The Quarantine Stream: 'Ocean Waves' May Be Studio Ghibli's Secretly Queer Film

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The Movie: Ocean WavesWhere You Can Stream It: HBO MaxThe Pitch: In the early '90s, Studio Ghibli launched an unusual experiment: the studio gave its youngest animators, all in their twenties and thirties, a chance to make a cheap, quick film to show what they could achieve. Ultimately, the experiment failed in the first two aspects — Ocean Waves went over budget and over schedule, airing on local television in 1993 to little fanfare. But what those young Ghibli animators did manage to achieve sets Ocean Waves apart from the rest of the studio's filmography: they made Ghibli's most queer film.Why It's Essential Viewing: To be honest, the film that Studio Ghibli ended up making is far less interesting than the queer-coded film they accidentally made. Ocean Waves is a wistful slice-of-life film so steeped in nostalgia that it may as well be shot entirely in sepia tones, with a paper-thin plot that is stretched over 72 slow-moving minutes. But while on the surface Ocean Waves is a film about two best friends stuck in a love triangle with a truly unlikable girl, the movie's theme of repressed teenaged angst unexpectedly becomes a fascinating ode to repressed sexuality.

For a long time, Ocean Waves eluded me. I was an avid Ghibli fan and eagerly bought all of the studio's films on DVD in my childhood, but Ocean Waves was the one gap in my collection. But its absence never bothered me that much; even among Ghibli aficionados, Ocean Waves is one of the lowest-rated films of the studio's 22 movies, and it's written off as the one made-for-TV movie that only hardcore Ghibli enthusiasts, and local Japanese residents, would have seen.

But in 2014, Ocean Waves finally received a Blu-ray restoration that made its way to the States, and in 2020, it was made available to stream for the first time ever on HBO Max. So I popped it on without much expectation for how it would stand up next to Ghibli's all-timers like Spirited Away or even similarly mundane coming-of-age classics like Whisper of the Heart. But as Ocean Waves lazily told its story of two high school boys whose close friendship would eventually be tested by the arrival of a new girl at their countryside school, something piqued my attention. This movie was very, very queer.

It happens early on in the film, when Taku, the insecure protagonist, recalls in a series of flashbacks his first meeting with his best friend Yutaka, a serious and somewhat mysterious classmate. The two of them were the only ones to protest the cancelation of a school trip, and ended up stuck in the art classroom together writing notes to the administration that would never be read. As the pair sit in a comfortable silence in the art room, surrounded by classic Roman head busts and bathed in a pink sunset, I wondered if I had stumbled on a long-lost scene from Call Me By Your Name. Then Taku admits to the audience, "I always thought of Yutaka a bit different than my other friends," and my decision was sealed. This was the real romance of Ocean Waves.

These kind of queer-coded moments are seeded throughout the film, culminating in a dockside conversation through which a lonely saxophone plays as the two friends mull over their relationship. Unfortunately, Ocean Waves never goes for the kill, shoehorning the romance between Taku and the new girl, a fiery Tokyo transfer named Rikaku, in at the last minute. But while most of my enjoyment of watching Ocean Waves was in reading into its accidental queerness, this delicate film is not without its merits. Director Tomomi Mochizuki imbues Ocean Waves with a sense of melancholic regret and longing that is made more effective by the soft lines and lovely pastel colors of the animation. The wistful nostalgia that Ocean Waves wears on its sheer, fragile sleeves feels like a breath of fresh air among the bombast of today's animated movies.