ponyo-poster1At this point, calling Hayao Miyazaki the Japanese Walt Disney does Miyazaki a disservice: Even Disney in his prime didn’t have the long and dazzling streak that Miyazaki has had. For decades now, Miyazaki has produced one stunner after another, simple yet complex fables about the uneasy relationship between man and nature — more uneasy on nature’s side, actually. His latest, Ponyo,* is a bit like The Little Mermaid run through Miyazaki’s psychedelic, eco-conscious filter.

Miyazaki wastes no time boggling our eyes: thirty seconds in, we’re floating amid a seething nebula of jellyfish. Up on the surface, fishing boats give off warm, distant illumination. In the movie’s scheme, the boats are necessary evils, but still formidable, so they have their own beauty. In the deep, a goldfish sired by a once-human undersea wizard yearns to break out of her safe but stifling haven, and she does. She gets caught up in a fishing net, and a boy named Sosake finds her lodged in a glass jar. He gets her out, puts her in a bucket and names her Ponyo. The fish and the boy take a liking to each other, and soon Ponyo breaks into her father’s magical vault and gains the power to become human.

This, needless to say, throws the balance of things way out of whack. Ponyo, one of Miyazaki’s more generous works, is a dream of reconciliation between the sea and the land, or nature and man. It comes at a cost, though: Fujimoto, the wizard, unleashes a flood of mystical creatures that seem to change from fish to water and back again, and Sosuke’s seaside town is swamped. His father Koichi is on a fishing boat, his whereabouts unknown; his mother Lisa, a bat-out-of-hell driver, has taken off to make sure the nursing home where she works is safe. That leaves Sosuke and Ponyo to drift by themselves to find his parents, while Ponyo’s own parents — her mother is Granmammare, a powerful sea goddess with billowing hair — disagree about Ponyo’s chosen path.

As in many Miyazaki films (Princess Mononoke comes immediately to mind), there are no clearcut villains. The bitter Fujimoto wants nothing to do with humans, but he doesn’t cackle over the prospect of the moon going out of orbit and plunging the earth into primordial watery chaos — he recognizes that whatever kills humans will also kill everything else. Ponyo’s ecological concerns flow organically through the narrative, never dictating it. At its simplest level, like WALL•E, it’s a mismatched love story. Sosuke is tested: can he love Ponyo as either a girl or a fish? We could ask ourselves the same, sort of: can we love nature as it is, or do we need to map anthropomorphism over it, seeing fish and trees and nature itself as reflections of ourselves?

Quiet beauty reigns here; Miyazaki generally isn’t about big flamboyant “wow” moments, though he gives us some anyway. To watch Sosuke and Ponyo floating through the submerged town in a toy boat Ponyo has enlarged for the occasion, or Ponyo skipping across huge fish in pursuit of Lisa’s car, or Lisa and Granmammare standing in the distance talking, is to relearn the wonder of subtlety. With the possible exception of Up, Ponyo towers over this summer of empty toy-related blockbusters. It will end up as one of the best films in American release this year.

*This review refers to the Japanese-language, subtitled version of Ponyo; the version released in American theaters may be a bit different.

Explore posts in the same categories: animation, fantasy, foreign, romance

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