By about 20 minutes into Masaaki Yuasa’s anime feature film Ride Your Wave, viewers may be wondering whether the story is going to have any conflict or drama, or it’s just going be a feel-good hangout movie about grownups, and for grownups.
By that point, young professionals Hinako and Minato have met, gone surfing together, and started dating. They’re deliriously happy together, given their perfectly matched upbeat personalities, their shared interests, and how impressed they are with each other. In a montage set to a song they sing together, while repeatedly breaking down giggling, they travel, try out new adventures, and even show (in a single decorous yet frank shot) that they’re sexually active and compatible. All of which puts them worlds past 95 percent of anime characters, who rarely get very far past the first hurdle of admitting their love to each other — if they can even do that.
This kind of satisfying, peaceful adult bliss is an unusual story detour for Yuasa, who’s known more for rambunctious features like Lu Over the Wall, about a young mermaid’s chaotic effect on a human fishing village, and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, about a young woman’s wild, alcohol-fueled evening on the town. While his more recent works, like Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!, are comparatively down-to-earth, Yuasa is more known for his anarchic, outsized visual imagination, which ignores most of the standard anime designs and story tropes. His projects are intensely energized, with rushing action and rubber-band characters whose manic physical distortions make them feel subjective, startling, and unfamiliar.
Those elements do eventually arise in Ride Your Wave. But it takes a while to get there, and through the whole journey, viewers may be wondering, “What is this movie about?” Even once drama does eventually find Hinako and Minato, the question is still there. Ride Your Wave is fueled by romance, painful emotions, complex and contradictory urges, and one big, thrilling action sequence. But it’s never simply about a fulfilling love, or a troubled one, or a fated one. It’s sentimental and raw at the same time.
Hinako’s introduction does give some sense of how diverse and diffuse Ride Your Wave is going to be. Newly moved to the coast and away from her fussy, well-off family, Hinako is a surfer who’s thrilled to return to the ocean. She’s skilled and experienced, as she shows in some of the most loving animated surf sequences since Lilo & Stitch. But she lives in chaos and a bit of limbo, with most of her possessions in teetering towers of unpacked boxes up to the ceiling. And when a crisis hits, her response is disorganized and dangerous. At the same time, she isn’t a typical scatterbrained, shy anime heroine. She’s resilient, upbeat, and also a little immature.
Minato, by contrast, seems almost unbearably smooth and capable, and he enters her life literally as a glowing, smiling hero. Their relationship progresses seamlessly from the first cautious “Do you like me as much as I like you?” stages to the point where he’s casually talking about their future married life. Viewers can be forgiven for wondering if the film’s inevitable turning point will consist of him revealing some terrible secret — he’s so even-keeled and perfect, Hinako actually wonders if he’s just naturally good at everything.
But the fall inevitably comes, and it leaves Hinako traumatized and trying to process emotions that seem too vast and all-encompassing for such an early stage of life. Lu Over the Wall screenwriter Reiko Yoshida excels at exploring the ways even a dedicated, loving support system of friends and family can just leave a trauma victim feeling guilty for not healing faster. And Ride Your Wave makes grief feel palpable and overwhelming, both a natural response to change and an agonizing one.
Yuasa’s film eventually changes from a sweet romantic drama to a kind of magical-realist comedy that feels more like his past work, complete with alarmingly distorted human bodies and weird, uncomfortable, but still joyous laughs. But the film never fully loses track of its own tragedies. Hinako achieves a level of peace with what happened to her relationship, but Yuasa and Yoshida periodically pull back to see her as other people see her — obsessive, possibly delusional, possibly dangerous to herself. And while Yoshida indulges in a lot of corny sentimental language about “riding the waves of life,” turning surfing into a metaphor for weathering the unexpected, the film still ends with a reminder that grief and loss are an inevitable part of the human condition.
Even so, the journey to that bittersweet, uncertain ending is frequently a thrill. Ride Your Wave puts all its characters through a lot of fast-paced, startling changes over the course of less than two hours, making the “waves of life” metaphor as literal as possible. It’s rarely clear where the story is going from one scene to the next, and the themes are all over the place. Is Ride Your Wave ultimately about accepting life’s ups and downs, or about fighting every step of the way?
Both ideas surface and compete throughout the film, with solid arguments for both. And in acknowledging all these complexities — that there’s no one answer to sadness, or loss, or ambition, or desire — Ride Your Wave winds up feeling like Yuasa’s richest and most adult film today, without ever losing track of the youthful wildness that makes his projects so special. It’s rare to see an anime story that solely focuses on adults navigating the issues of maturity, personal development, and a stymied future. It’s even rarer to see anime that simultaneously tackles those ideas, and wraps them in such an extravagant visual fantasia.