REVIEW: Ghibli Fest 2023, Screening Three – Ponyo (2008)

A Film by Hayao Miyazaki

I have mentioned in previous reviews for this series that I was never able to see too many Studio Ghibli films during their initial theatrical runs due to them never really getting any sort of wide theatrical release until well up into the late 2000’s. However, Ponyo was a delightful exception. It was the very first Ghibli movie I ever saw in theaters, and I can hardly believe that was over fifteen years ago! While discussing Ghibli films, I find that Ponyo is often underrated in the grand scheme of things. This, I believe, is largely due to the unorthodox choices made during production that subverted expectations from what people had assumed to be the “The Ghibli formula” at the time. Ponyo has a unique art style that I will delve into, no true antagonist, is almost post-apocalyptic despite being rather “light”, and primarily relies on being a children’s fairy tale. In fact, it’s the closest film to My Neighbor Totoro in all of Miyazaki’s catalog.

“From the legendary Studio Ghibli, creators of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, and Academy Award®-winning director Hayao Miyazaki, comes a heartwarming family adventure. When Sosuke, a young boy who lives on a clifftop overlooking the sea, rescues a stranded goldfish named Ponyo, he discovers more than he bargained for. Ponyo is a curious, energetic young creature who yearns to be human, but even as she causes chaos around the house, her father, a powerful sorcerer, schemes to return Ponyo to the sea. Miyazaki’s breathtaking, imaginative world is brought to life with an all-star cast, featuring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin, Liam Neeson, and more.”

For more information on this series of showings CLICK HERE

Thematically, Ponyo borrows its basic setup from a combination of the Japanese myth “Urashima Taro” and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.” Most people are familiar with “The Little Mermaid” due to the 1989 Disney film of the same name, but I had to look up “Urashima Taro” because, sadly, I’m not well-versed in Japanese folklore. “Urashima Taro” tells the story of a fisherman who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle (which turns out to be the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea) and is carried on its back to the Dragon Palace beneath the sea. Interestingly, another Ghibli film, The Cat Returns, has a very similar plot, so it must be a popular folktale in Japan!

If one could view Ponyo as Hayao Miyazaki’s take on these classic stories, it would be akin to how one could see Spirited Away as his vague interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. However, the similarities between Ponyo and its inspirations are superficial at best. Yes, Ponyo is about a magical fish that yearns to become human, under the threat of turning into seafoam if she fails, but that is merely the skeleton of a plot that supports the entire movie, which is far beyond the boundaries of your average fairy tale.

The setting for Ponyo is inspired by the real-life town of Tomonoura in Japan, and while I can’t 100 percent get a feel for exactly when it takes place, there are plasma televisions, so I fully assume it was contemporary for the early-mid 2000s, or when this film was produced. The only reason I question it, is that there is a vague sense of old-fashioned living we see in many Miyazaki films presented in Ponyo, a way of life that seems to set living in a coastal town dominated by sea-faring and shipping apart from our modern era. Sosuke and his parents have all the modern amenities one could expect, but can be seen to rely on “old” technology such as radio antennas, generators, landline phones and more. It both makes everything seem older than it is, and somehow makes everything timeless as most Ghibli films are.

As mentioned previously, the art style in Ponyo is truly impressive as much as it is atypical for modern animation. The backgrounds, in particular, appear to be colored-pencil drawings, which gives the film a distinct style that sets it apart from other animated films. This technique must have been incredibly difficult to produce, or perhaps computer-generated animation has come a long way. I know that another Ghibli film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was basically hand-drawn, so I wouldn’t put it past Miyazaki to really push the staff with something like this. Regardless, the result is truly remarkable. Even when the film touches on some darker tones, the art makes the overall feeling cheerful and “light”, everything is imbued with a sense of whimsy and wonder. From the moment we see Sosuke’s house perched on the cliff, and you can see individual pencil strokes, we know we’re in for a different kind of animated adventure.

Another thing that really makes Ponyo stand out is its gorgeous symphonic score created by Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi is a Japanese composer, musical director, conductor and pianist, known for over 100 film scores and solo albums dating back to 1981. His collaborations with Miyazaki are sometimes seen in a similar vein to that of the relationship between Steven Spielberg and John Williams, and that’s a BIG compliment for sure. Just glancing at some of his works is a testament to the sound of early anime, many scores that I did not realize were all the same person, and all that I thought were remarkable.

I mentioned before that this film has no real antagonist aside from nature perhaps, and there were plenty of times when various characters could have been evil, but I will commend Miyazaki for trying something different here. It would have been easy to make Fujimoto into the “bad guy” here, or allowed one of the women in the care home, Toki, to be something more than just slightly crotchety, but nope. Everything is somehow very wholesome, and everyone comes out at the end being better for their experiences no matter what. In a way, you could even say that Ponyo herself is the chief antagonist, as her love for Sosuke and her unwillingness to follow the rules is what causes the very predicament that nearly destroys the earth. We never see the actual scope of what happens at the end of the film aside from what happens in the small coastal town, but one would assume that the moon shifting around probably caused worldwide chaos.

Despite the underlying idea that Ponyo has caused an apocalyptic event, flooding the entire world and bringing the moon closer to the Earth, the film manages to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy throughout. Even as Sosuke and Ponyo take a boat ride through the flooded town and encounter ancient creatures from the Devonian Period swimming through the streets, the tone is never dark or frightening, but rather wondrous. This is one of the things that makes Ponyo such a good children’s film – it manages to balance the fantastical elements with a sense of safety and comfort, never crossing into truly terrifying territory. In reality, most would experience sheer horror at seemingly finding ones-self in a drowned world. Instead there is a keen sense that no matter what, everything is okay.

Even the lead-up to the big flood, the typhoon scene, is somehow kept magical. With its big waves, strong winds, ominous music, and worried townspeople, this scene may be too intense for some children. My son, however was on the edge of his seat and fully locked in. I think it was because we see crazy fish, Ponyo running on waves, and the magical ability Lisa has to recklessly drive and not get in a wreck all in full force. all things that should not be able to happen, happening in full force. It is a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that they were able to create such a tense moment without losing the sense of wonder and magic that permeates the rest of the film.

The film hints at some environmentalist and elder care themes, but as it is a children’s movie, there is no preachy messaging to be found. Miyazaki’s viewpoints are evident, but he employs subtlety, a refreshing change from other directors who tend to hammer their messages home.

The film portrays the importance of respecting and living in harmony with the natural world, something that Miyazaki has been known to emphasize in his other works. We see this theme in the way that Ponyo’s transformation from fish to human is directly tied to the health of the ocean, and in the way that the imbalance caused by human activity threatens to upset the delicate balance of the natural world. This message is particularly relevant in our current era, where climate change and environmental degradation are major concerns. It’s important for children to be exposed to these themes at a young age, and Ponyo does an excellent job of presenting them in a way that is accessible and engaging.

This showing, like with Totoro, had a 10 minute segment of a documentary about Hayao Miyazaki as a special feature, this time technical issues were cleared up!

Overall, Ponyo is a magical and enchanting film that manages to be both lighthearted and serious at the same time. Its unique animation style and well-crafted characters make it a joy to watch, while its underlying messages about the importance of respecting nature and living in harmony with the world around us make it a film that is both entertaining and meaningful. The English voice cast did an amazing job, something that Disney usually excels at when they do big budget anime dubs such as this. Ghibli Fest 2023 is turning out very fun so far, and with eight more films on the horizon, it’s going to be amazing looking back on this and thinking about the memories my son and I are making. That’s moistly why I’m seeing these, to share them with a new generation.

That’s it for this month, join me again in June for my review of Kiki’s Delivery Service!


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