[14 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He is consistently hailed as the last great master of 2D animation, the Walt Disney of his own amazing and imaginative Japanese empire. Several of his films sit at or near the top of the list of the nation’s all time box office champions and he is considered the first director of anime ever to win an Oscar (for Spirited Away). From an early career working on adaptations of Puss and Boots and Treasure Island, to his breakout Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he pledged to maintain a standard of quality and artistry that many in the modern movie biz can’t match. It’s a philosophy that’s followed him through other masterworks (My Neighbor Totorro) and true works of cinematic art (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle).
Now comes his latest, the fanciful fairy tale Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) and he’s actually brought the House of Mouse along with him this time. New head of cartooning, Pixar’s John Lasseter, has made it his goal to make Hayao Miyazaki a household name - and with this charming, visionary film, he just might do it. Sure, you might have to suffer through some trite English voice acting (courtesy of Miley’s Cyrus’ sister Noah and the Jonas Brothers’ sibling Frankie), but the images employed by Miyazaki and his crew defy description. This is easily one of the greatest achievements in animation - ever.
Poor little Ponyo is a fish-like creature who longs to be human. Her mother is the ancient Goddess of the Sea, her father a slave to his love of the ocean. Escaping to the surface, she comes in contact with lonely boy Sōsuke. He misses his own dad, the captain of a shipping liner. Ponyo falls instantly for her new pal. Soon recaptured, she vows to return to land and be with her new friend. Sprouting arms and legs, she uses the powers of the old ways to aid her transformation. Sadly, such spells cause the waters to swell, creating a storm and tsunami that almost consumes Sōsuke’s town. While Ponyo is happy to be with her playmate, her parents are very upset. And with the moon losing its orbit and destroying the tides, our little heroine must choose - a life as a human, or the powers that are part of the sea.
Ponyo is gorgeous, the lost art of hand drawn animation accelerated through a whirlwind vision of ecology trumped by man’s careless need for comfort. It’s a sly bit of preaching, letting images evoke the kind of emotional reactions that scientific hypotheses and philosophical rants typically produce. By using Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid as an obvious jumping off point, and instilling the narrative with a grandeur for all things ancient and mythic, Miyazaki reconfigures folklore for those who might not see the otherwise hidden agenda. By focusing on Ponyo’s desire to be human, by showing how that “selfish” act affects the entire ocean population, the movie mirrors the currently contemporary mindset. No matter how precious we think our environment is, we seem willing to undermine it for our own personal aims.
The addition of a nursing home and a group of elderly residents also plays into the theme of tradition and respect. Miyazaki uses the aged as a metaphor for what’s forgotten in times of tranquility, and what’s needed when cooler, wiser heads are mandated. The ladies may seem like Sōsuke’s most significant playmates (the kids at his school are introduced and done away with in a single short sequence) but the truth is, they will end up playing a major part in the resolution of this matter. That they are rewarded for their actions is another attempt by Miyazaki to emphasize the importance of the past. While the movie manipulates reality to play with the natural order, how he uses his characters to create symbolism and substance is one of his best moves.
Yet it’s the stunning visual set-pieces that make this film so magical. One of the most astounding occurs when Ponyo decides to defy her father and, loaded up on magical elixir, make her way back to Sōsuke. As the waters swell and the waves crest, as massive walls of ocean are metaphorically changed to huge schools of running tuna, our plucky little redhead runs the surface, her speed matching the mesmerizing backdrop the animators create. There is no CG here, no use of computers to guide or supplement (unlike other Miyazaki efforts). Instead, cell after seamless cell illustrates a tidal wave terrorizing a young mother and her son, car running roughshod over the flooded roads in order to transport them to safety. As we witness Ponyo’s resolve, we can literally witness the power of love.
Removing the Japanese voices from the film does do away with some of the movie’s indomitable spirit and magic. Just like seeing a martial arts epic stripped of its dignity, there is something about the process of Westernizing a movie like this that fails to match its inherent mystique. The movie was not made by American’s and even with Lasseter in tow as a ‘technical director’, the translation is a bit wonky at best. When seen in its native tongue Ponyo remains a classical canvas, a remarkable masterpiece of style and substance. English just doesn’t have to same power, no matter how capable the casting is. Indeed, this happens a lot in foreign filmography. A wholly unique film - Let the Right One In - can feel false and slightly pretentious when given the mandatory US mainstream make-over.
Still, it’s a credit to Miyazaki’s craft that he can overcome such marketing limits to fashion a film that’s so charismatic, so full of passion for the animated artform and all its varying disciplines that it reminds us of what came before while setting the benchmark for what will come after. In recent years, the major studios have backed away from 2D cartooning, stressing that audiences seem to prefer 3D computer graphics to the old pen and ink prototype. Clearly, few of these so-called “viewers” have truly experienced the unadulterated bliss within the medium - and if anyone can convert them, it will be Miyazaki. In a Summer of senseless mayhem and underwhelming efforts, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is majestic. It easily matches (and in many cases, surpasses) the best the genre has to offer.