Hayao Miyazaki’s films have often tended toward the fairy tale, sometimes quite dark and sometimes not very dark. He’s always favored putting children in his movies, either right at the center or at least as a prominent secondary character. These kids are usually somewhere between 10 and 14, with a possible younger sibling involved as well. However, with his tenth film in 2008, the master focused on children who were younger than ever before, both main characters around 5 years old, and he merged modern day Japan with a very old school fairy tale, a famous one no less, and was able to create castles in a way he never did before — not in the sky or walking on the ground but underwater. In many ways, Ponyo is beautiful and deep like the ocean it depicts… so why I don’t I really care for it?
Before I get any further and people start getting really angry at me for not liking Ponyo, let me quickly say that this is still an utterly gorgeous movie, visually speaking. There’s no diminishing just how lovely Miyazaki’s movies look and his animation style always gets more innovative the further he goes in his career. The same care he always put into the way things float, soar, and fly in the air, he put into how things react and speed through the water. It’s at once artistically evocative and true to the physical world. While his movies all have the distinct character style he’s known for, this film’s backgrounds are much more noticeably drawings, perhaps to mimic the childlike nature of the narrative and the main characters, but it’s this childlike nature I think that puts the movie at arm’s length for me. Ponyo is a take on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Little Mermaid, which was of course very famously made into a Disney feature that didn’t end with Ariel dying. It’s been Miyazakified in order to make the “mermaid” and the prince both little children and the only thing approaching a bad guy being the mermaid’s own father, the king of the sea. Her mother, by the way, is the goddess of the ocean and is depicted by a huge ethereal woman floating under the water. Much of the film, however, takes place in the human world with a little boy and his mother who live on the side of a cliff and continually wait for the husband/father to come home from being at sea, though he seems to always take new assignments and never actually get to come home. The water and people’s relationships to it also play a very important role. The plot begins when a once-human wizard named Fujimoto who lives underwater takes his little fish-girl children on an outing. The largest of these girls, Brunhilde, gets caught in a fishing net and gets stuck in a bottle. She then washes up and is found by a little boy, Sōsuke, who decides to keep this “goldfish” as a pet. He splits the bottle open, cutting his finger in the process, and puts the little fish girl, which he’s decided to call “Ponyo” (apparently for the onomatopoetic way she sounds). Ponyo licks his cut and it goes away, but having drunk human blood (gross) she begins to exhibit humanoid traits, like being able to speak. Meanwhile, Fujimoto is frantically looking for his daughter and when he finds out she’s been taken in by a human, he gets very upset indeed. Believing Sōsuke has kidnapped the girl, he sends his wave creatures to retrieve her, leaving Sōsuke inconsolable after the loss of his new friend. Underwater, Ponyo, the only name she will answer to now, refuses to accept her father’s orders and begins to grow and sprout legs and arms, turning into a human from the blood she drank. She now craves ham, having devoured a piece given to her by Sōsuke earlier. Her tiny sisters also want her to be free, so they help her to escape, using her magic to prance atop waves that look like giant fish to catch up to Sōsuke and his mother’s car. When she finally reaches her friend, he doesn’t recognize her OF COURSE, but then he eventually does and says “Ponyo’s back, Mom, and she’s a girl!” which his mother accepts pretty much immediately. Ponyo’s excess magic usage means a massive tsunami bubbles up from the sea and floods the town, forcing Sōsuke’s mother to leave the kids alone and go to the nursing home where she works. Fujimoto begins to notice that the moon is falling out of orbit and satellites begin to fall like comets. He knows that this is because Ponyo living as a human is upending the laws of nature. He speaks to the Granmamare, Ponyo’s mother, who tells him if Sōsuke, being the human who has taken Ponyo in, can pass a specific test, then everything will be back to normal, but if he fails, Ponyo will be turned into sea foam. Cool, cool, disgusting, cool. Ponyo and Sōsuke take his toy boat (which she makes big enough for them to float in) and head out into the flooded land to search for his mother, along the way spotting many prehistoric fishes and other mythical sea creatures that have been drudged up by the magic. The more Ponyo uses her magic, however, the more she begins to revert back to fish form. They are eventually taken down under the water to the nursing home which is completely underwater, though Fujimoto has given them all the ability to breathe underwater temporarily. Sōsuke doesn’t trust Fujimoto but they are eventually met by the Granmamare who asks if Sōsuke could love Ponyo if she were a fish. He replies he loves all the Ponyos, referring to all the little sisters who are still fish. She then says Ponyo can decide to become a human but that she will have to give up her magic to do so. She agrees and the seas begin to subside and the stranded boats are able to leave. Okay. Great. So that’s a movie called Ponyo. I think there’s some interesting stuff in the narrative here, and it’s certainly weird, but I just think it’s aimed at too young an audience for me personally to really enjoy it beyond the enjoyment I get from watching anything Miyazaki touches. Unlike My Neighbor Totoro, which was certainly aimed at younger children but was at least brisk and unfolded like a child’s memory, Ponyo has a lot of plot but not a lot of action, and is a bit longer than it ought to be, clocking in at 101 minutes. Again, any shot in this movie is a work of art, and it’s definitely worth watching for the visuals alone, but if you’re looking for anything too deep beyond just referencing family troubles, then I’d say other of the director’s films are more rewarding. It’s a shame that I don’t really care for this movie because it’s Miyazaki’s penultimate feature. He had wanted to make a sequel to Ponyo because he personally loved it so much, but his producer talked him into doing a different kind of film for his eleventh feature, which was to become his final masterpiece, 2013’s The Wind Rises. As of this writing, I have yet to watch The Wind Rises; I’m sort of sad to watch it because that means our journey through the films of one of my favorite filmmakers is at an end. But, for the sake of completion, it must be done. Next week, come back here for Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature film.