Asian Cinema Month – Ponyo

Ponyo (2009, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Starring (English dub) Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Carlos Alazraqui

It was freshman year of college and it was a Friday night. We decided to see a movie. We let Clint pick, usually a bad choice…however, he decided on a Japanese animated feature called Princess Mononoke. I make no bones about the fact that I pretty much detest anime. I’ve tried to watch multiple series and can barely make it past the first episodes. Anime films, however, I have been able to tolerate fairly well. Well, that evening as we settled in to the barely occupied theater, I was overcome with amazement at the lush imagery before me. This blew anything Disney made right out of the water. The themes were complex and aimed more at adults than children. After that I would go to see Nausicca of the Valley, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Howl’s Moving Castle. All of these are the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Deep beneath the ocean lives Fujimoto (Neeson), an wizard who has abandoned the surface world and raises his fish daughters to fear humanity. The eldest of these guppy-like creatures escapes and is found by Sosuke, the young son of a navy officer and a nursing home attendant. Sosuke names the fish girl Ponyo and has to avoid her being taken away by a number of human forces. Eventually, Fujimoto surfaces and wants his daughter back while Ponyo has come to enjoy the surface and wants to become human. Some of these elements sound familiar? Yes, this is a Japanese re-imagining of The Little Mermaid.

The plot of the film is incredibly simple and I was reminded of the lighter Kiki’s Delivery Service. There’s never any real peril or chance anyone might actually die. You would think with the stakes being so low the picture would be a bore, but it most definitely isn’t. What pulls you in is the seemingly infinite imagination of Hayao Miyazaki and epic skill of his animators. Every film Miyazaki releases reveals why CG animation will never trump the power of high quality cel animation. It might not be as quick, but when given the proper time and skill you have unparalleled works of art. The wordless opening sequence of the picture is breathtaking, featuring the nighttime migration of jellyfish then transitioning to a panorama of sea life.

The adventures of Ponyo and Sosuke are pure wish fulfillment. I was particularly enamored with their excursion of a tiny steamboat through a flooded village. It felt like that exact thing so many kids would imagine while playing on the couch or in the backyard, the idea of freedom to travel and explore. Ponyo is a delightful character, she is constantly discovering the surface world and find joy in such simple things. Her first sip of hot cocoa drives her wild, her first warm meal puts her into a sleepy coma, and there’s never an adult admonishing for such exuberance. While you may think this is a film made for children, its just as much for adults, tapping into that time of discovery and play I think many of us miss.


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