(If you missed the previous essay in this Studio Ghibli series check it out here: Howl’s Moving Castle)
Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki’s 10th film and one of his most arresting artistically. The tale is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” tale and in this sense, is a challenge to the Walt Disney company who had made their own version two decades prior. Although each story is compelling on its own, Ponyo is, I think, the better of the two films.
In Miyazaki’s previous three films he had used extensive CGI as a mixed media approach. The beasts (Mononoke) and spirits (Spirited Away) and machines (Howl) created through this process were somewhat hyper-real in the frame due to the extent to which they jarred and assaulted their scenes in an otherwise 2-D frame. Whereas the CGI boar demon, No-Face in the bathhouse, and Howl’s Castle were stronger for their 3-D, the story of Ponyo is more idyllic and optimistic and therefore in less need of aggressive animation techniques. Miyazaki went back to his roots in 2008 for Ponyo and created, once again, a masterpiece of 2-D animation with roots in classic Osamu Tezuka design, golden age Walt Disney phantasmagorical animation, and a healthy dose of Moebius color design and Frederic Back and Hiroshige wood-block title sequences. The result is visually stunning and hearkens back directly to the beauty of Castle in the Sky, though Ponyo exceeds even this.
The sound design, again, hearkens back to traditional Miyazaki work. Joe Hisaishi reprised his role as composer once again and strengthened many sequences with many traditional Ghibli-esque scores. Though these original compositions are mostly low-key in comparison to the ambiance of Nausicaa of Valley of the Wind’s compositions, the score is leant its dramatic airs and bombastic moments through the use of classical Western compositions like The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner.
Unlike Disney’s previous effort at adaptation of the story, this version is not a musical, and therefore, in my opinion, is a stronger film. And maybe one can even draw this line of thinking further by pointing out that few musicals are films in the film buff sense, a film being something that reaches beyond itself and can be considered more than a commodity, whilst a movie is something more akin to a commercial product, or a commodity, whose reach sits comfortably within its grasp. Whereas the themes of The Little Mermaid are escapism from one’s own reality, human yearning, and love (all sentimental themes, that are pretty quaint and oldhat), Ponyo represents the same themes, plus ecology, the triumph of the human spirit, and the ability for human beings to not only love but to be a transformative force in the world through its power. Plus, the artistic aspirations of Miyazaki’s film are head and shoulders above The Little Mermaid’s silver age Disney cookie-cutter animation.
In Ponyo, Brumhilde is a sentient fish with a humanoid face who lives under her father’s roof and rule in a magical submarine. Her father, Fujimoto, is a sorcerer who conceived her by the Granmamare, the Mother of the Sea. Fujimoto works to keep the sea and the world in balance, but when his daughter becomes unruly and seeks her freedom, the balance goes haywire. She escapes the submarine and approaches land. A trawler drags across the ocean floor and she is trapped within its net. She finds herself stuck in a glass that some jerk threw into the ocean and, unable to escape, washes up on shore on a small Japanese Island, where a young boy, Sosuke, scoops her up and breaks the glass. The glass shards cut Sosuke’s thumb and Brumhilde licks it, thereby gaining the DNA to transform into a human at a later date. Likewise, her saliva heals his wound quickly and Sosuke gains an affinity for the fish-girl. He carries her around in a bucket of water as his new pet and the form a bond.
Later, Brumhilde’s father tracks her down and finds that the boy has gifted her with a new name: Ponyo (an onomatopoeic word of Miyazaki’s creation meaning soft and squishy). Fujimoto takes her back home to the submarine where she rebels once more and sprouts frog legs and arms. Fujimoto puts her into a deep sleep and runs off to find the Mother of the Sea for guidance in this matter. Whilst away, Ponyo’s sisters free her bonds and flood the submarine, thereby mixing Fujimoto’s potions with the ocean water and giving Ponyo the magic power she needs to become an anatomically correct human. Ponyo then rides out on the waves toward Sosuke’s island. But her actions have created a disturbance in the natural order of things and now the moon is quickly approaching the Earth, the tides are changing, a storm is ravaging the Island, and Devonian age fish, birds, and lizards are running amok. The world is reversing itself and the ocean’s are taking revenge on humanity for depleting its stock of aquatic life and polluting them.
The Mother of the Sea and Fujimoto realize that the only way to fix the situation is to put Sosuke to a question: does he love Ponyo and will he always. If he responds no, Ponyo will become mere sea foam and the world’s natural order will restore itself. If yes, she will remain human and lose her magical powers, but the world will similarly revert back to its pre-chaotic state. A life in the hands of one boy’s choice. A choice that reflects on human attitudes toward the natural world, whether we can love and cherish that world as denizens of it who rely upon it. I’m no Gaia theorist and as such I don’t believe that the Earth itself is an organism that may one day decide to destroy human beings, but I do know that species evolve through natural selection. One day there may come a point in time when a select few within some species of plant or animal or fungi or bacteria develop a mutation that proves lethal for humans. And if we continue to pollute and destroy ecosystems and habitats, these may be the only ones that survive, making likely the possibility that we may not. Human action like Sosuke’s is a stand-in and symbol for living with, rather than against the world’s biospheres. And unless Elon Musk can jump-start the process of moving us to different worlds where we can create ‘back-up’ populations of homo sapiens, a final extinction is always possible.
[Next up: The Wind Rises]