Ghibli's 1993 production, Umi Ga Kikoeru, is a superb example of
animation in the service of naturalism and neo-realism. The teenage
drama, which veers from anxious romance to open-eyed nostalgia,
provides another excellent example of what animation can achieve
in the service of drama. It's a lesser-known work in the studio's
canon, mostly because the DVD has yet to be released outside of
Japan, but it deserves equal billing with its older siblings, Grave
of the Fireflies, Omohide Poro Poro, and Mimi o Sumaseba.
a sense, I Can Hear the Sea represents everything that Miyazaki
and Takahata sought to achieved when they founded Ghibli in 1985.
Allow me to explain.
Studio Ghibli was founded, one of the things Miyazaki and Takahata
wanted to change was the working conditions within Japan's animation
community. Traditionally, an animation team would be assembled for
a specific project, but would be dissolved after its completion.
For many people, there was little job security, moving from one
project to the next in an almost temp-like fashion.
old masters wanted to change this. They wanted an environment which
could nurture and raise the next generation of animators. Ghibli
ushered in a new wave of reforms. Employees would be paid a living
wage. They would be hired permamently, not merely hired for one
gig and then let go. This committment to share the wealth was a
generous move for Ghibli, especially when you consider that the
studio's first three films - Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Grave of
the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro - were not box-office hits. The
first movie to pull in a profit was Kiki's Delivery Service in 1989.
most importantly, Ghibli also established a school for training
the younger employees. Both Miyazaki and Takahata taught classes,
imparting their wisdom and sharing the techiques in filmmaking and
animation that made them world-famous. Soon, the kids would be set
loose upon the world.
Can Hear the Sea was the fruit of those labors. The project was
handed to the newer kids, and the television format guaranteed that
there would be less pressure upon them. Perhaps it's also a nod
to their teachers' own experience; they began their careers on Toei
TV shows like Hustle Punch and Wolf Boy Ken, and became masters
of the form on Heidi, Girl of the Alps, and other television dramas
of the '70s.
any case, Umi is an accomplished work, and doesn't feel at all like
a student work. It's focused, firmly paced; the many characters
are given a considerable depth and avoid all the typical teenage
romance cliches. Clearly, it's heavily infused with Takahata's naturalist
style, with its objectivist portrayal of the main characters, and
the many pillow shots which point back to Ozu. The animators had
worked on Omohide Poro Poro two years before, and they absorbed
that film like a sponge.
director's chair for Umi Ga Kikoeru was filled by Tomomi Mochizuki,
an outside director best known for his work on Here is Greenwood
and Kimagure Orange Road: I Want to Return to That Day. Like the
staff, he was a young up-and-comer, and his sensibilities fit perfectly
with what the story requires. He was already committed to the Here
is Greenwood TV series, and the resulting stress of directing two
productions simultaneously took its toll on him. Fortunately, he
succeeded on all fronts.
was the first Ghibli production with an outside director, and it
presages later director work by Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshiyuki Momose,
Hiroyuki Morita, and others. It's also the beginning of the great
crisis for the studio, namely, Who Will Be in Charge When the Old
Masters Retire? We'll be coming back to that one again sometime.
it was then that I realized...I had always been crazy for her."
Ga Kikoeru finishes with a climax that's truly moving, a dramatic
punch-line after a long, engaging story. More likely than not, it's
the scene that will linger in your mind the longest. At least, that's
been the case with me; it's a grand, sweeping romantic gesture,
a great construction. The whole film is building, building, building
to the climax. Anyone who knows drama or comedy, truly knows it
in their bones, will tell you how important it is for the punch-line
to contrast against the set-up. This is a crucial lesson for anyone
who wants to write novels or make movies. Something like this just
isn't possible from today's brain-sucking Hollywood blockbusters.
There's never any contrast, any proper build-up; no, it's all punch-line.
It's all endless explosions and rapid-fire cuts. BoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoom!!!!!
this is why Master of Puppets is vastly superior to Kill 'Em All.
It's all in the contrasts, the tempo shifts.
climax to I Can Hear the Sea is a textbook lesson, taken straight
from Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu became the master of zen filmmaking, of stripping
away every excess, every concept, every notion. All that's left
is the pure, unnamed experience.
how scenes are assembled, with its casual pace, its long shots,
its endless pillow shots. This brings us not only closer to the
characters, by moving everything in a real-time tempo, it also allows
us to contemplate, to meditate, to reflect. Umi is mostly told via
how every shot is a static shot. The camera never moves once. And
then we return to the train station, right where we began. Taku
had once spied a girl he believed to be Rikako; now, having come
to terms with himself, he spies her again. He won't let her get
away this time. He sprints down the stairs, across the subway, and
then up the stairs to the other side. Running out, he looks around,
but cannot see her.
then Taku turns his head. His eyes are fixed, the sounds of the
train station melt away, and the camera swings around, sweeping
in a circle to meet Rikako, who waits, smiling. Punch-line. Checkmate.
an hour of stationary cameras, we have a circular rotation, 180
degrees in two cuts. It's an emotionally-charged climax, and it's
about as satisfying a payoff as one can ask for. It's only possible
when in concert with the rest of the film, and its long, slow buildup.
A remarkable lesson learned from the young Ghibli staff - two degrees
removed from Ozu.