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'Ocean Waves' is a sweet, newly unearthed Studio Ghibli charmer

Some films about the complexities of teenage friendship and romance are shouts -- think the unjustly ignored 2016 comedy “The Edge of Seventeen” or 2015’s godawful “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl.” The 1993 Japanese animated film “Ocean Waves,” on the other hand, is a whisper.

Director Tomomi Mochizuki’s story of two high school friends whose relationship is tested by the arrival of a new girl in town is warm, wondrously animated, and also a bit dated. As such, it is another interesting curio from Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

The studio is best known for the fantastical works of Hayao Miyazaki. But “Ocean Waves” is one of Ghibli’s straightforward, present-set creations. Finally released in the U.S. 20-plus years after its creation, the film screens at 9:30 p.m. from March 10 to 16 at the North Park Theatre. (It’s in Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Like another recently screened Ghibli effort from the early 1990s, “Only Yesterday,” “Waves” is rooted in realism but presented with the Studio’s noted visual flair. There are moments here -- a gust of wind blowing back a necktie after a thwarted proclamation of love, a falling Sprite can -- that are legitimately breathtaking.

These visual flourishes are not always matched by the story. “Ocean Waves” is slight, and there’s no getting around that. Still, the film never loses its innate likability, and is a brisk 76 minutes.

The main character is Taku, a high-schooler working hard and pondering his future. When a new student from Tokyo named Rikako arrives at school, Taku’s friend Yutaka is instantly smitten. Taku is a bit more conflicted, and thus begins a slow-burn love story that doesn’t quite pay off until film’s end.

Before then comes drama between Rikako and the other students, upset between Taku and Yutaka, and a humorous side story involving a trip to Tokyo to visit Rikako’s disinterested father.

It’s all handled with modesty; when Taku says “the whole thing was starting to feel like a bad soap opera,” it’s hard not to laugh. If the action in “Ocean Waves” is soap opera-ish, that’s one dispassionate soap opera.

What keeps the film humming along are the aforementioned visuals and the originality of Rikako. She is a unique character, far more so than Taku and Yutaka. Impulsive and brash, Rikako also is bright and fiercely independent. A character like this is an impressive achievement, especially since the film is more than two decades old.

However, one unquestionably dated element is a sudden act of male on female violence -- a punch, specifically. Audiences may recoil from the moment, which is treated as a rather ho-hum outburst.

However, if one can stay emotionally connected with the film following that incident, the ending is a treat. It involves an alcohol-fueled class reunion and an unexpected encounter at a train station, and it’s all handled beautifully.

“Ocean Waves” is sweet, smart, and even quaint. And for lovers of Studio Ghibli, it’s this newly unearthed charmer is a must-see.

“Ocean Waves”
3 stars (out of 4)

With the voices of: Nobuo Tobita, Toshihiko Seki, Yoko Sakamoto, and Kae Araki.
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Running time: 76 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic material
The Lowdown: A young man recalls his senior year of high school and the iron-willed, big city girl that turned his world upside down. In Japanese with English subtitles.

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