He Keeps Me In A Bubble, So I Swam Away From Home: Ponyo (2008)

Yesterday was the birthday of the great Japanese animation pioneer and director Hiyao Miyazaki.  While I had encountered much of his work prior to beginning this blog, he has been featured rather prominently here in the past few years, particularly when I was finally able to catch up with My Neighbor Totoro, a film agreed by many to be his masterpiece, as well as one of the greatest moments in animation.  While my personal preferences lean towards Howl's Moving Castle, all of his films succeed at an exceptional level, wherein others fail to even scrape the surface.  I have watched a lot of anime films, most are trash, many are decent, but few are exceptional.  Ponyo, Miyazaki's take on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale The Little Mermaid is one such work of exceptional stature. Miyazaki's more contemporary work is noted by its reliance on incredibly crisp visuals that expand and exploit the latest technology in both two dimensional sketching and three dimensional rendering. Ponyo while no less stunning visually is a bit of a digression for the director as it involves him using very simple animation with an equally moving and fantastical effect.  While one could make a case for Miyazaki's films working on various levels regardless of the age of the viewer or the individual sensibilities of the person encountering the film, given the nature of this work pulling from the fairly tale nature of Andersen's work, it does take on a rather childlike sense of awe without being juxtaposed by an adult reality, which occurs very jarringly in My Neighbor Totoro and proves a through line for all of Howl's Moving Castle.  Ponyo is one of the many films to be upgraded to bluray by Studio Ghibli, now a subsidiary of Disney and it is absolutely stunning.  The kaleidoscopic nature of the film, doubled by its already magical setting, much of which resides underwater, is a draw to any person appreciative of true art.  With the onslaught of CGI-only animated films comes at audience these days, it is heartbreaking to realize that Miyazaki has all but retired from the field, fortunately, his adoration is well-documented and varied, affording him a point of awareness given to few directors, let alone animators.

Ponyo, as the title might suggest does focus on a character named Ponyo, by the way of a young boy named Sosuke who lives with his mother and father on a cliff in a small pier village, wherein most of the residents work at sea.  This includes, Sosuke's father who remains absent from the narrative for much of the film, much to the frustration of his mother, who spends a considerable amount of her own time working at the local retirement home.  Prior to leaving for another day at school, Sosuke discovers a small, unique looking goldfish in the shore next to his home, capturing it an placing it in a bucket of water near his house.  Panicked and in a rush to get to school, Sosuke brings the goldfish with him on his ride to work, his mother noting its gorgeous nature.  Deciding that he wants to keep the goldfish, he names it Ponyo and hides it in the bushes outside his nursery.  Ponyo, however, is not a simple goldfish, but is actually Brunhilde, one of the many fish children of Fujimoto and Granmamare two deities of the sea.  When Sosuke leaves Ponyo alone, she is retrieved by an infuriated Fujimoto who tells her that she has no business messing with humans.  Yet, in an attempt to help Sosuke, Ponyo consumed some of his blood, which causes Ponyo to take a semi-human form.  During her escape to return to Sosuke, Ponyo accidentally knocks a potion into the center of Fujimoto's underwater home, unleashing a wild storm that ravishes Sosuke's town.  During this storm, Ponyo arrives at the home much to Sosuke and his mother's surprise.  Nonetheless, she takes what she believes to be a young girl into their home and await news on the safety of Sosuke's father.  Sosuke's mother eventually leaves to check on the safety of the nursing home, only to have her remain away for a considerable length of time.  As such, Sosuke and Ponyo mount their own rescue mission, one that leads to the awareness of Ponyo's non-human status, all leading to a meeting with Fujimoto in his underwater lair, wherein he and Granmamare test the loyalty and love of Sosuke for Ponyo.  When it is verified much to the happiness of all involved the two are allowed to live together and in the same moment it is revealed that Sosuke's father has return safely from his dire time at sea.

There are many ways to talk about a film like Ponyo, one of which would be to consider its validity as an adaptation, which is solid, because it is Miyazaki.  There is also the narrative surrounding human identities and how to navigate understanding that which is performing humanism, but is not technically human.  This is a new research interest of mine and will certainly lead me to return to this film in my academic studies in the future, yet I do not want to take that route here.  Knowing that the familial component is key to many of Miyazaki's films, Howl's Moving Castle, From Up On Poppy Hill and The Secret World of Arrietty, I too want to extend it to consider the narrative of Ponyo.  I think that it is particularly a ripe discussion point in this film, because it is heavily invested in the absence of Sosuke's father, something that leads his mother to drink on at least one occasion.  It is not to suggest that Sosuke's father does not care, but that economic situations necessitate that he must remain detached from the familial space only to assure the safety of such a construct.  The catch-22 at play is rather blatant, but, nonetheless, indicative of the illogical nature of capitalist consumption and idealism that has rooted itself in an unusual way within Japan and was particularly intriguing in and around the time of this film.  As such, one can certainly read the character of Ponyo as the family's own anxiety regarding the possibility of a future child, one that is met with adoration by the young Sosuke, but with understandable hesitation by Sosuke's mother.  In the film, Sosuke says something along the lines of it being part of reality that she must accept and the absence of his father only makes it that much more of an internal struggle.  Little should be made of the love relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo, because it is not one of a romantic nature, but more so of kindred spirits.  Indeed, keeping this economic anxiety in mind, the scenes involving Ponyo consuming are quite interesting, Sosuke's mother now having to provide food (specifically ham) for more than one young mouth, other economic issues like the lack of candles too take on larger narrative elements.  By adding the fact that Sosuke's mother works at a nursing home, which is, for many, another layer of economic anxiety makes this possible reading of economic anxiety that much more fascinating.

Key Scene:  The scale and intensity of the storm scene, is a particularly dark moment in an otherwise vibrant film, but it plays out poetically and perhaps best evidences the magical realist elements so key to this era of Miyazaki's work.

This bluray is stunning, indeed, all the Studio Ghibli blurays are stunning.  If I were to mount any downside to this particular release, it is the lack of a Japanese audio track, but that is probably only bothersome to a handful of people.  As such, purchasing it is well worth your time.

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