What’s the easiest way to tell the next generation of anime directors’ work apart from the creative shadow of those who came before — and especially from the look and feel of Studio Ghibli? Easy: Just listen to the soundtracks they choose to define their movies’ personalities. Makoto Shinkai connects with a younger demo by setting his films to the boy-band stylings of a J-pop group called the Radwimps, while Masaaki Yuasa embraces an even more mainstream sound with “Ride Your Wave” by leaning on Generations From Exile Tribe, turning its hit single “Brand New Story” into more than just a theme.
Plenty of couples have a favorite tune, but Yuasa uses this silly love song so often in the film, it practically becomes a joke unto its own — the conduit by which a young woman struck by tragedy calls her boyfriend back from the beyond. The dead dude, Minato (voiced by actual Generations From Exile Tribe member Ryota Katayose), comes whenever Hinako (Rina Kawaei) sings their favorite song, but his spirit can only manifest in water, so she invents all sorts of unconventional ways to keep him close: conjuring him in her bathtub, carrying him around in a Thermos and, in one particularly desperate moment, even watching him manifest at the bottom of a toilet bowl.
It’s roughly at this point that audiences can be sure Yuasa is playing this teenybopper romance with tongue in cheek, although that doesn’t make it any less effective with the target audience — or any more forgivable with those who rightly expect better. The signature eccentricity of Yuasa’s style has made his oeuvre unusually popular among toon enthusiasts looking for films that don’t conform to the predictable tropes of Japanese animation, as evidenced by the trippy, free-form aspect of moments in “Mind Game” and “The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl,” where music was just one of the tools that set the films’ playful sequences apart.
Weird comes with the territory in Yuasa’s work. The surprising thing about the wonky director’s latest feature is just how square it all feels: A young wave rider falls in love with a trainee firefighter (cue world’s corniest montage) before a freak accident claims his life. Even when Yuasa is being impish here, he’s still coloring within the lines of a decidedly dull genre: the I-fell-in-love-and-then-he-died-but-his-spirit-stuck-around-to-watch-over-me teen romance.
Initially, the two bond over bad music, a shared interest in surfing and their mutual love of finless porpoises. After Minato disappears, Hinako withdraws and moves away from the ocean, slowly working up the nerve to surf again — and when she does, it’s in the most extravagantly over-the-top way imaginable, catching a wave so epic, it could only be depicted via animation.
For Yuasa, playing so much by formula smacks of compromise, as if a punk auteur like John Waters or Gregg Araki had agreed to adapt a Nicholas Sparks novel. Then again, being defiantly unusual will only get you so far in this industry, and judging by “Ride Your Wave,” Yuasa also wants to be popular — perhaps more than any among his hipster contingent of existing fans might have guessed. But who can blame him after Shinkai’s “Your Name” shattered practically every box office record in Japan?
That film showed the sky’s-the-limit commercial potential of a medium in which Yuasa’s films have felt almost like a kind of outsider art — although his Annecy-winning 2017 feature “Lu Over the Wall” certainly pointed in this direction. Here, we feel him reaching for relevance, although the effect is so nauseatingly twee at times, it can be hard to take the film seriously. When Hinako and Minato are first shown falling in love, they share a sequence of experiences so generic, it suggests the background footage that plays behind karaoke videos: fireworks shows, sunset walks on the beach, paragliding, taking super-cute selfies together and (somewhat surprisingly, given the medium) soft-focus, golden-lit s-e-x.
Later on, after Hinako figures out that humming their song is all it takes to see Minato again, the movie offers a parody version of similar activities. Only this time, Hinako has devised a hilarious way to bring him along “in spirit.” Cue a second montage, even more Instagram-perfect than the first, in which they try on clothes, rent a rowboat, sing karaoke and so forth, doing all of these activities while he floats in the giant porpoise-shaped balloon she drags along to contain him — and while singing that “Brand New Story” song at every turn. If your ears had teeth, the insipid tune would give them cavities, although it’s pretty much the right sound for the movie’s super-perky sensibility.
By almost any measure, the film lays the romance on way too thick upfront, but that no doubt felt necessary considering that it was not meant to last forever. Still, the movie goes overboard in making the dead boyfriend seem perfect, to the extent that the former firefighter even continues saving lives in his new form. Sooner or later, Hinako will have to learn to face the world on her own, which is where the tension finally arises before this dopey film reaches its sappy conclusion — by showing its heroine, so effortless on water, “learning to ride life’s waves too.”