by Caroline McKenzie
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Studios
For American audiences only familiar with Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s animation through the Walt Disney–trademarked theatrical releases his last few films have received in the U.S., Ponyo, his latest feature, might seem a change in pace. Miyazaki's rigorously allegorical and more adult-oriented films, like Princess Mononoke (1999) and Spirited Away (2001), have garnered much praise and attention in the Western world, but Ponyo, a gentle film which is specifically both for and about children, is an obvious step away from these works.
Yet Ponyo is not without antecedent in the Miyazaki canon, and most obviously takes its cues from the director’s 1989 feature My Neighbor Totoro, the story of two little girls who find a fantastical forest creature living in their backyard. Similar in theme and tone, both films ground themselves in domestic life and simply seek to depict how emotional realities are transmitted through a child’s imagination. When, in Ponyo, a mother abruptly sings a line from the Totoro theme song to her young son, it is not merely a throwaway gag or a stab at metacommentary, but a tacit acknowledgement of the debt Ponyo owes to that now 20-year-old children’s classic.
Ponyo takes its basic setup from a combination of the Japanese myth “Urashima Taro” and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.” Unlike Disney's animated 1989 version of the Andersen story, in which the narrative is driven by the titular character’s desire to join human society and marry a prince, Ponyo avoids any such regressive representations of femininity by making its lead characters two five-year-olds: Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus), an exuberant "fish girl," who is the progeny of a wizard and an ocean goddess, and Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a precocious human boy who scoops Ponyo out of the sea and quickly grows to love her. Instead of engaging the two in a kindergarten romance, the film focuses mostly on their wonder at intersecting each other's worlds.
As in the Andersen story, Ponyo is given magic powers that enable her to change—in a grotesquely humorous transformation—from "fish girl" to human girl. The force of this sorcery, which the childish Ponyo is unable to control, also ultimately throws the world off kilter, changing the tides, submerging Sosuke's town underwater, and bringing to life multitudes of prehistoric aquatic creatures. This simple setup provides the force of the narrative, and allows for several set pieces that showcase the inventive brilliance of the film’s animation.
Miyazaki's ability to see magic in naturalistic settings and everyday human interactions, to blur the line between reality and physical impossibility, sets Ponyo apart. American feature-length animation, as far back as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), has routinely been obsessed with hyperrealism: anthropomorphized animals abound, but they’re still recognizable as animals, in surroundings we've seen before, often depicted with exacting detail. These films have routinely suppressed the function of animation—its capacity for bringing the impossible to life—in favor of a neutered application of the form. As if in relief to the last decade of animated films stuffed with bells and whistles like CGI and 3-D projection, Ponyo seems to recall instead mid-twentieth-century animation efforts like John and Faith Hubley’s 1959 Oscar-winning animated short film Moonbird, in which the elasticity and shape-shifting nature of the drawings conveys the characters' emotions and the plot ambles along to the pace of a child's fanciful imagination.
Similarly, in Ponyo, Miyazaki’s drawings routinely transcend, or outright break, the laws of physics. In the underwater sequences, fluid bubble walls meant to keep oxygen-breathing humans alive amongst the aquatic, gilled critters are spontaneously formed, expanded, squeezed, die-cut, and popped. When Ponyo—a creature much like the furry behemoth Totoro in that she has no real world antecedent, even though she is described as a goldfish—escapes from her father's undersea vessel by cutting a hole in one such bubble, she travels to the surface on the backs of giant fish that erupt into crashing waves, and then transform back into fish, dissolving in and out of the sea. Sosuke watches with amazement, not fear, as these fantastic changes occur.
Conversely, Ponyo acts as the film's conduit for seeing magic in the everyday. The little fish-girl is consistently delighted by the most rote human activity: mealtime. A bowl of instant ramen that transforms from brittle sticks to steaming bounty is seen as a revelation; Ponyo is equally struck by an encounter in which she learns how a mother eats food so she may provide milk for her child. These engaging encounters are part of the film’s charm, and they underscore Miyazaki's deep respect for the natural world and the wonders it can produce. The film’s ability to merge the fantastical and the quotidian is encapsulated in a sequence when Sosuke and Ponyo, boating over a sunken town, look down to realize that there are armored prehistoric fish swimming gently beneath their hull. Instead of being terrified, they shout out the taxonomic names for three of these creatures—two of which are life forms that actually existed millions of years ago, the third a fictional creation made for the film. This intersection of the real and the imagined is what defines Miyazaki’s art.
Ponyo can be criticized for its relatively soft plot and slapdash ending, but these may just be functions of its reluctance to rely solely on tropes of children's cinema: there is no climax to speak of, and, most notably, no real “bad guys” to propel the story. As in Totoro, the only characters who come close to being “bad” are busy adults, who routinely make the wrong choices when they think they're doing the right thing. Unlike Ponyo and Sosuke, the adults of the film fail to see the world’s beauty until they’re smacked in the face by it. Miyazaki suggests that this is their biggest flaw.
But this broadly positive view of humankind is a far cry from Mononoke’s indictment of civilization's destruction of nature or Spirited Away’s commentary on the spiritual impoverishment of a materialistic contemporary Japanese culture. By contrast, when the fate of the world hangs in the balance in Ponyo, Sosuke and Ponyo find that all can be fixed with a little patience, perseverance and acceptance. Perhaps this is the film’s most fantastical conceit, or maybe it’s just that our quotidian trials and tribulations look a little different when seen through the eyes of someone very small.