Miyazaki Hayao is one of the stalwarts of Japanese animation, and possibly the only director known by filmic people in the Western world. After a thirty year career of increasingly telling humanity how terrible and polluting they are, Miyazaki finally returns to the spirit of wonder evident in the heroines of My Neighbour Totoro. In Ponyo he has made a movie about the relationship between a five year old boy and a magical fish girl. In his old age, the man has truly become the freewheeling Miyazaki.
Fish girl Brunhilde escapes from her “evil wizard” father and meets Sosuke, a boy who lives on a cliff by the sea. Circumstances pull the fish girl – rechristened “Ponyo” – and Sosuke apart, but Ponyo is determined to meet Sosuke again no matter the cost.
Ponyo is a free range movie, the sort you can watch while idly wondering if it will evolve a story, while also wondering if such a thing is necessary. It’s a movie about adventure and attraction and hyperactive five year old girls. It is like a washing line upon which events hang in some sort of logical order that the protagonists tackle when they feel like they could be bothered.
The characters all look like normal Ghibli fare, but the scenery is more storybook and water coloured than the solid Ghibli that we have grown used to since the early eighties. This works with the childhood by the sea theme, and the events are a lot less naturalistic than those of, say, Totoro, which offered a more traditional countryside.
Ponyo is always interesting to look at, and this is in part because Miyazaki effortlessly communicates the joy of movement. In Ponyo he has created a little girl simply incapable of sitting still. When she has to put something down, intrigued as she is by material possessions, it has to be explained to her that she needs her hands to actually do things. The character’s general enthusiasm is infectious and one could conceivably pull through the movie with a smile on their face purely in response to her.
Ponyo is a character study all of her own, and the most overtly developed animation model produced by Ghibli. In fish form, when she is quiet, Ponyo is both cute and hilarious. There’s just something about her largely gormless expression that sold her to me. Her transition form of a sort of “chicken toad” is kind of weird, but kind of cute and kind of funny. Rather like the movie as a whole.
Ponyo is a film set in the real world with fantastical elements that everyone seems to take for granted. I don’t know if that’s because an adult will humour the ramblings of a five year old or simply because everyone is pragmatic enough to go with whatever. For once, Miyazaki offers the moral “maybe humans don’t completely suck” and leaves it at that.
While very enjoyable, Ponyo isn’t perfect. The collective of old women isn’t as warm and lovable as it could be, as Porco Rosso‘s army of women was, and the score is disappointing. Sometimes Hisaishi Joe sounds his regular evocative self – which always works with Miyazaki’s films – but at other times his work here is distressingly similar to John Williams’ and, most blatantly and disturbingly, Wagner.
On the whole, though, Ponyo is a gentle adventure that gradually and entirely divorces itself from reality as we know it. One never knows what may happen next, because the film almost seems as if it is itself unaware of its own trajectory. It’s a unique experience, one of Miyazaki’s weirdest, and it should not be discounted.