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Master animator Hayao Miyazaki works his magic in an allegorical yarn of wonder

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"Her name is Ponyo. She likes to eat ham and she does magic."

This line, spoken by 5-year-old Sosuke, effectively sums up the whimsical fable-like sensibilities of master animator Hayao Miyazaki's latest work of cinematic brilliance. Deliberately oriented toward wee ones, defiantly illogical in its plot turns and espousing a Shinto view of the world (the story has no real antagonist), Ponyo is a touching and visually delightful meditation on loyalty, companionship and the wonder of the natural world.

Though it never achieves the heights of Princess Mononoke or his masterpiece, Spirited Away, this kinder, gentler take on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid brims with many of Miyazaki's fetishes, namely: dizzying dream logic, gentle humanism and eye-popping animated action sequences.

The chaotic, stream-of-consciousness storyline follows Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), who lives by the sea with his mom (Tina Fey) and much-absent dad (Matt Damon). One day, he meets an overeager goldfish named Ponyo (Noah Cyrus), who longs so deeply to be with her newfound friend that she transforms into a human. Unfortunately, not only does her magician father (Liam Neeson) pale at the thought of her joining the pollution-spewing human race, her defection from the undersea world upsets the cosmic order, disrupting the moon's orbit, triggering a tsunami that submerges Sosuke's town.

Though marginally a cry for environmental compassion and greater parental involvement, Miyazaki is too modest and idiosyncratic to beat you over the head with moralistic messages and posturing. Instead, his softhearted sensibilities quietly permeate a story that blissfully embraces the willy-nilly logic of a child's imagination. While most kids will readily dive into Ponyo's slight but untidy narrative, parents may struggle to keep up. Don't bother; surrender to the film's random intrusions. 

It helps that Ponyo is filled with his breathtaking animation. See a thrilling car ride through a roiling storm as Ponyo skips from wave to wave in pursuit; watch the fantastical world created in the storm's aftermath, as the two children take a boat ride through drowned streets filled with grotesque sea life.

If Miyazaki stumbles, it's in his abrupt and overly neat resolution. Falling back on hackneyed proclamations about love's power, he shuffles beyond the illogicality of his narrative and quickly wraps up what was an otherwise gracefully patient fantasy. It's an unfortunate choice that bluntly breaks the spell he so painstakingly cast. 

Still, given the sheer invention, earnestness and enchantment in Ponyo, it's petty to complain. And if my own son's delighted reaction is any indication, the audiences Miyazaki cares about most won't mind in the least.


Miyazaki: No more bootlegs

There was a time when watching most of Hayao Miyazaki's films meant breaking the law in this country. After his 1984 film, the lyrical ecological fable Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, was chopped up into a lame action flick for the American video market, Miyazaki refused to release his movies outside of Japan unless they were shown completely unaltered. Disney finally struck a distribution deal with Miyazaki's studio in 1996, but until then anime lovers had to resort to illegal bootleg tapes, lovingly if artlessly subtitled by bilingual fans. 

Now that they're out in deluxe editions with all-star English voice-overs, there's no excuse not to check out the works of animation's great auteur. Here are a few essentials spanning his pre-Ponyo career.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984): In a post-apocalyptic future, humans struggle to co-exist with a forest of poisonous fungus that's filled with insects the size of whales. While one tribe resurrects a doomsday machine to destroy the forest, a nature-loving princess seeks a more peaceful path. It's based on Miyazaki's only full-length graphic novel.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988): A giant owl-bear hybrid with a broad smile and a mighty roar, Totoro is a tree-dwelling spirit-beast that befriends two little girls living in the idyllic Japanese countryside. No plot, just a combination of giddy kid energy and warm reverie that, like Ponyo, finds as much wonder in the minutia of childhood as in its magical namesake.

Porco Rosso (1992): This tale of middle-aged redemption stars an ex-World War I fighter pilot mysteriously transformed into a pig by a wartime trauma. He spends his days fighting air pirates and feeling sorry for himself — until a hotshot American pilot challenges him to a duel and a plucky girl-genius aircraft designer offers to help him win it.

Princess Mononoke (1997): In a fantastical version of medieval Japan, a cursed prince gets mixed up in a war between a grimy industrial town and the angry animal gods of the nearby forest. He also falls in love with a feral human girl raised by wolves. A darker, more skeptical reworking of themes from Nausicaä.

Spirited Away (2001): Bratty 10-year-old Chihiro gets trapped in a city of magical spirits and is compelled by a witch to work for her freedom by cleaning up after the clients of an otherworldly bathhouse. Along the way she makes allies of various creatures, and matures enough to find the strength within herself to break the spell that binds her. A visually rich Oscar-winner. —Sean Bieri

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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