If you are based in the US, and have even just a passing interest in anime or Ghibli films, the chances are you’ve already seen Ponyo over the weekend, it having opened nationwide on Friday. Sadly us poor Brits have got to wait until February, but even before that news broke, I had managed to get hold of a copy of the recently released Japanese DVD. The DVD has an English subtitle track, and I’ve referred to the film here with it’s full Japanese title in order to clarify that this is not a review of the Disney produced dub – it’s not just me being pretentious, for once. With some unprecedented self control I held off watching it for a few weeks, in the vain hope that we would get a theatrical release date shortly after America’s – the irony being that if I’d watched it immediately then this review could have been a little more of a scoop. As it is it’s being published the week that half the internet has been buzzing about Ponyo, it’s become a trending topic on Twitter, and every anime blogger in the world is giving their opinions on the film. In fact, the coverage has been so over-whelming these last few days that I considered skipping writing this at all – but looking back at how much coverage I had given the film since it’s first announcement it seemed wrong not to present my thoughts, even if only for little bit of personal closure.
For Miyazaki Ponyo marks – in many ways – a return to earlier roots. His last two features – Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle – not only dealt with far more complicated plots and a wider roster of characters, but were aimed at an older, more mature primary audience. Ponyo, as a simple fairy tale or fable, harks back to his older works such as My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, and as such has no pretensions to be anything more than a children’s film. It tells the tale of five year old boy Sosuke, who one day finds a small goldfish swept in from sea, whom he decides to take home and name Ponyo. But, of course, this isn’t any normal goldfish – Ponyo is in fact the daughter of an eccentric wizard and an aquatic goddess, so her disappearance doesn’t go unnoticed, and her irate father finds her and brings her back home. Ponyo, so enchanted with Sosuke and the human world, escapes again and uses her magic to transform herself into a little girl, but while doing so unwittingly unleashes destructive powers that threaten the very existence of the world.
It’s not just the plot, however, that sees Miyazaki-san returning to simpler times – as frequently mentioned in the pre-release hype Ponyo was completely hand drawn, marking the closing of Ghibli’s short lived computer graphics department. Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first – Ponyo is a Ghibli movie, and as such is never less than stunning visually. The character work is, as always, immaculate. The background art – again featuring the masterful work of Kazuo Oga – is breathtaking at times. From the very first scenes the screen is teaming with life and detail, so much so that it feels that no number of repeat viewings will let you absorb everything that is happening on screen. But above all there is one element of the film’s animation that everyone will be talking about – and quite rightly so – the depiction of water and and the ocean. In Ponyo’s world it appears that all water has an inherent magical power, and as storms rage and the sea levels rise it seems to be able to simultaneously take many forms – from strange amorphous blob-like creatures to huge powerful fish – whilst always somehow retaining the distinctive motion and qualities that define it as water. Animating the sea realistically is a famously hard task, but here the Ghibli team do it in a way that seems not only effortless, but both natural and fantastical at the same time. Most surprising to me was the constant references to traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e art – every time we see a wave on screen we make out the lines and feel the energy of Hokusai’s great wave, every time the water takes a fish form it feels like, for maybe just a split second, that we are looking at an ancient wood block print of huge yet graceful carp. It’s as if Miyazaki is aiming to make a point about his rejection of technology by taking us back to anime and manga’s true visual roots. Elsewhere he references his own works, most notably when Sosuke’s mother’s tiny car hurtles along perilous cliff edges it is impossible to not be reminded of the famous, exhilarting car chase from The Castle of Cagliostro, and when the same car disappears over the hilly horizon at night, projecting headlights into the sky, it is a distinct visual nod to Totoro’s Catbus doing the very same. Miyazaki has always had cinematic riffs and effects that he has used as unmistakable signatures, but it is hard to feel here that with Ponyo he is making a more deliberate point; a desire, perhaps, that he wishes to return to simpler times.
Whiile there has been unfaltering praise for Ponyo’s art, the discussions across Twitter and the anime blogging community have thrown up a few doubts and questions about the films plot and narrative. Miyazaki’s decision to go with a simple, child friendly fairy tale of a story has raised some concerns that the film lacks his usual thematic depth or sub-text, but after the luxury of a second viewing this criticism seems, to me at least, more than a little unfair. Ponyo on a Cliff is teaming with ideas, from it’s more obvious environmental message through to reflections on Miyazaki’s own personal views and experiences of family life.
While the uniting of Ponyo and Sosuke is clearly meant to illustrate a need for mankind to get back in touch with nature – a common and recurring them in Miyazaki’s works – it also seems to be part of an almost Aesop style fable about how love can conquer over physical and cultural differences. This perhaps best shown in the scenes where Ponyo’s power wanes and she finds herself regressing into strange, almost grotesque, simple looking half-fish/half-human form. Even as we see her flopping around with strange, almost deformed looking limbs – quite literally like a fish out of water – this alien appearance is never enough to stop the devotion of the innocent Sosuke, whose pure love sees past her scales-deep appearances. In another scene we see Ponyo encountering a couple with a small baby who are stranded in a boat by the rising floods – Ponyo attmpts to give the baby food, and instead the mother explains that the infant can’t eat the ham she has given them, but that the mother can eat it to produce breast milk. It is a scene that has resulted in some commentators claiming it is a bizarre or unsuitable inclusion for a children’s film, but it is in Ponyo’s brilliantly rendered reaction to the infant and mother that the scene’s real purpose is conveyed. In some of the best character expression work seen in anime for years, we see how Ponyo finds herself – even in her human form – to be wholly different from the humans she yearns to live amongst – staring at the baby child she sees something she has never been and will never experience, but is common and natural to all other humans. While certainly an unusual scene at first, it’s an exquisitely drawn and assembled piece of emotion laden animation, and a pivotal moment in the film’s thematic narrative.
Elsewhere the film examines modern family life, and in particular seems to focus on the directors own personal experiences. Apparently an open and conscious aim of Miyazaki’s script (although Miyazaki has recently denied this, the film deals with his relation with his son and reluctant Tales of Earthsea director Goro. Both father and son have openly talked and written about how their relationship has been strained, primarily due to Hayao not spending much time at home during Goro’s childhood, and the same situation is true for Sosuke and his father. The latter works out at sea, and in one of the films most memorable and subtly beautiful scenes we see father, via morse code light flashes, that yet again he won’t be home for dinner. Even then, the real message of the scene seems to be less one of regret, and more of understanding – and intended less for Goro but for Miyazaki’s long suffering wife Akime. As we watch Sosuke’s mother freak out and vent her frustrations at being left alone again, it is clear that Miyazaki is nodding in his wife’s direction, recognising the sacrifice she made – she once also had a career as a promising animator – to stay at home and raise their children. It is perhaps the longest running contradiction of Miyazaki’s frequent use of strong, female leads – and here Lisa’s character seems to reflect some of his guilt for that, showing that a housewife can easily be just as gutsy, strong-headed and dynamic as any of his previous, adventurous protagonists.
A recent discussion with Scott Green also raised some concern’s with me about Miyazaki’s dealing with family life; Scott suggesting that the director’s values may clash with that of modern parents in certain fundamental ways. One of the things that nearly all Miyazki’s films have emphasized over the decades – the best examples being perhaps Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away – is his belief that children should take on sometimes quite arduous responsibilities at a relatively early age. Ponyo takes this to another extreme, not only putting the safety of the Earth on a five-year-old’s shoulders (something, that in itself, is not necessarily that unusual in a child’s fantasy-adventure story), but having him do so by making what appears to be a lifetime romantic commitment. It’s certainly a jarring idea for most modern parents, and I can’t help but think that perhaps Miyazaki’s real intention was this act to be something more innocent, again similar to a fairy tale or fable ending. If it fails to communicate this adequately then the script and direction are certainly to blame, but it also highlights another, ironic, problem that Miyazaki’s work often faces. It is probably an issue unique to western audiences, and it’s a strange thing to write, but sometimes Ghibli animation is sometimes too good, the motion too realistic, and the attention to detail too perfect. To un-Japanese viewers, who largely still associate animated features with Disney, a Ghibli film is perhaps confusing in the way it combines realism with the fairy tale. While mainstream audiences are used to watching realistically portrayed Hollywood fantasy and science fiction, when they think of true fairy and folk tales they associate it with stylised, cartoon-like animation, and even that seems to be a dying trend in America. Maybe, due to their unfamiliar production values and blend of the fantastic and realistic, Miyazaki-san’s films send a confused message to the mainstream US public? Or is blaming this on the old cliche of ‘cultural differences’ a cop out answer? Hopefully, Ponyo will be seen by enough people that wider reaction can be gauged, and we can see if this is really an issue at all.
Not that any of this distracts from the honest truth: Ponyo is a breathtaking, compelling and massively enjoyable film. It is easily his strongest work since Spirited Away, and easily but sadly puts his son’s misfiring Tales of Earthsea to shame. Being able to watch it on repeatedly at home is fantastic, but right now I’m more eager than ever to see it on the big screen. Partly because I’m intrigued and excited to see what sort of job Disney have done with the big-name dub – and I know some tiny little people that can’t read subtitles yet that will enjoy the hell out of it – but mainly because this is a movie that demands to be viewed on the biggest screen possible. If you are lucky enough to be living somewhere where Ponyo is playing, then turn off the computer and go now. Go, not just to show your support for anime theatrical releases, but also to have one hell of a time. You won’t regret it.