Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
It’s always a joy when, as part of this series at my local theater, you see little children come to the Saturday matinee dressed as their favorite Studio Ghibli characters. There was little Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, Chihiro from Spirited Away and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro. This past weekend there were a few who showed up in full Ponyo garb, complete with green buckets. So deep into this marathon, I think I can begin to reach some generalized conclusions on the magic of Studio Ghibli and what it means to people. It is a magical series. I am experiencing many of these films for the first time, but to see the fan base of the Studio in general and individual films in particular is proof how timeless and impactful these films can be. One of the best aspects of this marathon to this point has been the ability to experience these films in such a group setting, with a mix of people like myself seeing the films for the first time, and a larger group of people are are ardent fans of the genre and Studio Ghibli canon.
I can remember thinking to myself that Ponyo was the Japanese version of Finding Nemo, and while that thought was misguided, there are also definitely similarities between the two. Sosuke is a cheery little boy who lives on top of a cliff in a seaside town with his mother Lisa and his father, who is an oft absent sailor. When one day Sosuke comes upon a goldfish in a glass jar, he names her Ponyo. Ponyo is the magical daughter of a magical sea wizard named Fujimoto. Thinking she has been kidnapped, Fujimoto sends his wave spirits to rescue her, but Sosuke has vowed to always protect her. With the sea/land out of balance when Ponyo uses her magic powers to become human, a great storm floods the town, and Sosuke and Ponyo, who were left at home by Sosuke’s mother who went off in the night to rescue the elderly ladies she works with, must search to find Lisa and face Fujimoto and Ponyo’s magical mother to restore balance to things.
Right away Ponyo felt like a child fantasy story with the animation style and the story as it unfolded. The animation is much more childish than some previous Ghibli offerings, like Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle for instance. But this style suits the rather cheery fantasy love story between Ponyo and Sosuke. Miyazaki has once again captured a fun and entertaining fantasy world which this time is very much grounded in the reality of a flooded seaside town with Miyazaki’s patented sprinkling of magical story dust. Ponyo and Sosuke are both infectious personalities. These are happy children who are awed by some of the simplest of things, which I think is a good parallel with Miyazaki’s style from the very beginning. He takes great pleasure in the simple wonders of the world and Ponyo is just another in the long line of magical examples of the natural world, morphed with a little dash of fantasy.
The second observation I had almost right away was about the story, which I couldn’t help but feel like was representative of the idea of parenthood. With Ponyo and Sosuke, we have two very different parenting style, and I think Miyazaki does a good job of balancing both and not necessarily depicting one as correct over the other. For Fujimoto, he is very protective of Ponyo, to the point that when she leaves him to become a human, his world becomes out of balance. The growing up of Ponyo into a human, or an adult in a loving relationship, rocks his world, a world where he has been over protective of her based on his past experiences with humans, or perhaps relationships in general. Meanwhile, Sosuke is a fairly independent young boy, who is given a good amount of trust by his mother and father. By pitting these two parenting style against each other, Miyazaki helps to show there is no single right way to raise your children. Despite the overprotectiveness of Fujimoto, Ponyo is a great, caring child. Sosuke is the same way.
The combined narrative depth of the story paired with the more magical moments and beautiful animation make Ponyo an exceedingly pleasant experience. It’s never heavy handed, even when commenting on ocean pollution by humans, and the effects it can have on sealife. It feels small, but at the same time, expansive with its little moments. When Ponyo enlarges Sosuke’s toy boat for them to use is marvelous. As is the moment when Ponyo reacts to Lisa putting ham and an egg in their ramen soup while they’re not looking. With Miyazaki, it’s always the little things which push his larger ideas and worlds to even greater heights. So while Ponyo may feel a little smaller, or a little less grand than some of his more well known films, it is still a joyful watch and time well spent with the Studio Ghibli master.