Ponyo is the most recent work of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and marks the end of my series of reviews on the works of Studio Ghibli. Sometime soon, I may get around to doing some sort of summary post. You may notice that there were no posts regarding Mimi o Sumaseba and Cat Returns, the reason is simply that I’ve already written reviews of those films in the past, a particularly long one for Mimi (which is a favourite of mine). Ponyo alludes to Totoro in its tone more than the films of Miyazaki’s directly preceding it, though many of its scenes retain the grand scope of some of his larger set pieces. Miyazaki leaves behind his love of the skies to deliver a story entrenched in the ocean and water and underwater life. Most people describe Ponyo as Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid, in that it involves a girl who lives in the ocean but wishes to be a human. Ponyo is controlled by a strange wizard-slash-overprotective father named Fujimoto, a human who despises his own kind and doesn’t want Ponyo to join the human world. Our primary character is Sosuke, a five-year-old boy who finds Ponyo washed ashore and takes a liking to her.
In every film he makes, Miyazaki begins with a world, a general setting and story concept. When he made Mononoke, it was with the idea of historical setting but with mythological inspiration, where spirits of nature battle with industrializing human society. He does not complete scripts or storyboards before beginning the project, he conjures an ending from his own perception of the momentum of the story afterwards. When I first began the film, I could immediately see what new world Miyazaki had immersed himself in this time. The opening sequence is a thing of beauty, a wordless trip through the undersea world, teeming with life, finally resting on Ponyo as she makes her escape to the world above the surface. Like most of his films, there are plenty of wonderfully bizzare and imaginative ideas strewn about. The one that many people would consider their favourite moment is the scene where Ponyo, now having her own feet, runs alongside Sosuke’s car, hopping between waves which literally come alive, with a huge smile on her face. But that’s really a very poor description of the delight contained in that scene. Ponyo has that same excellent standard of creativity within its imagery. Miyazaki is not running out of ideas.
Where the film might not match some of his best works is on an emotional level with regards to storytelling. I don’t think it would be too controversial to say that Ponyo is aimed more specifically at a younger audience than some of his other works. The storyline is very simple, moving along at a very light pace, and I personally found that it seemed to meander a bit at times. Now, Totoro, one of my favourite Miyazaki films, was essentially free of a specific conflict or overarching plot, but managed to be utterly compelling to me, so I tried to compare them and see exactly why I liked Totoro more. It might be because Totoro was intensely character-driven, inviting viewers to be moved by the characters and all their joys and disappointments, basking in the pleasure of their own imaginations. Ponyo seems to embody something of a halfway point between a story like Totoro and a more traditional fairy tale.
What I ended up feeling was that the best moments in the film were both the vividly imaginative set pieces involving the sea, as well as the quieter moments of character interaction – Sosuke and his mother calling their father, Sosuke showing Ponyo little things about his life that fascinated her, Sosuke’s fear when unable to locate his mother. The parts I was less interested in were those involving Fujimoto wanting to keep the balance of the world intact and things of that nature.
Considering the amount of care which goes into the presentation of the film, however, many people might leave the film enchanted entirely by the visuals. After Howl, which was the peak of a period at Ghibli which saw gradually increasing use of computers, Miyazaki decided his next film would eliminate them altogether and return to fully hand-drawn artwork. Ponyo has a very fresh, somewhat painterly look, with clear, bold lines and wonderful colours. Although Ghibli films are the only ones for whom I’d even come close to making this statement, the visuals are almost enough of a reason to watch the film alone.
As for the sound, the voice acting is of course, excellent and believable, as Ghibli uses actual child actors for the roles of children, rather than adults pretending to be children. The music by Joe Hisaishi is one of his strongest efforts, and probably his most musically mature composition with a great deal of classical influence. For example, the opening scene is underscored by a lush, densely textured piece of music which echoes the impressionistic music of Ravel or Debussy, and I would really be surprised if such music hadn’t been on Hisaishi’s mind during its composition. His orchestration has also come a long way from his first score, Nausicaa. As for the thematic content, Hisaishi has a fairly simple phrase that he uses to represent Ponyo, and it appears throughout the score in various forms depending on context. It’s not a really a candidate for his most compelling theme ever, but it plays its role in the film well enough.
I suppose what I found lacking in the film was a sense of emotional depth that defined many of Miyazaki’s so-called “lighter” films, whether Totoro or Kiki. In comparison, Ponyo and Sosuke’s personalities and interactions with each other feel somewhat simplistic and more straightforward (of course, they’re supposed to be six-year-old children, not adolescents like Kiki). That is where I think the greatest divergence is between Ponyo and the rest of the Miyazaki collection. More than any other, I think that Miyazaki was trying to make a film that his grandchildren could understand fully and enjoy. The level of artistry in Miyazaki’s depictions of the sea and the town, as well as the gentler character moments, are compelling enough to me as a Miyazaki fan, but for someone who is not, I think that any of his other films would be a better place to start.
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