Ride Your Wave was a doomed love story from the start, and the movie isn’t shy about its fate in the slightest. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa (Night is Short, Walk on Girl), Ride Your Wave centers around a couple, Hinako Mukaimizu (Rina Kawaei) and Minato Hinageshi (Ryota Katayose). They meet after a near-death incident, an introduction that probably foreshadows their inevitable romantic conclusion: Minato, a firefighter, saves Hinako from a burning building after some strangers irresponsibly set off massive fireworks without thinking about the extremely flammable quality of the buildings around them. It’s the most extravagant meet-cute. Fireworks are bursting in the sky as Minato, Hinako, and Hinkao’s surfboard ride down an apartment building on a lift. It’s probably hard not falling in love after that.
Surprisingly, this actually isn’t the first time Minato and Hinako have encountered each other. Hinako is a talented surfer who moved to Minato’s city for the beaches and the waves. For the longest time, Minato actually called Hinako his hero, admiring Hinako’s ability to glide the ocean with skill and ease.
So it’s a big moment for everyone, and their sweet love story continues flawlessly. But in a tragic surfing accident, Minato dies, and Hinako is devastated. Suddenly everything reminds Hinako of her dead boyfriend — a cup of coffee, the ocean, their favorite song, “Brand New Story.” While meeting with friends who also knew Minato, Hinako hears their song over the speakers. “Even as its colors change slowly, it keeps glistening in the sun,” she sings quietly along, when an image of Minato doing the shaka sign suddenly appears in a glass of water.
“Minato?” Hinako asks. Her friends look on startled. One — who’s actually Minato’s younger sister — shakes her, forcing her to spill the water, along with Minato’s image, over the table’s edge.
“Minato’s not coming back. Can you hurry up and accept it?” Yoko, Minato’s sister, says.
But that’s kind of the problem: Hinako can’t, and that’s why Minato appears in bodies of water whenever Hinako sings “Brand New Story.” It’s not because he’s a figment of her grief-laden imagination. It’s because Minato’s soul literally can’t move on to whatever comes next after his earthly life until Hinako is able move on herself.
Ride Your Wave leans into the whimsy that comes with its magic moments, playing with the concept of being able to conjure your dead boyfriend with a simple tune. But the whole movie isn’t necessarily keen on leaning into tonal contradictions as it is with tonal shifts. The first part of the movie is about this sweet love story; the center is about spiraling into its grief. The rest of Ride Your Wave is about coping with tragedy, and finding your own independence — something Hinako already struggled with before.
They’re heavy themes, but Ride Your Wave finds a way to spin them into a bittersweet story about magic and love, complete with a turning point that’s filled with dramatic, light-filled animation and a sad truth: Recovering from grief doesn’t happen immediately. Grief can strike suddenly even after you think you’re alright, and it can linger, which is what Hinako slowly discovers. The important part is figuring out what comes next after letting go.
Opens Feb. 21 at the Roxie Theater.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at email@example.com.