Ride Your Wave is like a summer romance. You dive in headfirst, experiencing every sensation more acutely than you ever have before, feeling every emotion with more depth than you ever thought you could. Time seems limitless, you want to stay in that moment forever. But it’s not and you can’t. The dates fly by and you realize that your season of endless romance is jetting toward its end. You’re in too deep, there’s not enough time for closure. When the end comes it is sudden and bittersweet. You wish that more had been done sooner.
It’s unusual for a Masaaki Yuasa film to leave you wanting more. He is a master of maximalism, constructing films that are sensory symphonies. Ride Your Wave is the most polished his style has looked to date, and he perfects the cel-shaded CGI technique first implemented in Lu over the Wall. But with the polish comes a loss of freedom. The elastic style of animation that made his past works so wonderful has been tapered in. All the hallmarks are present, his characters still look like love children of David Byrne and Slender Man and they all move like they have skeletons made of noodles, but he lacks the creative latitude he requires to make it fully come alive.
Please do not interpret this as me saying Ride Your Wave is lifeless, even when restrained Yuasa’s work is radiant. It is just that you can feel him pulling his punches, settling for visuals that are great when he is capable of extraordinary. Part of this can be attributed to the grounded nature of the script. Penned by Reiko Yoshida, whose previous scripts include A Silent Voice and The Cat Returns, the narrative presents itself as a cute surf-themed romance that is, in fact, a shell game for an exploration of living after loss.
The film wastes no time putting Hinako (Rina Kawaei), a klutzy but talented surfer, in the orbit of Minato (Ryota Katayose), a composed and dutiful firefighter. They have a meet-cute and quickly fall in love. An early montage shows how perfect they are for each other, she can’t cook but he can teach her, he can’t surf but she can teach him. They take long walks along the beach, sit on the ends of docks at sunset, and bond endlessly over their shared obsession with finless porpoises. Their relationship is so saccharine that it would completely overpower the film if Minato didn’t die early on. He drowns trying to save the life of a stranger, derailing the cheesy early-2000s romance that the film opens with.
Yoshida’s script then veers into the realms of fantasy and tragedy, exploring Hinako’s grief while never compromising the films’ airy tone. On paper, this is the kind of bonkers concept that makes for a perfect Yuasa film. But when put into practice the pieces never quite line up. The characters are well-realized, the narrative is compelling enough, and it’s visually resplendent. The film always feels on the verge of a big moment, but unfortunately, that moment never comes.
A major element holding the Ride Your Wave back is its grounded setting. The film feels most alive when it is engaging with the fantasy elements, but Yoshida’s script refuses to let them commandeer the plot. She’s clearly more interested in the everyday side of the story and introduces several subplots that develop that aspect of the film further. Multiple plotlines are something that Yuasa is well equipped to handle, he is able to make even the most discordant of stories harmonious, a feat which he pulled off with aplomb in his 2017 masterpiece Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. But where that film is manic Yoshida opts for a more lackadaisical approach, letting the multiple subplots undulate in their own time.
A mellow pace is a welcome change from the onslaught that is Yuasa’s previous films, but at 94-minutes Ride Your Wave is too short to accommodate everything it’s trying to cram in. By the time it reaches the 70-minute mark you realize that there is simply too much on the table for everything to be wrapped up well. It certainly tries, but it only somewhat succeeds, and your satisfaction with the films ending will rest largely on how well you can cope with narrative and tonal whiplash.
I feel that I should clarify: Ride Your Wave is good, and I had a perfectly splendid time watching it. But that enjoyment was overcast by the feeling that I was getting an abridged version of this story, and that all it needed was an extra 20-minutes to really come together. The grounded nature of the story prevents Yuasa from fully letting loose with his animation, something that would have helped compensate for the uneven writing. Like a summer romance, you leave Ride Your Wave loving the experience but wishing that there had been just a bit more time.