Miyazaki’s Mesmerizing Fish Tale

Reality and whimsy are a winning combination in Ponyo.

“Fish with human faces cause tsunamis,” an old lady in a nursing home warns 5-year-old Sosuke, looking suspiciously at the thing swimming around in his bucket.

Later, as his mother sets a covered bowl of ramen noodles to steep in hot water before little Ponyo, Sosuke solemnly tells her, “It takes three minutes.”

Noodles in three minutes.

Fish with human faces.

In a Hayao Miyazaki film, one is no more — or less — wondrous than the other.

As with the most childlike of the Japanese animation master’s previous films — My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service — the dreamlike quality of Ponyo is reflected in the way the magical elements seem not to come as a complete surprise, even to the grown-ups. It’s as if, in the world of these films, people are at least somewhat aware that, say, soot sprites scurry about in the attics of old houses or that 13-year-old witches fly about on broomsticks — even if they may not have seen it themselves.

But the deeper mark of a Miyazaki film is that the most ordinary elements are as attentively and lovingly portrayed as the fantastic ones.

Ordinary daily rituals, architecture, mundane conversations, simple gestures like running up a flight of stairs or scrunching between the boards of a partially broken gate are all realized with a stylized hyperrealism — not ultrarealism, but realism pressed just beyond the breaking point — that is mesmerizing and wondrous.

Miyazaki typically blends reality (or realities) and whimsy with such seamless integrity that the worlds he fashions seem copied directly from life, even if the particular architectural, technological and cultural milieus he draws on never coexisted in any one place and time, or, in some cases, never existed at all.

In Ponyo, by contrast, the filmmaker has changed strategies, sticking together disparate bits and pieces of fairy tale, mythopoeia, sci-fi and family film with the artless simplicity of a child mashing up Tinker toys, Play-Doh and Daddy’s cuff links into a single sculpture. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it goes into realms of the heart and the imagination untouched by guinea-pig commandos and magical museum escapades.

Borrowing a page from Hans Christian Andersen, Ponyo is a literal fish-out-of-water tale about a young girl of the sea who chooses life on land after bonding with a human boy. But there’s also a gaudy submarine (in every sense) wizard named Fujimoto, a Cambrian (or Devonian) riot of extinct fish roaming flooded streets, a discussion about breast-feeding, a maternal sea goddess called Gran Mammare in the credits (though not named in the English dub), and a toy boat powered by a candle, but also by a child’s imagination, and Ponyo’s magic.

Added to this is a passel of typical Miyazaki themes, including children taking on adult responsibilities, strong young heroines, sympathetic adult figures (including parents), respectful attentiveness for the elderly, ambiguous villains, environmentalism and a spiritualized, animistic vision of the natural world — above all in the dramatically zoomorphic depiction of the tempestuous sea during a storm.

If this sounds complicated, it’s actually anything but. Ponyo is Miyazaki’s simplest, most unassuming and family-friendly picture in two decades, breaking dramatically with the darkly sophisticated approach of his last few films (the critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away as well as the less successful Howl’s Moving Castle).

Which is not to say that it’s at all clear what’s going on. Is the strange behavior of the sea due to an accident involving Fujimoto’s elixirs or to Ponyo’s efforts to become human — or both?

Is the sea out of balance, as Fujimoto says, or is this more or less what he was trying to do with his elixirs anyway?

Granted that the union of an ex-human sea wizard and an enormous, shimmering marine goddess would produce a cloud of small fish with children’s faces, why is Ponyo so much bigger than her siblings?

Although Ponyo seems as disjointed and free-floating as Howl’s Moving Castle, somehow the younger milieu here makes it more acceptable. Or maybe it’s just that there’s more here to latch onto emotionally.

Sosuke, reportedly modeled on Miyazaki’s now-grown son Goro, may be the director’s most endearing male protagonist, and his relationship with his capable, resilient mother, Lisa, recalls the delightful father-daughter dynamics of My Neighbor Totoro.

Sosuke’s father, Koichi, a fishing boat captain, is away at sea for the entire film, and Sosuke tries to play advocate for his father when Koichi’s prolonged absence results in a wincingly apt long-distance marital spat, with Sosuke and then Lisa using a signal lamp to exchange Morse code messages with Koichi’s ship. I don’t know what Lisa was signaling, but the furious speed with which she worked the lamp tells me all I need to know.

While all ends well on that front, it’s fair to say that Ponyo’s mother images (ideal mother Lisa; gracious Gran Mammare) are more positive than her father images (absent Koichi; strange-looking, deeply ambivalent Fujimoto). (For what it’s worth, Gran Mammare seems to be an absent parent too, but this doesn’t reflect on her.)

It’s worth noting that Miyazaki made Ponyo after an uncharacteristically public quarrel with his son Goro, and a subtext of paternal guilt runs through the film. When Fujimoto humbly asks Ponyo, “Think well of me, if you can,” it may be Miyazaki’s apology to his son.

Meanwhile, many parents of both sexes (and many a child) will relate to Fujimoto’s struggle over Ponyo growing up — a struggle that at one point comes down to Fujimoto attempting to magically compel Ponyo to revert to an earlier state.

“Don’t change!” he grunts, straining against her magic. (Good luck with that.) “If you could only remain innocent and pure forever,” he sighs.

Ponyo’s minimalism extends to its design and animation. The absence of the computer-animated effects seen in Miyazaki’s last few films has been widely noted, but it’s more than that. The painterly density and extraordinary attention to detail that has been Miyazaki’s hallmark for decades has been substantially scaled back, with a simpler, sketchier style making bold use of colored pencils for a sort of storybook feel.

It’s still lovely work, though for Miyazaki fans such minimalism takes getting used to. (Compare Ponyo’s blob-like clouds with the gorgeous cumulus clouds floating through all other Miyazakis.)

After Howl’s Moving Castle, it occurred to me that no matter how much of a mess a Miyazaki film might be plot-wise, one could always lose oneself in his gorgeously rendered visuals. I could see someone considering Ponyo the exception to the rule.

Yet Ponyo is so charming, so loopy, so boldly imagined and lovingly mashed together, that its limitations recede and its strengths linger.

Amid so much soulless, mass-produced Hollywood family product, here is a work of hand-crafted idiosyncrasy, with winsome characters, magical images and an appeal all its own.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor

and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.


Content advisory: Mildly unsettling images; a few misanthropic references; potentially confusing depiction of a goddess-like character. English dubbing. Generally fine family viewing.