Ponyo (2009): **
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Ponyo is a beautiful film that haunted and disturbed me
at a very profound level. It is one of the more frightening horror
films I've seen in ages due in good part to the fact that it's aimed
at children. Yes, that's right; Miyazaki made a horror movie for
This movie is a bizarre twist on the Little Mermaid story. Ponyo
is a "goldfish" (even though she looks nothing like a
goldfish; she looks more like a little doll in a red dress) who
is the daughter of a former-human sorcerer (whose character design
I found horribly unappealing) and a goddess of the sea. The mother
is off busy being a goddess or something, so she lives with her
father, who is doing something nefarious with elixirs in a well
that he hopes some day will wipe out humanity and restore the sea
to prominence like it was in the Devonian age. Yikes! Ponyo, being
half god and half sorcerer, has immense power potential, so her
dad keeps her confined in his ship. But in the opening sequence
of the film she escapes, gets caught in a bottle, and then gets
rescued by a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke.
This early sequence of Sosuke carrying Ponyo around in a bucket
are really very charming, except that Sosuke filled the bucket with
fresh water, which should have killed a salt-water fish like Ponyo.
I guess being half goddess has its rewards? Anyway, the scenes of
Sosuke taking Ponyo to school and the old-folks home next door to
the schoole (where Sosuke's mother works) are a lot of fun and are
full of those well-observed details about childhood life that made
My Neighbor Totoro so enjoyable. It seems that this is
going to be a light-hearted, delicate comedy with maybe some life
lessons, like Sosuke learning to be responsible for Ponyo or something
like that. I was fully prepared to enjoy it. There was an especially
delightful and rather poignant scene where Sosuke's father has to
take another voyage with the ship he works for, which greatly upsets
Sosuke's mother, and the three of them communicate back and forth
via signal lights.
But then Ponyo's father kidnaps her back under the sea. And shortly
thereafter the horror begins. Ponyo has fallen madly in love with
Sosuke and has actually tasted his blood (she licked a small cut
on his finger to heal it), which has given her the power to transform
into a human. She escapes from her goldfish bowl and makes her way
to the well of elixirs where she apparently (this part is confusing)
becomes imbued with all of the power contained therein. She then
storms back towards shore to find Sosuke, destroying everything
in her path in her obsessive quest. Seriously!
She floods the entire town in a matter of minutes and does undoubtebly
billions of yen worth of damage, and likely drowning several people.
Or at the very least all of the animals that live in the town, including
all of the wildlife in the nearby woods. She does all this just
so that the sea can carry her up to the car that Sosuke is in, while
Sosuke's mom recklessly tries to outrun this monstrous wave that
looks like fish. It's an absolutely terrifying scene, except for
that it's presented in such a way that it's supposed to be enjoyably
magical. "Look at that adorable little girl running on those
fish waves! Isn't that cute?" Ignore the fact that thousands
(at least) of people are having their homes utterly destroyed by
those same waves, their businesses submerged and ruined, their life-long
dreams shattered beyond any hope of repair. Just look at how cute
I found something horribly irresponsible about Ponyo from
that point on. The movie loses all sense of realism that it had
rather carefully built in the first act. People stop behaving like
human beings and start behaving like... well, I don't know what.
Sosuke's mother leaves her 5-year-old son alone in a horrible storm
and rising flood waters with a strange little girl who used to be
a fish so she can go check on the old folks at the undoubtedly flooded
old folks home. Those geezers are probably dead, lady! This is a
disaster--it's time to look after your son!
In the morning when she hasn't returned, Sosuke and Ponyo set out
to find her, and they come across a refugee boat with a man, wife,
and baby in it, who somehow managed to survive the deluge. And this
family acts like they're just out for a relaxing morning boat ride.
They're happy and cheerful and are glad to see Sosuke out and about.
They don't even seem to realize that their home and livelihood are
gone, or that they're lucky to be alive. It just seems like any
other ordinary day to them. I was flabbergasted! I couldn't believe
this scene at all. Who were these people to be acting so
ho-hum about their entire world being destroyed!?
As Sosuke and Ponyo go putting around in their little boat, they
notice that the flooded town is full of sea life from the Devonian
period (which Sosuke just happens to be an expert on). We see these
gigantic beasts swimming among the submerged trees and it's presented
as a wonderful, magical time. But these things are monstrous. I
couldn't help but think that it was exactly like watching children
swimming in a lake full of crocodiles and being expected to think
it was a charming scene.
An explanation is put forward that since Ponyo is straddling the
worlds of the sea and the land by being a fish in human form, she
has destroyed the balance of nature to such an extent that the moon
is actually descending to the earth, and its gravitational field
is distending the very oceans. Once that idea was introduced, I
realized that this flood wasn't just a localized event; all of Japan
and, indeed, all of lands that touch the western Pacific ocean had
to have been flooded as the sea level rose a hundred feet or more.
We all remember from just a few years ago how many hundreds of thousands
of people died as a result of a mere 20-foot tsunami. Now here was
a disaster on such a global, epic scale that it makes that tsunami
look like a 2-inch wave in a kiddie pool. But remember, this is
a charming children's movie! So nobody seems at all upset with the
fact that the world is being destroyed.
In order to restore the balance of nature, Ponyo must choose to
go wholly to one side or the other, either completely fish or completely
human. But she's so single-minded about being a human with Sosuke
that it's basically no choice at all. And Sosuke is asked if he
could still love Ponyo even if she were just a goldfish. But we've
seen from the entire first act that, yes, he did love Ponyo even
when she was just a goldfish, so it's an absurdly easy decision
for him to make as well. Ponyo is never confronted with the horrors
that she's caused. She never learns that what she did was selfish,
wrong, and hurt a lot of people. In the end she is rewarded for
her reign of terror by getting exactly what she wanted all along.
I don't know what happened. Maybe Miyazaki thought that because
he was making a film for very young children that there didn't have
to be any consequences to anyone's actions? That it was somehow
okay to present horror, tragedy, and disaster as light-hearted fun?
To reward the monster that caused all of it? Even in My Neighbor
Totoro, which is a wonderful kids' movie, there are moments
of real fear when Mei goes missing. And Satsuki is actually afraid
of the giant Totoro when she first sees him. Satsuki, Mei, their
father, and their neighbors behave at all times like well-observed,
real people. But now imagine a horror movie where a group of people
are stranded in the woods and are being attacked by a horrible monster
that infects them with a poison that causes them to die slowly and
painfully. Now imagine that every single character in that movie
acted like they were just on a lovely stroll through the woods and
that everything was wonderful in the world.
There are individual moments of magic and delight in the movie
(especially that first act), and I truly enjoyed the animation and
the colored-pencil backgrounds. The wavery underwater effects were
actually animated that way, not with some later computer-generated
waviness added to the animation! But always in my mind was the fact
that I was supposed to find it charming that there was all of this
horror and this world in chaos and these lives lost and destroyed.
And I don't care what that woman says. Her baby did NOT like Ponyo.