Umi Ga Kikoeru is perhaps Studio Ghibli's least known work, and the least well-received of all (Pon Poko not withstanding). It has never crossed my mind that I would even see this tele-movie hit the shelves, until yesterday.
The brevity of the plot synopsis is a clear indication that nothing earth-shattering takes place in this one-hour odd production. And to furnish the synopsis with any more details will result in spoilers, both big and small.
Nevertheless, Umi Ga Kikoeru is hardly the slip-shod, lack-lustre production that many claim it to be. It encapsulates the very uncertainty and tenderness that pervade the lives of teenagers uncomfortably poised between childhood and adulthood, friendship and romance. What drives this title is the acute and expressive exploration of the emotions of the main characters, the impulsive attractions that draw them close, and the later tensions that polarise them.
It is, perhaps, only the Ghibli crew who can capture such subtle sentiments faithfully, without resorting to cloying extremes, or maudlin excesses. Despite the short reel-time, Umi Ga Kikoeru is not denied a decently substantial plot. This is played to the hilt by a rich first-person narrative; the constant injection of retrospective authorial comments not only propels the development of the basic premise, these flashes of introspection also serve to heighten the poignancy of Morisaki's memories, enhanced by a sentimental piano score. Also, languid shots of nature at her most delicate moments (ranging from the gentle fluttering of an autumn leaf into a puddle of water to the unruffled surface of the ocean at night to a splendid view of the setting sun) have been meaningfully interspersed between chunks of pithy dialogue. In Umi Ga Kikoeru, the Ghibli crew realise the aphorism "A picture says a thousand words" - the essence of the characters' emotions are crystallised into moments of expressive visual poetry.
Those who do not believe that anime can be a sophisticated medium for human drama should lay their hands on Umi Ga Kikoeru, Mimi O Sumaseba, as well as Omoide Poro Poro. Umi Ga Kikoeru focuses on the growing up process of three teenagers, and potentially dubious areas such as sexual tensions, drinking, keeping up with appearances, and character conflicts are handled very tastefully. Growing up is not the hormonally charged, incredulously insane process that far too many fan-service anime titles portray it to be. Do not expect a Fushigi Yuugi-esque sensationalistic exploration of adolescence; watch Umi Ga Kikoeru for what it offers, and offers with honesty - a mature and sensitive introspection into the intertwined pains and pleasures of growing up.
If there were any weak point in Umi Ga Kikoeru, it would be the plausibility of the characterisation. Trying to develop in-depth characters within an hour is no easy feat, and although the Ghibli crew's performance is solid, there are still a number of bafflingly incongruous moments. To some extent, this is a side-effect of employing the first-person perspective, which means that our opinions are often shaped by what Morisaki feels. As such, his limitations are often ours. Nevertheless, Morisaki falls into the "nice-guy" stereotype, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, for we are to endear to him as a narrator. However, more could have, and should have been said about what Matsuno feels, who remains fairly muted throughout.
Muto, in my opinion, is well portrayed. She is often an enigma, for her emotions are obscured by the fact that Morisaki himself never truly understood her. Muto is unpredictable and brazen, and that we cannot pin her down sets the stage for what happens eventually - the distance that is set between Muto and Morisaki (and incidentally, us) allows for the ending to cast refreshingly new angles onto the characters involved.
Aesthetically speaking, the animation and the art are done well. Although the standards are not comparable to true Ghibli excellence, there is evidence of meticulous attention and conscientious effort put into technical matters.
Umi Ga Kikoeru does not receive the limelight it deserves. I admit that I was fairly sceptical of how much Umi Ga Kikoeru could achieve when I first discovered that it only runs for an hour-odd. It is time to put this assumption to rest. This is one title that does not subscribe to developing peripheral areas, and as such, succeeds in delivering all it is worth within an hour without coming across as being contrived. In a way, Umi Ga Kikoeru is Mimi O Sumaseba at its heart-warming best, without the ponderous and less important segments, Kareshi Kanojyo No Jijyo in its honesty, delicacy and beauty, excluding the outrageous and adult moments. By all means - watch it.
- JW, 2001.01.24