The film is set in the city of Kōchi, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. It concerns a love triangle that develops between two good friends and a new girl who transfers to their high school from Tokyo.
In December 2016, GKIDS announced that the film would be remastered for a limited theatrical release, beginning on December 28, 2016, with a home video release in Spring 2017.
At Kichijōji Station, Tokyo, Taku Morisaki glimpses a familiar woman on the platform opposite. Later, as his flight to Kōchi Prefecture takes off, he narrates the events that brought her into his life. The story is told in flashback.
In Kōchi, two years prior, Taku receives a call from his friend, Yutaka Matsuno, asking to meet at their high school. He finds Yutaka at a window, watching an attractive female transfer student whom Yutaka was asked to show around. The boys discuss their upcoming school trip to Hawaii. At the school gates, Taku is introduced to the new girl, Rikako Muto. She thanks Yutaka for providing directions to a bookstore. Taku teases Yutaka about his infatuation.
Rikako is academically gifted and good at sports, but also arrogant. Taku believes she is unhappy about leaving Tokyo. His mother learns from gossip that a divorce brought Rikako's mother to Kōchi. In a phone conversation with Yutaka, he discovers that Rikako is living away from the family house.
The school year ends, heralding the Hawaii trip. Taku, suffering from an upset stomach, is stopped in the hotel lobby by Rikako. She explains that she has lost her money and asks to borrow some. As Taku has a part-time job, he lends her ¥60,000. Promising to repay him, she warns not to tell anyone. As she departs, Taku sees a stern Yutaka and feels compelled to explain. Later, Rikako admonishes him for telling Yutaka about the money, saying that he also loaned her ¥20,000.
Back in Kōchi, the third year begins with Rikako making a friend, Yumi Kohama. Rikako hasn't returned Taku's money and he wonders if she has forgotten. Out of the blue, a distressed Yumi calls Taku, explaining that Rikako had tricked her into coming to the airport on the pretence of a concert trip, only to discover that their real destination is Tokyo, tickets paid for with Taku's money. He races to the airport, sending Yumi home, saying that he will accompany Rikako.
Upon arrival, it appears that Rikako has not forewarned her father, interrupting his planned trip with a girlfriend. Her father thanks Taku, repays the loan and arranges a room at the Hyatt Regency hotel. Later, Rikako explains that when her parents were fighting, she'd always sided with her father, but had now discovered he wasn't on her side. Comforting her, Taku offers his bed and attempts to sleep in the bathtub. The next morning, Rikako seems back to her normal self and kicks Taku out so that she can change clothes to meet a friend for lunch. Taku wanders around the city. After catching up on sleep at the hotel, Taku receives a call from Rikako asking to be rescued from former boyfriend, Okada, who is not as she remembered him.
Returning home, Rikako ignores Taku, but doesn't hide from others that they spent a night together. Taku discovers this from Yutaka, who had earlier confronted Rikako to confess his feelings toward her, but had been rebuffed. Taku confronts Rikako in class for hurting his best friend, calling her "The worst!". She responds by slapping him and he slaps her in return.
The autumn school cultural festival arrives and Rikako, who has been avoiding Yosakoi dance rehearsals, becomes more distant from the other girls, many of whom openly dislike her. Confronting her behind the school, Rikako stands firm as one girl, believing that Rikako was flirting with her boyfriend, attempts to strike her but is held back. Taku, who has seen all, approaches Rikako and comments that he is impressed with the way she handled herself. She slaps him. Yutaka confronts a somewhat stunned Taku, who tries to explain. Yutaka punches him to the ground and walks away. They do not talk for the rest of the year.
In the present, Taku's plane lands and he is offered a lift home by Yutaka, who explains he punched him because he'd realized Taku had held back his feelings for his sake. At a class reunion, former student president Shimizu mentions she had met Rikako earlier. She explains that as Rikako was attending Kochi University, she had flown to Tokyo for her school break, missing the reunion. Taku realizes that Rikako was the woman he'd seen at the station. Walking home, Yumi tells Taku that she too had met Rikako, explaining she couldn't make it to the reunion and that she wanted to meet someone, but wouldn't say who... just that he slept in bathtubs.
In Tokyo, Taku again sees Rikako across the platforms, but this time runs to find her. As the train pulls away, he finds Rikako and realises that he had always been in love with her.Taku Morisaki (杜崎 拓, Morisaki Taku)
Voiced by: Nobuo Tobita
Main protagonist. Taku, needing money for the school's trip to Hawaii, took his restaurant busboy job to offset the expense, at the cost of falling grades and his teachers' disapproval.
Yutaka Matsuno (松野 豊, Matsuno Yutaka)
Voiced by: Toshihiko Seki
Taku's friend and rival for Rikako's affections. Yutaka and Taku became friends when they jointly campaigned against the cancellation of their junior high school trip due to the school's low test scores.
Rikako Muto (武藤 里伽子, Muto Rikako)
Voiced by: Yōko Sakamoto
Taku and Yutaka's love interest.
Yumi Kohama (小浜 裕実, Kohama Yumi)
Voiced by: Kae Araki
Rikako's closest friend in Kōchi.
Akiko Shimizu (清水 明子, Shimizu Akiko)
Voiced by: Yuri Amano
Female student-body president.
Voiced by: Jun'ichi Kanemaru
Rikako's ex-boyfriend. While in Tokyo, Rikako heads to a restaurant in the hotel to meet with Okada. Over the course of the meal she discovers that he is not the type of person she once thought he was. He has also started dating Rikako's best friend. During the meal, Rikako telephones Taku to ask him to rescue her from the situation. When Taku met him, he thought Okada was really handsome.
Tadashi Yamao (山尾 直, Yamao Tadashi)
Voiced by: Hikaru Midorikawa
Taku's large friend, who has a crush on Yumi. He confesses this love to everyone at the class reunion prior to Yumi's arrival, before collapsing into unconsciousness due to excess alcohol consumption.
Voiced by: Ai Satō
Voiced by: Kinryū Arimoto
Voiced by: Takeshi Watabe
(He also acted as a Kōchi dialect instructor for cast)
The film is based on Himuro's novel which was first serialized, with illustrations by Katsuya Kondō, starting from the February 1990 issue of Animage magazine. The monthly instalments were collected in a hard cover book published in February 1993. Kondō served as the character designer and animation director for the adaptation. Production of Ocean Waves was controlled by Studio Ghibli, but much of the animation was produced with the assistance of J.C.Staff, Madhouse Studios, and Oh! Production, who had worked with Ghibli on past projects. This film is the first Ghibli anime directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. Tomomi Mochizuki, who was 34 years old at the time, was brought in to direct. The film was an attempt to make anime solely by the young staff members, mostly in their 20s and 30s. Their motto was to produce "quickly, cheaply and with quality", but ultimately it went over budget and over schedule.
The website Animé Café gave the film 4/5 stars, noting this to be "A graceful and mature offering from Ghibli's younger generation".
Otaku USA gave the film a mediocre review.
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 86% based on 14 critical reviews.
Disney originally had the rights of distribution of Ocean Waves in United States. but they never released the film onto any Home Media platform. In 2016, GKIDS announced that they are going to release Ocean Waves in North American theaters starting on December 28 of that year and expanding during early 2017. In 2008, distribution company Wild Bunch announced that it had licensed the film to a number of European releasing companies, including Optimum. It was released in the UK under the title Ocean Waves on January 25, 2010 shortly before the planned theatrical release of Ponyo, as part of the Studio Ghibli Collection. As with the film Only Yesterday (until 2016), it was released with subtitles only.
In Spain the film is distributed by Aurum and was released on DVD in November 2008. The DVD includes Japanese and Spanish audio tracks and Spanish subtitles. It was titled as Puedo escuchar el mar (in English translation I Can Hear the Sea).
In Australia the film is distributed by Madman Entertainment as a subtitle only DVD.
A Blu-ray remastered version was released on July 17, 2015 in Japan by Walt Disney Studios Japan.
In December 2016, GKIDS announced that the film will be remastered for a limited theatrical release, beginning in December 28, 2016, with a home video release in Spring 2017.