Hayao Miyazaki is an excellent filmmaker and I’ve been a fan of much of his work, from his early directorial work on Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, to his Magnum Opus Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (my personal favorite Miyazaki film), to his later, more internationally successful works such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. His films are typically quite beautiful, but in a simple way. The artistic style he espouses in his films emphasizes clean lines on characters, and lush backgrounds full of vibrant color.
This dichotomy is not limited to the imagery either: the characters in a Miyazaki film are drawn in a similar way. Main characters are often driven by simple needs but couched in a situation or history that is complex. ‘Innocent’ is how many are described and such a designation is only possible because these stories are filled with the ways innocence can be lost. Even the charming film My Neighbor Totoro has two children as its stars with a mother that is slowly dying in a hospital. The children understand what is going on, they know what they are about to lose, but they still understand joy and are still filled with the wonder of the giant creature named Totoro.
Ponyo, released in 2008 in Japan and the following year in the US, has ratcheted back the innocence meter about as far as it can go. Main characters Sosuke and Ponyo are very young children, the former the old age of five and the latter… well, is a fish. At least, she starts out that way. I think.
Honestly, the film is very weird, and could probably only come from Japan and still be successful (wildly successful in Japan, in fact). The titular Ponyo is first introduced as a red-haired fish-girl-like-thing that is the product of the union between Fujimoto, an originally human man who gave up his humanity, and Granmammare who is, as far as I can tell, the goddess of the oceans. A later character calls Granmammare the ‘Goddess of Mercy’ but she never introduces herself as such.
Anyway, Ponyo decides to run away from her father and see the world. We’re not quite sure why beyond a sense of curiosity, which wouldn’t be atypical for a little child. As soon as she reaches the surface, however, she becomes ensnared in a net used to dredge the ocean floor of garbage and debris tossed there careless by the horrible monsters… err, I mean us.
Miyazaki films often have a strong environmentalist message, and sometimes it’s charming, and sometimes it’s a little over the top. Nausicaa had a strong anti-war message, specifically anti-nuke given it focuses on weapons so powerful they destroyed the world. It’s not over the top, though, because the characters don’t really comment on it. Its part of their lives since they live in the aftermath so far into the future they don’t even remember what it was that turned the world into the ruins it is. Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, was a little blatant about its “live in harmony with the environment” message. The human characters recklessly destroy anything in their way, the forest is embodied by oversized creatures that the human characters can’t wait to kill, and, in the end, the corruption of something meant to be pure kicks off a rampage that threatens to kill everything.
Ponyo, I’m somewhat happier to admit, has toned it down a bit. There are several mentions of pollution, and nasty chemicals, but they are not necessarily the focus of the tale. Fujimoto did abandon humanity somewhat because of how much they were polluting the sea, but beyond his grumblings about it (which are brief) the issue doesn’t’ come up again.
After being trapped in some garbage, Ponyo encounters Sousuke, who is absolutely convinced she is a goldfish (she starts out very small). I’m not sure what the Japanese have been growing in their fish tanks, but I have never, ever, seen a goldfish look like that. Especially the red hair. That’s… a stretch. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just the boy, but the mother agrees as well. It’s a goldfish, she says.
Skipping a bit over the scenes showing Sosuke’s life and the people he knows, eventually Ponyo is recovered forcefully by her father, taking her back under the sea to reprimand her. But Ponyo is obsessed now. She has fallen in love with Sosuke (as children sometimes do) and decided she wants to be a human and live on the surface. The father is appalled, tries to stop her, but she turns out to have inherited much of her mother’s magical ability and escapes, accidentally spilling an elixir Fujimoto was creating that was meant to start a “new age of oceanic life”.
Ponyo turns into a five year old human girl and rushes back to Sosuke, but her rampant ability and the effects of the spilled elixir cause a massive rise in the ocean and the small island that Sosuke and everyone he knows lives on is now 90% underwater. Fortunately, Sosuke and his mother live on the top of a cliff, so their home is just right level with the new risen water. Their front door actually is about an inch above the surface. Also, during the flood, Sosuke got separated from his mother and now is worried about her. So, Ponyo and Sosuke leave in a boat to find where his mother has gone. Cue road trip story.
So, at this point the Ponyo/Sosuke storyline gets kind of boring. Someone must have realized this because it’s at this junction that the focus shifts briefly back to Fujimoto as he calls for his wife and they have an awkward chat. It’s awkward for two reasons, first is that she’s incredibly blasé about what has happened, and second, she is easily 100 meters tall. Fujimoto can fit into Granmamare’s eye if he wanted. I don’t want to think about how they ever conceived Ponyo.
Okay, I’m being a little silly, it’s shown that Granmamare can make her self shrink to the size of a normal human, but still, unless she needs to, she seems to spend most of her time in giant form, which makes me wonder what she ever saw in Fujimoto to begin with. It’s like falling in love with an ant in a terrible suit.
Anyway, during this discussion — which, as noted above, it apparently much more urgent for Fujimoto than it is for Granmamare – it’s revealed that Ponyo is walking the line between humanity and magical creatures and doing that for too long can bring calamity to the world. In fact, Fujimoto points out that the moon has fallen slightly out of orbit and is now stuck above the island, threatening to crash fully into the Earth.
O…kay. So, then, Fujimoto points out that Ponyo says she’s in love with Sosuke and wants to be human. She can become human, he says, if she gives up her magical creature-ness, but if Sosuke doesn’t actually love her back, she’ll turn into sea foam afterwards.
Granmmare: Cool, lets do it!
Right. So the film lurches along for a little while longer until Ponyo and Sosuke meet up with the latter’s mother who happens to be with Granmamare and Fujimoto in a building under the water – sorta – surrounded by a bubble-or-jellyfish-it’s-not-quite-clear. When people talk, bubbles come out of their mouth, but they have no problem breathing, and their clothes float around like they’re under water but they have enough gravity to walk and…. uh, well, it just doesn’t make sense.
Anyhow, the movie builds to the climactic moment, where Sosuke will have to prove he loves Ponyo so she can be turned into a girl for good and not turn into sea foam. Granmamare takes the lead in this important scene:
Granmamare: Sosuke, do you think you could love Ponyo, who was once a fish, even though she didn’t look at all like a fish, and would imply either myself or Fujimoto is a fish, which we clearly are not?
Sosuke: Sure! I love Ponyo and fishes!
Granmamre: Good enough. Lemme go put the moon back so this flood can end. Goddess of the Ocean, away!
And so the movie ends. Oh, wait, Sosuke’s father returns too, but he was so absent in this film is a wonder he was included at all. He’s a captain of a tugboat or tanker of some sort and spends the movie communicating using Morse code.
As it is, I’m actually pretty disappointed in this film, in case it’s not obvious from the snarky commentary above. It’s still beautiful, which is expected at this point from Miyazaki, well made with excellent music and voice acting (in English anyway, I haven’t listened to the Japanese track yet). But the story turned out to be not very relevant at all for me, which was unexpected. I’ll admit it’s probably an appropriate story for a pair of five year old characters, but it just wasn’t all that interesting to watch. And the baffling leaps of logic I alluded to were very distracting.
Supposedly this film is going to be Miyazaki’s last, but he’s said that many times before. Princess Mononoke was also supposed to be his last and that was four films ago (including the not-released-in-America Earthsea movie which he took over after his son proved not up to the task of directing). I’d like to see something else from him before he quits for real, because if this is his swan song, I may very well have failed to understand him from the beginning.
A better film than most in terms of production quality, and if you’re looking for childlike escape, it’s probably pretty good. It’s just not my cup of tea, though.