By this point, I think that no more evidence is necessary that Yuasa Masaaki is the most important animation director working in the world right now. But his fourth feature, Ride Your Wave, provides that evidence anyway. It's not that it's his best work: I would, in fact, rank it third among those four features, and that's without even touching on any of his superb television series. But that's kind of exactly the point: this is, by Yuasa's standards, a bit simple, a bit predictable, and a bit trite, and it's still one of the best animated features I can possibly imagine seeing this calendar year. And if this is what Yuasa is capable of when he's not even obviously trying...

What I mean by "not trying" is, of course, relative. At his best, Yuasa's work is all about finding the boundaries of the medium and seeing what exactly we can do with animation; this isn't that. Ride Your Wave is more a refinement than a reinvention. Specifically, it's a refinement of the technological and aesthetic push that the director and the studio he co-founded, Science Saru, made with Lu Over the Wall, one of the two projects from Yuasa's extraordinarily great year in 2017 (its thunder was stolen a bit by the masterpiece Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, which came out earlier in Japan but later in the United States). That film was conceived in part as a deliberate exercise in finding out just what allowances computer animation software makes for the artist who wants to play around with traditional hand-drawn animation aesthetic techniques, and while it would be uncharitable in the extreme to say that it feels like an exercise, there's definitely a sense in which playing around with imagery is a much bigger priority than working through the lumpy screenplay. Ride Your Wave is both better at playing with imagery, and much better at telling a story; it's paying off Lu's promises in pretty much every way, including a decent number of ways in which the two movies are basically doing the exact same thing.

The film is an adolescent romance with some paranormal genre touches: there's a young firefighter, Hinageshi Minato (Katayose Ryota), finishing up his training in a small oceanside city, and there's a first-year college student, Mukaimizu Hinako (Kawaei Rina), in the same city. She spends virtually all of her free time surfing, and he spends his free time on the roof of the fire station, watching her surf - admiring her skill and spirit so much that he refers to her as his "hero". And soon enough, he'll become her hero as well, when an illegal fireworks display sets her apartment building on fire. He rescues her after she gets trapped on a high floor, and from this point on, they fall head-over-heels in love, doing all of the unbearably sweet and sloppy things that a pair of young people convinced that they've unlocked all the profoundest emotions that any humans have ever discovered will do.

I am torn here, because it's almost pointless to talk about the story of Ride Your Wave at all without mentioning where things go from here, and at the same time, this is a movie that fleshes out its twists with such delightful creativity that I'd feel like I was doing the film a profound disservice by giving anything away. Let the following suffice: Hinako's investment in the relationship becomes so overpowering that she starts to lose any kind of connection to the world outside of that relationship. In particular, her surfing begins to suffer for it, and this troubles Minato deeply, so he spends most of the movie trying to encourage her to find her independent spirit again. The English title (which has a different focus than the Japanese title, and I daresay is better for it) directly references his repeated insistence that she has to be ready to apply the fearlessness she learned from surfing to all of the turbulence that comes into a human life - riding out whatever waves the world throws at her, in essence. She does, over the course of the film's snugly-paced and very dense 94 minutes, figure out how to do this, though it comes at a cost of some considerable pain; one of the film's bolder gambits is to apparently resolve all of its plotlines and then, just a couple of scenes before the end, pull out one big scene of primal suffering to point out that no matter how much we might feel like we've gotten control of our problems in life, they're not going to magically cease being problems.

The path that connects this conclusion with that opening is a wild marvel, combining sober tragedy with blatantly silly comedy and not ever letting those two things feel out of balance; it endeavors to be a tribute to the deep sensory joy of well-made coffee and the outrageous cuteness of cartoon porpoises; and it's a stunning achievement of animation technique. Lu Over the Wall did a great many amazing things using cel-shaded CGI to create a cartoon world that was fleshed-out and dynamic, but it's got nothing on how full Ride Your Wave feels, with an impeccable use of three-dimensional staging to reflect the boundlessness of the characters' feelings, or their connection with the world, or the sublimely overwhelming stimulation of surfing. The character animation is quite a bit more stable than in Yuasa's other features, losing some of Lu's cartoon logic and Night's expressive subjectivity, but there's still enough stretchy flexibility in how figures move and interact with their environment to remain visually interesting, while always supporting the heated-up teen melodrama of the story.

For it is a melodrama, when all is said and done, including some exceedingly melodramatic plot revelations and emotional appeals. It feels, in fact, more than a little like the recent work of Shinkai Makoto, the most economically successful Japanese animation director in the world right now, on the back of the smash hits Your Name. and Weathering with You; a cynic might say that Yuasa was simply trying to edge on on this lucrative market for fantasy/sci-fi versions of teen love stories. One might also say that Yuasa has, in one try, beaten Shinkai at his own game: Ride Your Wave does something that neither Your Name. nor Weathering with You have done, nor any other Shinkai film, really, which is to navigate all of the generic twists and turns with letting the story turn into illegible mush. And that's while also openly turning some of the material into goofy farce! That willingness to allow the ludicrous quality of the scenario to play as ludicrous is presumably why Ride Your Wave didn't make anything like the same impact on the Japanese box office as Shinkai's films, and is surely unlikely to do so anywhere else. But it's also what makes it great: Yuasa's work is, here as always, marked out by the joyful expansiveness of its imagination, and that joy can manifest as easily in comedy as anything else. Ride Your Wave is awfully corny, somewhat predictable once you get past the first big plot swerve, and totally unafraid to make big, gloppy emotional appeals, but it's all of these things while being controlled by a master of the medium who makes sure that they all feel naturally connected to the visual form of the story being told, and true to the characters. It's already clear that this is doomed to be patted on the head and forgotten about, but from where I stand, Ride Your Wave is unquestionably a great romance and a great piece of animation.