A world of pure imagination
The mother Lisa has the most poignant line in “Ponyo,” saying the equivalent of “When you find yourself surrounded by magic and wonder, you don’t try and understand it you just enjoy it.”
To me, that is the theme and lesson of “Ponyo” (“Gake no Ue no Ponyou” or “Ponyo on the Cliffs”). After dabbling in darker themes and more adult-orientated fare like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Miyazaki has returned to the lighter, simpler themes of the magic and mystery of childhood as found in his groundbreaking My Neighbor Totoro. One can always tell the target audience for a Miyazaki film by the age of the main character: “Spirited Away” was made for 10-year olds, “Princess Mononoke” was made for teenagers. The lead characters in “Ponyo” are 5 years old.
Like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Ponyo” is a film based on a childlike sense of joy and imagination. There is no need for a “villain” or some arbitrary conflict or threat for the children to overcome. Like Satsuki and Mei, Sosuke and Ponyo are pure at heart, and open to exploring the wonders around them. They feel their emotions without cynicism or thought, instead living in the moment and experiencing its joys, sorrows and fears.
Which is not to say there is no depth here. In “Ponyo,” Miyazaki has blended two unlikely sources; Richard Wagner’s pounding opera Die Walkure from Der Ring Des Nibelungen and Hans Christian Anderson’s melancholy fairy tale The Little Mermaid. The essential set-up comes from “Die Walkure,” where the god Wotan holds the goddess Freia captive, and is also the possessor of the Rhinegold Ring which grants vast magical powers so long as one gives up all possibility of love. As a nod to this, the name Ponyo is giving by her father is Brünnhilde, one of the Valkyrie who feels the power of the Ring and must make the choice between love and paradise. This story is skillfully blended with Anderson’s “Little Mermaid,” about a sea creature who must win the love of a human or be reduced to soulless sea foam.
Miyazaki essentially presents two movies. The front film is basic, colorful and easy to understand for children. The animation in “Ponyo” is some of the best that I have ever seen, with Miyazaki personally drawing much of the underwater and ocean scenes, utilizing the influence of classic Japanese ukiyo-e pictures. Miyazaki has said that “Ponyo” is his most technically complicated film, using more unique images than any previous film.
The second, deeper story is something that can only be assembled from fragments and snatches of conversation. For example, the wizard Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father, was a human being who fell in love with the ocean goddess Gran Mammare, and struggled for centuries to burn away his humanity and become consort and protector for the entity he loved. More than anyone, he understands the sacrifices and struggles awaiting Ponyo when she loves someone not of her world. These story/sub-story elements are one of the things I love so much about Japanese film, where more expectations are put on the audience to read between the lines and to give thought to the unspoken as well as the spoken
I am not sure how much of this deeper story survived the translation into English, as I watched the film in Japanese. There are some nuances that probably went missing, and I am curious as to how some of the scenes were handled, such as when Lisa sings Sosuke a part of the theme song to “My Neighbor Totoro” to cheer him up when his father is not home. Some other things, such as the significance of tunnels in Japanese folklore (considered the realm of female Mountain Gods who are prone to jealousy, it is assumed that the tunnel would not take kindly to a water deity passing through. However, outside the tunnel is a statue of Jizo, the protector of children, which sends a visual clue to the audience that Sosuke and Ponyo are going to be alright.) also might pass unnoticed or appear confusing to Western audiences, although every Japanese person would inately understand this without needing to be told.
Miyazaki proved in “Ponyo” that he is still the greatest director of animated films alive. I am so thrilled to have seen this movie, and I know I will watch it again and again.