A Fish That Dreamed It Was a Girl
2008 // Japan // Hayao Miyazaki // September 17, 2009 // Theatrical Print
A- - Japanese animated film-maker Hayao Miyazaki has an unusual talent for telling stories that are visually and emotionally compelling despite the admittedly murky character of his fantasy worlds. In films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, one gets the sense that fidelity to a coherent mythology is, at best, an afterthought. Miyazaki's works operate on the senses and the heart. That's not a backhanded complement, but a truism that, once embraced, leads to an appreciation for his unusual and rewarding films. Ponyo is no exception to this principle. Trying to decipher every jot of this weird, wild aquatic fantasy is an exercise in futility. Better to sit back and absorb it, revel in it, and let it weave its enchantments. As with all of Miyazaki's films, and in contrast to most works of animated kiddie fare, Ponyo lingers on both the intimate and epic while examining the intersection of the mundane and the fantastic. Indeed, consistent with the animistic thread that runs throughout the director's work, Ponyo presents the worlds of flesh and spirit as tightly entwined and ultimately interdependent. This is underlined not merely through exposition—which is sparing and on-the-nose—but also through the rhythm and emphasis of the film's scenes. The steeping of noodles in hot water receives as much attention as a titanic sea goddess drifting through the ocean depths. Such is the way of Miyazaki, who sees the human magic within the banal details of life and connects them to unrealities that possess a mythic tinge.
His latest film is the story of a magical goldfish, the eponymous Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus), who yearns to be human. The daughter of a sea wizard, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), Ponyo has the cherubic face of a little girl, complete with a shock of red hair. Such a strange creature should be grotesque, but Japanese animation excels at making the repulsive appear adorable, and Ponyo is distinctly adorable. Ponyo's curiosity draws her to a little boy, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), who dwells in a seaside bungalow. Their interaction sets into motion events that threaten the balance between land and sea, which Fujimoto desperately attempts to restore. Crucial to the tale is Sosuke's mother, Lisa (Tina Fey), who works at a local nursing home, looks after her son, and waits restlessly for her husband's fishing ship to return from long hitches at sea. While Fujimoto and his oceanic minions can be frightening, there are no true villains in this story. Ponyo is a story of mishaps, misunderstandings, and unexamined emotions that lead characters into unfortunate circumstances.
There is much to the narrative that defies rational understanding: a tsunami of golden fish, an underwater garden in a luminous bubble, and a toy boat that magically transforms into a seaworthy vessel. Little is explained to the satisfaction of a nitpick-prone viewer, and what we are shown often only raises further questions. No matter. Part of Ponyo's charm is simply witnessing the imagination of Miyazaki as it runs wild under the sea. Just as Mononoke is a film that practically smells of the forest, Ponyo is the director's Ocean Film. His vision of the underwater landscape is rooted in the living things of the real world, but with a fantastical twist. Jellyfish float amid waves of shimmering color, and crabs scuttle through the rooms of undersea cottages. Ponyo's oceanic world is at once familiar and uncanny, flabbergasting and just a little bit scary. Fujomoto is more cartoonish, looking like a Dickensian heavy by way of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, but perhaps that's because he was once human. His eccentricities seem to be the traits of a man who is acting the way he imagines an immortal sea wizard would act.
The undersea marvels contribute to the memorable texture of the film, and lend it an otherworldly allure. However, consistent with Miyazaki's other works, the spectacle of Ponyo is less vital than its emotional currents, which are painfully authentic and rooted in a deep appreciation for the fundamental innocence of children. Distilled to its essence, Ponyo's story is typical of a thousand myths and folk tales: an animal yearns to be human, and the love of a human spurs the animal to pursue that yearning. Miyazaki has discarded the sexual elements that often accompany such stories, presenting us with a five-year-old boy and his unconditional love for a fish. The fact of Sosuke's love is utterly uncontroversial. Here the tension flows from the ache of separation: of Sosuke from Ponyo, of Fujimoto from Ponyo, of Sosuke's parents from each other, and, most vitally to the journey that comprises the final act of the film, of Sosuke from his mother. Ecological concerns provide a backdrop for Miyazaki's tale, but the themes of the film are not in any sense political. Ponyo is, after a fashion, about all the transitions in life that are simultaneously exquisite and agonizing: growing up, falling in love, moving out, getting married, having children, growing old. The metaphor is simple and grand. To leave the sea, to become human, is a natural thing. When confronted with the impossibility that Ponyo has transformed from goldfish to girl, Lisa marvels, "Life is mysterious and amazing." In any other film, this might have been a ridiculous line, but Miyazaki lends it a tone of genuine wonder. I presumed that Coraline would not have any competition this year as the perfect film for a parent and child to share. Ponyo proved me wrong.