This is the third Ghibli film that I have seen in a cinema. My first two were Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, two stories that are dark, detailed and emotionally moving. Ponyo may be moving but it’s carefree. Its simplicity is its strength and Ponyo is brilliant and challenging in its own right.
This is the second time I have seen Ponyo but something irked me from the first showing and I’d like to get through my disquiet and what this film must be addressing.
The simple fact is that it’s a story based on the Little Mermaid fairytale. Ponyo is the fish, Sosuke the Prince. I have a lot of problems with stories where girls give themselves wholly over to boys in the name of love – girls should read Undine or watch An Education and realise men are not the answer to anything. My disquiet probably shows my cynical nature.
The film seems to tackle this cynicism – the problems caused by adult cynicism and rationality. Adults raise the most objections and are the obstacles the protagonists must overcome in their childlike and wholly innocent desire to pursue understanding and that which they love.
Ponyo’s father, “an evil wizard” was once human and mentions that people were once able to see magic, presumably reason and technology have blinded us. Now humans have “black empty souls” and dump trash on the sea-floor. The actions of the humans echo other Ghibli films in their treatment of environmental issues and inability to see magic like Catbus passing between the two farmers in Totoro.
Those few humans with the ability to be childlike or see magic – Lisa (Sosuke’s mother), Sosuke’s father and his crew with their superstitions and most of the women in the care-home benefit from magic. They then get to share in the happy ending and can see love in its purest form, uncorrupted by civilisation.
Ponyo and Sosuke are the ones fully ready to accept the magic and they seem to echo Rousseau and his noble savage theory – people are corrupted by progress/society whereas humans in prepolitical society exhibit a natural goodness that resembles an animal – neither good nor bad. It is in Sosuke and Ponyo’s nature to help people whereas adults tend to be driven by fear and anger.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. The most important thing about the film is that it is fun.
It is a painterly, leisurely Miyazaki on display and despite the simple story I enjoyed it immensely. The details are beautiful and immersive and there’s a real sense of taste and smell to the film.
Seeing it for a second time allowed me to see much more – squid sucking up to doorways, birds and other creatures from pre-historic ages, secondary characters and their reactions all adding to the richness of the film. As far as the voice-acting goes, the English dub is good however I prefer the original Japanese.
The film is immensely enjoyable and the sentimentality got me at points. I’m not sure as to whether it was the film or just recognising echoes of my Ghibli experiences as I saw the various non-verbal communication – hair rising with anger, the voluminous tears that gather before pouring down, the goofy unabashed grins and the recognisable character designs. Whatever. This is a great addition to the canon and I recommend you see it leave the adult cynicism at the door.