Continuing Life Lessons From the Animation Maestro
Previous life lessons:
Part 1: LUPIN III — THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
Part 2: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
Part 3: CASTLE IN THE SKY
Part 4: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
Part 5: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Part 6: PORCO ROSSO
Part 7: PRINCESS MONONOKE
Part 8: SPIRITED AWAY
Part 9: HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches.
Given that Miyazaki did what you can essentially call “2 fairy tale adaptations” back to back, it’s impressive how different they are – even by the standards of someone so evidently averse to covering well-worn ground as he. Where Howl was narratively-dense and visually-sumptuous with a half-dozen plots, counterplots, and shifting character motivations vying for attention, Ponyo is a movie about a fish who wants to be a real girl. The influences of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid are clear even without the obligatory credit, but what Ponyo brings to the table beyond the simplified watercolor version of Ghibli’s “house style” is a directness and narrative purity that Miyazaki hasn’t employed to this extent since My Neighbor Totoro two decades prior. The result is a film that feels deliberately like a callback to “simpler” earlier films aimed at slightly younger viewers, but with the confident eye of a seasoned master and a playful mania in the film’s occasionally apocalyptic imagery.
The titular sea girl is introduced as a magical fish whose parents are a prickly sorcerer and a giant sea goddess – and honestly, that just sounds like a lot, so I can’t blame her for wanting to get out of the house for a bit. Ponyo happens upon a boy named Sosuke who lives on a cliff by the sea, and after tasting his blood when she licked a cut on his finger, Ponyo begins manifesting new abilities while also incidentally upsetting the balance of nature by unleashing a magical explosion of ocean life that throws the moon out of orbit and brings it so close to the earth that it effects the level of the oceans. The only way to restore balance is for the children to face something called “the test of love” (we are in a Miyazaki film, after all), which is complicated by a miniature typhoon that puts a lot of Sosuke’s island underwater.
But in, like, a chill way somehow?
It doesn’t make a lot of what we call “sense” (especially at first), but as the film progresses it very clearly lays all its cards on the table: this is a film from Sosuke and Ponyo’s perspective. Other characters feature heavily in their story, but the primary POV (especially after the midpoint) practically locks us out of information unless its given to the children or they seek it out. And they’re not often inclined to – there’s an entire magical world full of creatures and life cycles and potions and proper nouns and backstory the film could not give less of a fuck.
What’s almost as enjoyable as Ponyo learning about the wonders of being human (like “ham,” “tea,” and “feet that let you run on top of giant water fish”) rendered with that sumptuous attention to process that we’ve discussed already is how the film bulldozes through Rules and Mythology like a 5-year-old on a sugar high. You can practically see the “Golden Age Pixar” version of this where the act breaks and story reveals would have Swiss watch precision, but instead if telling you everything carefully and precisely, the film just shows you in a way that seems chaotic but is revealed to be the movie’s central thesis.
Ponyo is at the age where seemingly incidental experiences can lead to life-altering personal revelations, and as soon as she’s had a (literal) taste of being human, she knows in her heart of hearts that it’s what she wants. Sosuke sees her and immediately recognizes a kindred spirit in need, and every time the film throws a transformative left turn into their dynamic, he (and Ponyo) accepts it completely at face value. The rest of the film is devoted not to narrative contrivances to keep a plot-negating conversation from taking place or throwing petty personal conflicts in the kids’ way, but to them overcoming the basic physical obstacles that keep them from reaching their goal. Because they’re kids, this can just as easily take the form of a momentary distraction of random kindness as the logistics of “getting across a flooded island on a toy boat,” and as such the children prove their quality before even reaching the Appointed Place and Time.
Ultimately, Ponyo is a film that so fully embraces the visual form of the medium that all the most important information of the story is conveyed without anyone having to speak a word. It’s not that the film is careless with its spoken word, but it’s a movie that – with seeming effortlessness – simply exists as the purest version of itself, as though it were the embodiment of one of the children breathlessly telling us the tale.
(Sidebar: I had an unexpected opportunity to test this out when Ponyo returned to theaters for Ghibli Fest this year. My daughter, Marian, has held this as one of her favorite films essentially since she first saw it some years back, but had never seen it on the big screen. Thinking what a clever and caring father I was, I took her to an evening screening with dinner. . . only to realize I’d inadvertently taken a 6-year-old to the Japanese language version with English subtitles, like an absolute genius. After 100-odd minutes of whispering translated subtitles to her, she happily informed me “I didn’t mind, I could tell what was happening without the words.” I couldn’t be mad about the wasted effort, given that she so perfectly summarized a take I’ve been mulling over for weeks.)
The lesson of Ponyo isn’t only in the construction – though it’s hard to imagine a more potent recent example of a film nearly weaponizing its visuals without invoking Spider-verse and Fury Road. It’s also a sharp corollary to the adage of “if someone tells you who they are, believe them,” because they’ll likely show you far sooner. And while we see competing sets of parents wrestling with the fallout of their progeny’s choices, it’s the seemingly distractable (and occasionally reckless) chaos mom who has the distance to see who her son is becoming, and it’s only after she’s been away that Ponyo’s own parents recognize her for who she is, rather than who they wanted her to be.
Next time, we start our slow descent into a world of biographical aviation with the (supposedly) penultimate film from the maestro, The Wind Rises.