The Queer Film Studio Ghibli Didn’t Know They Made
Ocean Waves, a film that was supposed to be a testing ground to give Studio Ghibli’s young animators a chance at directing their own film. It was created with one motto and that was “quickly, cheaply, and with quality.” By employing their young animators of no more than 20-30 years old and bringing on a new director that was not the acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli hoped to use the film as an opportunity to allow their younger talent to grow. Unfortunately, the film ended up going over budget, over schedule and ended up airing on local television without much of a splash. Nevertheless, the film did not go without catching the eye of Studio Ghibli’s cult-like followers. Despite Ocean Waves being a film released in the early 90s by a Japanese animation studio during a time when LBGTQ+ culture was not as easily accepted, an argument was raised; was the movie really a love story about two boys pining for the same girl, or was there more to the story?
The Waves that Won’t Crash
The story is framed through flashbacks from the main protagonist Taku, a current college student who is heading back to his hometown for a high school reunion. The story’s plot centers around Taku reminiscing about his time in high school with his best friend Yutaka and the arrival of transfer student Rikako that changed everything. The subtle nuances in the film all seem to lead to Taku potentially having feelings for Yutaka. However, in the last 15 minutes of the film, they completely disregard all of these hints and essentially try to force a romance between Taku and Rikako. From the pier sunset scene to the awkward Kochi Castle reminiscing sequence, the entire ending just feels rushed and almost a completely separate story from the rest of the movie.
The Calm Before the Storm
Watching the film myself, I felt that Ocean Waves was literally caked with suggestive dialogue and scenes that wouldn’t really make sense unless there really was something between Taku and Yutaka. Frankly, the film would have made a lot more sense if they framed it around Taku being in denial of his love for Yutaka and how that unrequited affection turned to anger that Taku took out on Rikako. To begin with, the film starts off with a scene of Taku blowing off work for the sole reason of Yutaka calling him to come to meet him at school after his shift. Yutaka then proceeds to invite Taku to scope out the new girl Rikako, who just transferred to the school, and states his infatuation with her. Taku reluctantly takes a glance at her in the teacher’s office with much disinterest. As they’re leaving, Taku asks Yutaka if there was a reason for calling to meet up, and Yutaka simply states that he felt like seeing Taku.
The story then features a flashback explaining how Taku and Yutaka met and how they bonded over protesting their junior high Kyoto trip cancellation. If that wasn’t enough, College Taku literally narrates that after that moment in junior high, he “always thought of Yutaka a bit differently from (his) other friends”.
The film then skips back to Taku and Yutaka as they are walking home, Yutaka consults Taku for the reasoning behind Rikako’s transfer. This causes Taku to feel disappointed, shown through his internal dialogue – “That’s the real reason Yutaka wanted to see me” and “I felt unreasonably irritated to know that Yutaka was interested in Rikako” as well as thinking Rikako would never be able to see Yutaka’s real value. If not to pin the nail in the coffin, as other boys are roping Taku to fawn over a girl during gym class, Taku automatically assumes it’s a girl with a larger chest in their class and is automatically disinterested. Not to mention the scene in which Yutaka calls Taku on the phone, ecstatically Taku replies until he realizes Yutaka called to gush over his encounter with Rikako. The scene ends with Taku glancing out a window saying “So you like that kind of girl, don’t you, Yutaka?” This all happens within the first 20 minutes of the film and is already chock-full of queer undertones.
To look at the film from a different angle, the relationship between Taku and Rikako simply didn’t make much sense, to begin with. There was close to no compatibility between the two, from the scene in Hawaii where Rikako asks Taku to borrow money privately, to Taku reluctantly following Rikako to Tokyo, to their fight at school about the rumors surrounding the two. Time and time again, the story continuously shows that Taku and Rikako simply don’t work well together. Their incompatibility even comes at the cost of Taku’s relationship with Yutaka, as Taku stands bystander to a group of girls bullying Rikako. This action infuriates Yutaka who proceeds to punch Taku into a pile of garbage and they end up graduating without ever speaking again.
Now nearing the end of the film, it heads back to the present time as Taku’s plane arrives at his hometown and Yutaka surprisingly waits at the airport to pick him up. Taku and Yutaka go for a walk along a pier to catch up with each other after they parted ways since graduation, going to different colleges. The film hits its climax and plot twist that leaves audiences stunned and confused with a confession from Yutaka that he knows that Taku has always been secretly in love with Rikako. If not to add fuel to the fire, the film even adds completely unnecessary dialogue saying that Yutaka and Taku spent an hour at that pier before they went home.
Frankly, I first watched the film after hearing about the queer suggestions so I did technically go into it with my own preconceived notions. However, as I continually tried to see other perspectives that the film could portray, the one that made the most sense would be if Taku was truly secretly in love with Yutaka and it being a story of Taku coming to terms with his sexuality. The relationship between Taku and Rikako simply didn’t make much sense and there was honestly not a lot of appeal to the audience as to why Taku would even be remotely interested in Rikako.