by Kyle B. Stiff
Ponyo! She’s a magical little fish-girl who lives in an undersea wonderland and ends up in a storybook version of our world. She’s amazing, she meets interesting people straight out of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, she has the Christlike ability to walk on water, heal the sick, and control the sea, she believes her father is an evil wizard, and she can’t stop thinkin’ about that ham. Oh, Ponyo!
The story is… damn, was there a story? There’s an antagonist who is not necessarily a villain, and a goal introduced late in the movie which is not all that difficult to accomplish. This is not necessarily a flaw; one of Miyazaki’s great masterpieces, My Neighbor Totoro, also did not have a strong narrative. In fact, the lack of narrative structure makes for a lot of fun unpredictability. How can you predict what will happen in a film that’s about a bunch of unique characters interacting in a strange world?
I cannot stress this enough: Ponyo does not have what is traditionally considered a “storyline”. It’s more a state of mind. How many meaningful dreams have you had that followed a traditional narrative structure? How many enlightened Buddhas opened the thousand-petaled lotus of metaconsciousness by conforming to rigid notions of what is and is not acceptable? How many blood-spattered Einherjar passed through one of the 540 gates of Valhalla by nitpicking an experience, rather than accepting what the fates had to offer? Not a lot, right? In just the same way, Ponyo has no real storyline – but all the same, it makes for an incredible experience.
Let’s say you’ve never seen a Miyazaki film. Is Ponyo for kids?
I can’t imagine any child understanding the appeal of a magical world of pleasant character interactions and a vision of an era fueled by joy. To me, that seems like something only an adult would care to see, because an adult knows that the minute he leaves the movie theater he’s going to enter into a world where anything can be taken from him at any time, where inhuman monsters drunk on control dictate the course of human potential and the finishing prize is a face full of maggots and an eternal sleep. But children, on the other hand, are naturally amoral and pretty oblivious when it comes to the horror of the everyday. As a child who grew up on Robocop andConan the Barbarian, all I ever wanted to see were violent displays of power and justice meted out by vigilantes, and I was by no means an abnormal case. Even “Sesame Street” was only just barely tolerable because the Cookie Monster was always making life difficult for those around him.
As such, Ponyo, a work of childish wonder, is most definitely for adults.
Can Ponyo Make You F*E*E*L ?
Is it touching? Is it moving?! Yes and yes. How many times did it make me want to cry? Only twice. But wait: How many movies actually succeed at making me want to cry? Not many; Ponyomade its way onto a very short list of movies that broke through my formidably protective AT Field, navigated through the freezing meat-locker labyrinth of my soul, and bitch-slapped the sensitive child within that still believes in things like fairness and hope.
This is no small feat considering I’ve seen many, many Miyazaki movies, and I’m aware of his usual tactics and finishing moves. Maybe more so than I should be, as I was pretty bored duringHowl’s Moving Castle and came close to writing him off. Fortunately, Miyazaki proved with Ponyo that it is possible for experience and ingenuity to offset the creative boundaries of one director’s admittedly limited set of tools.
I don’t know much about Miyazaki’s life before animation. Judging from the gentle, good-natured themes in his work, I can only assume he’s seen more horror than any single man was ever meant to see. To him, suffering must be so real that he can’t imagine making it a part of his art. He’s seen things like children’s hospitals filled with landmine victims. Things like insane asylums where the orderlies forget the line between us and them and vent their most sadistic cravings on those placed in their care while the doctors turn a blind eye. Or maybe small towns that lost their local factory, their only real source of income, and in desperation turned to trafficking in humans, selling their children to the highest bidder. Or maybe he’s just hypersensitive to commonplace horror, like the prison bars of job and family, or the collection of an individual’s personal failures that fit around the neck like a noose that grows tighter and tighter with each passing day, but there’s never any jerk and crack! to release the victim from his misery. I suspect that Miyazaki’s seen the real thing. He’s not a product of the culturally sanitized suburban scene, which would explain how he can make his animations so happy and so tender without making them asinine and irrelevant.
Dub vs. Sub
Should you wait for the subtitled release and watch it alongside the cultural elites, or give up and watch the dubbed version alongside the rest of the mindless herd?
If your Nihon-go is rusty, by all means, watch the English dub. It’s fine. Ten years ago I would have insisted on subtitles; these days, I’m not even really clear on why the Anti-Dubbing Elite still insist on their continued existence. I can’t even remember the last bad dub I saw!
Ponyo has taken some heat because of the English voice acting. The two main characters, Ponyo and her boyfriend Sosuke, were voiced by… nevermind, I won’t mention their names and make them that much more popular, plus I’m not exactly sure who they are. I think they’re some of those kids that Disney clones every few years so as to have a new batch of celebrity sensations; plenty of little kids find them appealing, but then there’s a lot of twenty-somethings who scorn them because of some dramatized rejection of childhood that goes hand in hand with being twenty-something. I say: Don’t worry about it. Little Ponyo is delightfully voiced, and sounds as if she’s intensely happy to be exploring a new world, and her little man Sosuke gives a solid performance that is heart-breaking on more than one occasion.
Verdict: Pastel paint rather than CG. A glimpse into an alternate world, rather than a story with chapters, plot, or development. A beast genetically altered for charm enhancement; a spell cast by a wiggly smile. Definitely worth seeing. If you dig Ponyo, check out Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro for further glimpses into the anti-story joyworld, or Princess Mononoke to see a story chock full of human conflict without any truly evil villain.
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.