Since his theatrical debut “Mind Game” (2004), director Masaaki Yuasa has been known for warped, psychedelic films and TV series that stretch the limits of the imagination. Over the past few years, though, Yuasa has signaled an interest in making more accessible films. The culmination of those efforts, at least so far, is “Ride Your Wave,” which is by far Yuasa’s most “normal” film to date. The good news for fans is that this film still feels distinctly Yuasa.

Written by Reiko Yoshida (“Liz and the Blue Bird”), “Ride Your Wave” is the story of Hinako Mukaimizu (Rina Kawaei), a first-year college student who’s chosen to attend a school close to the sea to indulge in her favorite hobby, surfing. Soon after she moves into her new apartment building, it catches fire, but all’s well that ends well: The accident provides the film’s meet cute, as Hinako and her surfboard are rescued by young firefighter Minato Hinageshi (Ryota Katayose). The two begin spending time together, growing closer in a series of charming scenes that reminded this reviewer, at least, of the pure joy in falling in love for the first time. It’s during this time that the two bond over a song called “Brand New Story,” a point that becomes important later.

Sadly, the joy is not to last. Minato, trying to improve his surfing, goes out by himself on a stormy day and, ever the selfless firefighter, loses his own life while rescuing someone else.

Ride Your Wave (Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara)
Run Time 96 mins.
Opens June 21

Distraught and wandering alone by a river, Hinako finds herself humming “Brand New Story” and is shocked to see Minato appear. His soul isn’t quite ready to depart the Earth, it seems. Whenever Hinako sings the song, his form appears to her — but only in water. At first, Hinako is overjoyed at the chance to see Minato again, carrying him around in a transparent water bottle. But she slowly realizes his soul won’t be truly free until she’s able to move on — to “ride her own wave” — without him.

Even at his most warped, Yuasa’s work often revolves around unconventional love stories, from monster and monster hunter in “Kemonozume” (2006) to professional wrestler and nun in “Kick-Heart” (2012). The fire and water juxtaposition represented by Minato and Hinako is another take on that theme. There are plenty of other thematic threads to chew on throughout the film, too: This may be an easier-to-grasp Yuasa film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t say anything.

The film is also populated by a charming cast of characters, including Minato’s fiery sister Yoko (Honoka Matsumoto), who enters the film by denouncing love as an idiotic waste of time but, by the end, is riding her own wave of love.

As a longtime fan of Yuasa (and one very much pulled in by his twisted, trippy worlds) it’s bittersweet to see him move on to more “normal” films and work with pop acts like Generations from Exile Tribe (“Brand New Story” is a fine song, I guess, and a key part of the film, but man does it get overused).

Even within a more standard framework, though, Yuasa’s voice shines through. And with the director showing no signs of stopping (he’s announced two new projects in the past two months alone), there’s always a chance he’ll bring back the weirdness someday.

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