If there is one film among filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work that is truly odd, it is without doubt Ponyo. That is not to say, mind you, that any of his films are particularly normal, but that in his body of work Ponyo is the one that stands out as strangest. His fascination with flying is nowhere present, nor the themes of gluttony or greed. All the rests in the center of this film is his dealings with growing up and responsibility. I imagine that this film would probably prove the most useful to children, but I am not certain they would find it interesting, which is a shame. Miyazaki, in fact, was apparently surprised when the film did not do well among children in his home country, Japan.
I had the privilege to see Ponyo in its original theatrical release and on a 35mm print. It is the only Miyazaki film I’ve seen in theaters and was, at the time, one of the few of his films I had seen. I remember the visuals washing over me in a beautiful technicolor experience. The expressionistic water of the ocean, so perfectly rendered by hand by the filmmaker himself, practically a character all its own, was breathtaking on the screen in front of me. It’s one of the few theatrical experiences that really stands out clearly in my memory.
But, back to the point, Ponyo is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” filtered through the creative process of Miyazaki’s mind. The mermaid here, Ponyo, is a small goldfish like creature who runs away from her father, a wizard charged with protecting the ocean, and meets Sosuke, a young boy who only wants to be a big man like his dad and take care of the people he loves. Sosuke adopts Ponyo as his pet and eventually learns she has magic abilities and can talk. Finally she even turns into a little girl. Meanwhile, Sosuke’s mother just sort of rolls with the whole thing and never bats an eye but instead is just awed at how amazing the world is.
Ponyo is, at its heart, just a lighthearted tale of two friends from very different worlds that become family. It’s not super deep, but does have the traces of Miyazaki’s affinity for nature. It’s light Miyazaki, for certain, but it’s a bit of a personal favorite. Whether or not that is because of my personal experience with the film or not I can’t say, but it’s just a lot of fun to watch.
Not to mention it might be his prettiest film, but, once again, that may be my personal experience coloring the experience. Either way, Ponyo is a great film.