Fantastic Fest 2019: RIDE YOUR WAVE is a Soaringly Sentimental and Spiritual Romance

Director Masaaki Yuasa’s latest is a deep-dive into surfing and the supernatural that’s unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve

In Ride Your Wave, surf-loving oceanographer Hinako is saved by dashing firefighter-in-training Minato, and the two embark on the kind of whirlwind romance often seen in the best of romantic comedies. When their romance is cut tragically short, the two lovers find themselves struggling to overcome the newfound metaphysical distance between them. This latest feature from Night is Short, Walk On Girl, and Lu Over the Wall director Masaaki Yuasa is also sure to be the latest in a series of successful anime exports stateside. Very much a film in the vein of recent animated tearjerkers like Your Name, Ride Your Wave is a slice-of-life that captures the magic of a budding love that manages to transcend the limitations of time and space.

The art of Yuasa’s world does a remarkable job of toeing a fine line between the magical and the ordinary, treating both the real and fantastic with an equal amount of wonder. Yuasa’s dazzlingly fluid cinematography tracks against the lines and curves of whatever objects and people lay in his path, infusing each setting with the same adrenaline rush Hinako feels when catching her latest wave. While the leads’ chemistry does most of the heavy lifting, Yuasa’s energetic direction also performs the dual job of quickly investing the audience in Hinako and Minato’s relationship. A first act montage of dates and exchanged gifts feels like a deeper exploration of the infamous prologue in Pixar’s Up, showing not just the deepening connection between two characters, but how that connection and longing can bitterly linger in the objects that outlast their relationship. It’s one of many details Yuasa focuses on that saves Hinako and Minato’s relationship from feeling too maudlin or overhanded — a key conceit as Ride Your Wave drifts into another genre entirely. It is a Fantastic Fest selection, after all.

While it may have an Orphic story told more than a few times before, what sets Ride Your Wave apart is Yuasa’s continuing focus on keeping his story grounded in the consequences of the world of the living. Without getting into spoilers, Hinako and Minato’s actions attract more than a few bemused points and stares from passersby, and the supporting cast rightfully voice their concerns and offense as the film’s story increasingly veers into the fantastic.

For the most part, Yuasa’s evenhanded approach allows for two satisfactory readings of the film, based on whether the audience accepts the events of the film as proof of life after death or simply as the way the characters of Ride Your Wave choose to cope with loss. This second option gives Ride Your Wave much of its heavier thematic underpinnings, as the characters find themselves forced to navigate their own ideas of how they allow themselves to grieve. It’s an aspect of the film that doesn’t last for long, though, and at times finds itself at uncomfortable odds with the energetic whimsy that Yuasa brings to his material.

The two rapidly-diverging interpretations of the film feel like they must reckon with each other at some point, and it’s hard not to read Hinako and Minato’s refusal to come to grips with their situation as a sentiment equally shared by the film’s director. This narrative delay may allow the audience to further empathize with the film’s characters, but it can Ride Your Wave to feel like it’s avoiding an inevitable and well-telegraphed conclusion.

On the other hand, it’s this refusal to wholly give in to depressing reality that lends Ride Your Wave much of its magic and appeal — and to allow such seriousness to creep in too early would detract from the charming reverie that makes Yuasa’s film such a joy to watch. The film’s conclusion may lean too much into a confirmation of the supernatural — but the fact that Yuasa is willing to take such a risk only makes Ride Your Wave a truly memorable and touching experience. It’s anime that isn’t afraid to lean into the bombastic and over-the-top emotions and events that make ordinary life worth living–and for that reason, Ride Your Wave is well worth multiple revisits.

Ride Your Wave had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019. It’s slated for release by GKids in 2020.

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