It has been a long time since Studio Ghibli made a film that was so welcoming to a very young demographic. I am choosing my words carefully there: “welcoming to”, rather than “aimed at”, because Ponyo is every bit as enjoyable for adults to watch as any of the other Ghibli films. It’s just that it has the added bonus of being the most child-friendly of the whole range. I have a four-year-old and he will watch My Neighbour Totoro with a passing interest; he takes no notice of any of the other Ghibli fims that we deem suitable to put on when he is in the room, but he loves Ponyo.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have a healthy dose of Ghibli weirdness. The plot concerns a magical fish who falls in love with a five-year-old boy and decides she wants to turn into a human to live her life with him. A lot of the Ghibli films are basically gentle romances between children, and at times this feels oddly close to being a gentle romance between five-year-olds, which is just about ok until their parents have a big conference and then start talking in terms of whether the boy, Sosuke, is willing to make a declaration of lifelong love to Ponyo. No five-year-old can understand that kind of concept, and Sosuke is remarkably advanced and independent for his age. It’s almost as if Hayao Miyazaki characterised him as an older child but drew him as a pre-schooler. That was not the intention: Sosuke was based on his own son Goro as a child. Perhaps his incredible resourcefulness and mature approach to mediating in his parent’s little tiffs was a compliment to Goro, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise anyway if the son of a genius like Miyazaki was a child prodigy.
Ponyo, when she becomes a little girl, is much more of a believable five-year-old, despite all the weirdness. Let’s face it, five-year-olds are weird anyway. She is a prime example of the Japanese genki girl; one of the first phrases I learnt when I studied a bit of Japanese in college was o genki desuka (how are you?), literally, “are you well?”, but genki has overtones of good health, in particular lively good health or being energetic. So a genki girl is a trope that crops up often in anime and you can recognise them by their boundless energy. Most five-year-olds are like that anyway, but Ponyo is on another level. She has so much energy that she causes a tsunami.
And that brings us to the balance of nature, which is the key theme of the film. Ponyo tries to move between worlds, but nature will not allow her to exist in two worlds at once. She cannot be a magical creature from her underwater kingdom, blessed with some rather useful super powers, and also a little girl living a human life. Her escape to be with Sosuke has enormous consequences, and when the moon starts getting closer and closer to the Earth, raising the tides, flooding the whole town where the movie takes place, and endangering every vessel on the sea, it’s obvious she is causing some pretty major problems. Sosuke’s father works out at sea, which raises the threat level.
This all links in strongly with human corruption of the balance of nature. Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto, hates humans for the pollution they cause, but Miyazaki is true to form and doesn’t go with a simplistic message of “this is bad, and this is good”. His films are all about shades of grey (metaphorically – believe me the art is gloriously colourful!) and in fact Ponyo is first brought into contact with Sosuke because humans are trying to clean up the mess they have caused. In fact, the film is all about showing his generalisation of humans to be incorrect, and how we can be individually good people while collectively causing problems. It’s something approaching an anti-xenophobia message as much as anything, with the union of the two families a little bit Romeo and Juliet (although given a happy ending of course).
But the love of the two children is not that kind of love. It can’t be, due to their age. By the end of the film they are looking to a future where they will be brother and sister, and it’s quite right that love at their age is indefinable as anything other than… love. It cannot be categorised, and doesn’t have to be. They have quite simply become a family. Like in Howl’s Moving Castle, a family has been assembled. You could even take it as a positive parallel for adoption if you like, although it’s never quite sold to the audience in those terms. They are a family who love each other, and that’s all that matters.
A quick note about the voice cast: the Disney dubs are known for pulling in big stars, but this is extraordinary. Sosuke’s father Koichi is really a very minor role in the film, and he’s voiced by Matt Damon. Ponyo’s mother has even less screen time, and she’s voiced by Cate Blanchett. The two kids are voiced by Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, and Fujimoto is Liam Neeson. Sosuke’s mother Lisa is voiced by Tina Fey, but most astonishingly the three old ladies in the care home where Lisa works are voiced by three absolute legends of American film and television: Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman. This is quite possibly the most talented voice cast ever assembled for an anime.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 10 in particular are all completely magnificent:
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Tales from Earthsea
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
I’ll leave you with the trailer for Ponyo, although bear in mind that it shows a lot of the action and little of the heart and soul of the film itself. Next time we will be looking at one of the most beautiful and magical Studio Ghibli films: Arrietty. RP