t write Ride Your Wave (the film is written by A Silent Voice’s Reiko Yoshida), it definitely feels like Yuasa’s previous works.
The relationship between Hinako and Minato is basically water and fire trying to coexist together. Minato is strong-willed and puts this superhuman kind of effort into everything he does in order to do it well. Meanwhile, Hinako is more easygoing but seems overwhelmed with what life throws at her. Riding a wave not only applies to what is done out on the water, but also what is done in life. Hinako can seemingly calm whatever the waves throw at her, but she wipes out with life while she’s still paddling. Minato, on the other hand, has tamed life's waves but still succumbs to the water.
Ride Your Wave makes surfing feel like an art form. Hinako makes it look so easy and effortless, but Minato is seen falling off his board so often. It’s interesting to see that he always gets back on his board. Surfing is portrayed as this incredible skill that takes a ton of practice and determination. In comparison to Yuasa’s other films, Ride Your Wave is the most heart-wrenching. It’s difficult to tell how much we see of Hinako and Minato’s relationship, but it feels like they do a lot of living in a short period of time. Once Minato is taken out of the picture, Hinako just isn’t the same. Even though Minato is still there in her life in some capacity it doesn’t have the same impact since they can’t physically touch or embrace each other. The film is essentially a way of dealing with grief, finally coming to accept a loved one’s passing, and letting them go so you can both move on.
Masaaki Yuasa has always had this wonderful approach to his animation. He has a distinctive style that is both recognizable and different from anyone else out there and he usually combines several different kinds of animation in one feature. Ride Your Wave has this almost magical use of color throughout with a magnificent spectrum glistening in the horizon whenever someone is surfing and vibrant flowers in vivid fields that have no shame in tickling the colorful sensors of your brain.
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In addition to its tantalizing use of color, Ride Your Wave has an amazing sense of perspective. The film toys with first-person angles a lot in its first half since you’re often thrown behind Hinako’s eyeballs as you stare at her arms and or legs as they fidget or reach for something. The finale of the film is perspective overload, though. Hinako’s arms, legs, and surfboard are elongated to panorama perfection as she shatters first and third-person perspectives and everything in between.
Ride Your Wave has some of the most delicious-looking food. Anime has a knack of making animated food not only look realistic, but also mouthwatering. Hinako has a childhood obsession with an omelet with rice. The omelet is cooked in a pan and gently rolled over while it’s cooked. It’s placed on top of the rice on a plate and then cut open to add this culinary panache. Hinako always messes it up, but Minato makes it to perfection. There’s also this science to something simple like coffee. When carbon dioxide interacts with coffee beans, it results in some of the most delectable coffee ever.
Ride Your Wave is an animated drama that is eventually about a guy made of water living in a giant blow-up porpoise as his girlfriend drags him around the city, but it’s also a film about a massively touching relationship that makes your heart swell and burst and break over the course of an hour and a half. Anime, as a whole, has a tendency of making love stories far too sappy or corny, or overdramatic. The pairing of Hinako and Minato feels genuine and natural. You like them as a couple and you want to see them together. No other film that I’ve seen has ever made surfing not only feel like this master craft, but also something necessary for some people to feel whole. Just like how we all need to relax from a stressful day, surfing is what gets Hinako and Minato from one day to the next. It's not only what they live for, but also what allowed them to bond in the first place.
Ride Your Wave has a simple concept that allows Masaaki Yuasa to be more pure and direct than he’s ever been. Well-written, imaginative, and poignant, Ride Your Wave is the first exceptionally strong animated film of 2020.
If you’re interested in checking out Masaaki Yuasa’s other works, Devilman Crybaby is currently streaming on Netflix.
© 2020 Chris Sawin