With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
I am of the opinion that Hayao Miyazaki has not directed a bad movie. Sure, there are some films that I think are rougher than others or that might be a bit polarizing, but nothing outright bad. It’s a rare feat for me to say that about any director, regardless of which medium they practice with. That being said, Ponyo is almost consistently viewed as being one of Miyazaki’s weaker films, if not his weakest film. When the film was originally released in 2008, it garnered critical praise, but nowadays it’s not exactly a film that many will jump to when thinking about the studio’s best work or even Miyazaki’s repertoire.
This feels like an inevitability, especially given how much critical praise and attention Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli had received in the West at this point. By 2008, most of Studio Ghibli’s library had been localized in the West with brand-new dubs and the financial backing of Disney. Miyazaki had an Oscar for Spirited Away. Money was coming in at a consistent pace and Ghibli was no longer in the position they were in the 80s where they were pushing out projects on an almost yearly basis just to keep the lights on. Many of the staff members at Ghibli who had been around since the beginning were old men. At the time Ponyo began production in 2006, Miyazaki was 65 years old and new blood was needed at the studio. New talent was coming on board with many of the new animators being directly inspired by the films Miyazaki made that they saw as kids.
Yet Miyazaki was never complacent in his success. He had a status and reputation within the industry that was, and still is, unrivaled, and so he continued to push himself. Ponyo would feature 170,000 hand-made cells, the largest in Ghibli’s history. There is an absurd amount of technical acumen present in the film, especially when it comes to animating the various oceanic shots and all of the ships and boats present within. Miyazaki didn’t rest on his laurels and shove out a halfhearted product. Even in his mid-60s, Miyazaki wanted to create an authentic and beautiful world.
But it isn’t enough in my eyes. Yes, you can have beautiful animation and cutting-edge technology and boast these wonderous claims of the technical proficiencies of your film, but eventually, those feats will be surpassed. Eventually, that animation will seem mundane. What matters most is the impact of the animation. The meaning of it. The emotions that it evokes. Ponyo doesn’t really evoke anything in me that I haven’t seen from Miyazaki before. It may show off grand feats of spectacle the likes of which earlier Ghibli films can only dream of, but without any substance, that animation means very little.
The story of Ponyo follows a young fish named Brunhilde (eventually dubbed Ponyo), who escapes from her sea wizard father Fujimoto, to explore the human world. She meets a young boy named Sosuke, who frees her from a glass jar she was captured in and desires nothing more than to be with Sosuke. Fujimoto refuses, but Ponyo is able to use some of Fijimoto’s magic to escape and reunite with Sosuke. This also throws off the balance of magic in the world, causing the oceans to rise and the moon to fall out of orbit, resulting in Sosuke and Ponyo having to take a test to not only restore the balance of magic to the world but completely the test will also make Ponyo into a human.
Ponyo is a film I don’t really have much to say because, in the grand scheme of things, Ponyo feels like a retread of ideas and tones that Miyazaki has already tackled inside of his prior films. Ponyo skews towards a very young audience much in the same way that My Neighbor Totoro was aimed at young children. Sosuke is a five-year-old boy and acts like one, while Ponyo herself is also a very young child who views the world very innocently. She wants to explore and see the world and says she loves Sosuke much in the same way that two kindergarteners “dating” would say I love you to each other. It’s wholesome and cute, but that’s about it.
Ponyo is a fairytale at heart, and like most fairytales, it’s full of simple morals that anyone can comprehend. That’s not necessarily a surprise given that Miyazaki based this film on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. In fact, one of the reasons why he made Ponyo a love story between two children was because Miyazaki was personally uncomfortable with the idea that the main character of The Little Mermaid did not have a soul. In Ponyo, he firmly establishes that the mermaid equivalent, Ponyo, has a soul and wants to become human. Therefore, the film centers on Ponyo and a human falling in love and doing what they can to protect each other, but even then, going that far in describing the film seems charitable. There is some depth here, but when compared to other “simple” Miyazaki movies, Ponyo comes across as basic. Totoro may be a bunch of cute visuals on the surface, but there’s a sense of melancholy and wistful nostalgia present as Miyazaki looks back on an era of Japan that no longer exists. Ponyo, meanwhile, is preoccupied with being a fairytale and telling a bright and colorful story for children.
Now, for some that may be enough. There’s nothing to stop Miyazaki from making a film that is a lot simpler than his past films. Since Princess Mononoke, his films had tackled harsh and mature topics like war, greed, identity, and protecting nature. Constantly making these heavy and darker films can be draining on the soul, especially when other Ghibli productions around this time like The Cat Returns were taking more fanciful and fun approaches. Miyazaki is fully within his rights to make an easy-going movie, but when compared to those films, someone can’t help but feel a bit deflated after finishing Ponyo. You’ll feel refreshed like you just had a palette cleanser between meals, but it’s exactly that: something to tide you over until the more substantive content is presented to you.
Ponyo is a cheerful movie and there are a lot of things to like about the film. The amount of detail that is present in virtually every single shot is mesmerizing, like the scenes in Fujimoto’s home, the times he interacts with his wife Gran Mamare, or of course, the highly detailed HAM. I also absolutely love the wild energy that is shown whenever magic is used, especially when it’s used in conjunction with the ocean and the wild waves. I know I’m not alone when I say that the scene where Ponyo runs along the waves as they turn into giant fishes is the highlight of the film.
But that’s just it. I remember the film in these quick little bursts, but nothing more substantive. Then again, that is true for most fairytales. We tend to remember the big ideas and the bullet point versions of their plots rather than the fully detailed explanations. We get the morals, the message, and the themes, compartmentalize them, and move on. At this point, I genuinely don’t know what else to say about the film that hasn’t been said already throughout this feature.
As I said before, Ponyo was released to positive reviews and actually served as the widest Studio Ghibli release in the West up to that point, releasing in nearly 1,000 theaters in the United States alone. The film would go on to make over $200 million at the box office, becoming Ghibli’s third-highest-grossing theatrical release right behind Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Many people hold Ponyo in a special place in their hearts for its pleasantness, charm, and friendliness, which is admirable and definitely one of the film’s strongest traits.
For all of the warmth that Ponyo gives off, I can’t help but feel a bit let down by it. Miyazaki made the exact movie that he wanted to make and I can respect that. I don’t begrudge the man for making a basic film to entertain young children. But at the same time, I can also say that Ponyo repeats a lot of the themes, ideas, and executions of his past work, making the film almost unnecessary at times. It’s a good gateway film, though, and I can see a young child watching Ponyo and wanting to see more films like it, discovering the rest of Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s library in due time.
Accessible? Basic? Simple? Rudimentary? All of these words describe Ponyo. Another word that can describe it is good. Not great. Not amazing. Not wonderful. Good. And sometimes, if you just want to have fun animating and telling a cute fairytale, good works pretty well.
Next time, Peter will take a look at one of Miyazaki’s most deeply personal and reflective movies, The Wind Rises.