Studio 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.
In 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.
When 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.
The 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.
Perhaps 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.
I 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.
In 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.
The 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.
This 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.