Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 12, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2008)

10. Ponyo
Gake no ue no Ponyo / Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Studio Ghibli in general and Hayao Miyazaki specifically are both called the Disney of Japan. In one way, this is correct. The popularity and massive success of their films, and unlimited merchandising of their characters, is comparable to the status the Disney empire holds in America. (And most everywhere else in the world, let’s face it.) However, Disney is a huge conglomerate. Even when Walt Disney was alive, he was more of a supervisor than a hands-on filmmaker. Ghibli, meanwhile, is a smaller operation with Miyazaki still hand-drawing major parts of his films. Still, the comparison holds some water and it’s, no doubt, one the director himself is aware of. I can imagine him looking at the films Disney makes and thinking “I can do that!” “Ponyo” has similar roots to the films of the Disney Animated Canon but ultimately a style and a tone that is pure Miyazaki.

Set on a tiny island in the middle of a massive sea, the film follows two young children. The first is Sosuke, a serious and focused five year old boy, living on a small house on a hill with his mother, who works at the local nursing home. Sosuke’s father is a boat captain and frequently away from home. The other child is Brunnhilde, the fish-like daughter of a human man and the goddess of the ocean. When the rebellious Brunnhilde escapes her father’s care, she spots Sosuke playing on the coast. The little girl is immediately smitten with the boy, who adopts her as his goldfish. Renamed Ponyo, the girl steals her father’s magic, transforming into a little girl, and reuniting with Sosuke… And flooding the island in the process.

“Ponyo” has a visual design and look distinct from any other Ghibli film. The animation style is simpler and more colorful. The waves of the ocean are a cartoonish, bright blue, like a child’s crayon. The character designs are looser and more expressive. The backgrounds are less detailed and more simplistic, often looking like slightly abstract shapes set against colorful backdrops. The change in style doesn’t represent a drop in quality. Instead, it’s a deliberate choice. The film’s look reflects the energetic drawling of a child, full of big, bold colors and simple, highly defined shapes. It’s an interesting choice, and one linked to the story, for Miyazaki to change up his style on his tenth feature film.

Don’t get the impression that “Ponyo” is lacking in the crazy, meticulous detail we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli though. The vehicles, homes, and clothes are the characters are as life-like and dutifully recreated as expected. The film opens with some of the most visually stunning and beautiful animation the studio has ever created. From under the sea, Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father, stands in a giant bubble, seemingly directing the sea life around him. Huge colonies of jellyfishes, shrimps, and other sea creatures swim around him. Squids, glowing multiple different colors, float overhead, the man flicking lights at them. While he’s distracted, Ponyo sneaks out of her inclosure, floating on the back of a giant jellyfish, snoozing under a bubble. After the island is flooded, accurate recreations of ancient sea creatures are seen swimming underwater. Even the sea monsters have a sense of character to them. While Ponyo and Sosuke are climbing onto his ship, a little octopus can be seen in the background crawling over a shoe. It’s that attention to detail that make Ghibli films such a wonder for the eyes.

The North American DVD cover, in an oddly prominent way, proclaims that the film is based off Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” “Loosely inspired by” would be more accurate than “based on.” As in “The Little Mermaid,” Ponyo is a princess from under the sea who rebels against her anti-human father after falling in love with a human male. If the boy’s love fails her, Ponyo will die and turn into sea foam, as in the frequently excised original ending of Anderson’s story. Beyond that, there isn’t much resemblance between the two tales. “The Little Mermaid” is, in its original incarnation, a tragedy. While “Ponyo” is a softer, sweeter story. (The film also throws in an unexpected reference to the Nibelungenlied too, what with the rebellious daughter being named Brunhilde.) What “Ponyo” most resembles is Miyazaki’s own “My Neighbor Totoro.” Both are simplistic stories about children and their encounters with the fantastic. Both are set in rural areas and both deal with the relationship between kids and parents. Keeping on in this trend, “Ponyo” is the first straight-up kid’s flick Miyazaki has made since “Totoro.”

You could say the director is repeating himself. “Ponyo” is certainly awash in the filmmaker’s trademarks. Early on, while swimming towards the surface, Ponyo is caught up in a net full of garbage. Fujimoto’s hatred of mankind is based on the pollution humanity has pumped into the ocean. Miyazaki’s ecological themes take a backseat to another one of his pet themes. The film is full of strong, fully-formed female characters. Sosuke’s mom, whom he calls Lisa instead of “mom,” is a headstrong woman. She drives her tiny car in front of a ship just as it’s pulling into dock. Later on, when the island is being quickly submerged by massive tidal waves, she races the same tiny car around tight corners, huge waves threatening to swallow it up. She’s somewhat petulant when dealing with her husband, sending angry messages to his ship through Morse code blinkers. Yet she’s loving towards Sosuke and accepts Ponyo’s magical reappearance at their home. The nursing home Lisa works at contains three older ladies. Toki is equally headstrong while Yoshie and Kayo are more whimsical. All three love Sosuke and its clear that the little boy livens up their lives. A wonderful moment occurs at the end, when we discover the older women running freely for the first times in years within Fujimoto’s magical underwater bubble. Ponyo herself and her mother are both examples of this tendency too, of course.

The film is concerned with something else too. A topic frequently oversimplified, if not out-right ignored, by most children’s media is the relationship between parents and their kids. This comes to the forefront in “Ponyo.” Ponyo is rebellious towards her father. As the film opens, she is contained in a bubble, along with her hundred little sisters. Fujimoto is protecting her from the world of man but, in a wider sense, is simply protecting her. As it is sometimes, the parent putting a leash on the child makes her want to wander more. Meeting Sosuke and becoming infatuated with the boy is just the catalyst needed to push the two apart. Fujimoto’s resistant towards his daughter is somewhat hypocritical. After all, he was once a normal human who fell in love with a mystical being from the sea. Sosuke and Lisa’s relationship contrasts. The absence of Sosuke’s father has had a profound effect on the boy. He’s mature for his age, with his mother frequently coming off as the more care-free one, like when she shares an ice cream cone with her boy or romps on the bed with him. Ponyo’s mother is the great Goddess of Mercy and happily accepts her daughter’s crush on the land boy, recognizing the similarities between their relationship and her and Fujimoto’s. The ocean mother is a figure of understanding and all-abiding love.

Like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Ponyo” has an accurate grasp on the energy of youth. This is mostly evident in the first meeting between Ponyo and Sosuke. When she’s a fish, Sosuke is very excited to have her. He obsesses over the little fish, showing her to his pre-school friends. When the fish is taken back to the sea, he’s visibly sad, wishing for her return. Ponyo returns that devotion in kind. After being reunited, she leaps on the boy in a full-force hug. Ponyo shouts, leaps around, and is a little ball of energy in general. When introduced to ham, a towel, or hot tea, she goes crazy with enthusiasm. One tiny, notable moment has her running around the room in a circle, climbing over a couch, instead of walking to the dinner table in a straight line. She’s a good contrast to Sosuke’s controlled personality. Ponyo is pure, unrestrained childhood id.

It’s interesting that the film presents the two kid’s relationship as unabashedly romantic. The film makes a good case for “puppy love.” Ponyo’s feelings for Sosuke is something between a precocious crush and a kid finding her best friend. Sosuke, meanwhile, seems to have a calm, understated attachment to his fish girl. The film’s dramatic climax comes with what Ponyo’s mother calls the Test of Love. The mermaid princess turns back into a fish, shrinking in the boy’s arms. As she swims around him, Sosuke is asked if he’ll love Ponyo even if she’s a fish. He answers in the positive, providing this kid-friendly fairy tale with its happy ending. Inverting the usual trick, it’s the fishy kisses the little boy before turning into a little girl. Whether or not Sosuke and Ponyo will grow into lovers or be something more like brother and sister is up for the viewer to decide.

Since so much of the film revolves around water, it’s appropriate that it should treat magic as a fluid, natural process. Fujimoto’s main ability is to summon water-like creatures to do his bidding. The creatures, recalling the Blob Men in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” have big eyes amid thick, fluid bodies that stick out amidst the water. He draws his powers from strange, glowing potions, kept in elongated bottles in his underwater lair. When Ponyo escapes, she rockets to the surface on golden, glowing fish. Her little sisters swim around her, transforming into giant blue fish, and exploding out of the surface into the sky. Later on, the same batch of little sisters morph into older women while swimming around their sister again. The ocean goddess swims across the ocean’s surface as a giant reflection, gathering all the lost boats next to a still, huge wall of water. Ponyo’s transformation is the film’s best example of how fluid its use of magic is. She often shifts between human and fish while using her abilities, sometimes sprouting chicken-like arms and legs. Like Sophie shifting between ages in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Ponyo’s face and body stretches between forms naturally and without comment.

“Ponyo” is not an action movie and is generally short on big set pieces. Save for one. When Ponyo’s escape, she unleashes her father’s ancient magic, causing torrential floods to surround the tiny island. This is portrayed as massive waves sinking around the small landmass. Sosuke and his mother attempt to outrun the flood waters behind them. Only the son notices Ponyo skipping across the surface of the water like a stone. The mother is more preoccupied with getting away from the giant waves threatening to swallow them. “Ponyo” is a kid’s flick and the viewer never really doubts that Lisa and her kid will make it out safe. It’s a testament to the skills of the filmmaker that, even then, the viewer is on the edge of the seat during the sequence.

After the floods subsides, the aftermath is treated in a surprisingly relaxed fashion. Despite a whole town being buried underwater, no one is hurt and no lives are lost. Instead, the film treats the flooded area almost like a fantasy wonderland. Ponyo uses her powers to turn Sosuke’s toy boat into the real thing. The two set out over the water, awing at the sea creatures below. They come across a husband and wife in a small boat, a baby in her arms. The little kids quickly make friends with the adult couple. Because there’s no threat of the kids being harmed, the two of them setting off on an adventure over the waves has almost a cozy feeling. It’s fun and danger-free. Considering the film is about a huge flood, it treats the situation in a surprisingly laid-back fashion.

“Ponyo” is not a game-changer. It’s a low-stakes kid’s flick and repeats many of the themes Miyazaki stated in bigger ways in previous films. However, the director’s skills with characters and creating fantastic worlds on-screen have never faded. It’s a charming, sweet, if light-weight, adventure for the youngest set. I was fortunate enough to catch “Ponyo” in the theater when it was released in America, even if it was in Disney’s respectful if slightly distracting English dub. I can say Ghibli’s vividly animated, beautifully detailed films deserve to be experienced on the big screen, even in a more minor film like this one. [Grade: B]

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