There is nothing worse than a children’s movie that makes you feel less hip.

Ponyo is the new animated film from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese equivalent to America’s Disney or possibly Pixar. The mastermind behind Studio Ghibli is Hayao Miyazaki, which I guess makes him the Japanese Walt Disney. Miyazaki’s new film made me feel old and creaky, definitely uncool.

In contrast, I felt incredibly hip when I showed my kids one of his earlier works, My Neighbor Totoro, which features a wacky cat bus, crazy dust sprites, and some giant wood elf. I hoped to reclaim some of that old magic by taking Holly and the kids to see Ponyo a few weeks ago. Ponyo offers similar nonsense as Totoro, but with a sea theme: a wacky yellow submarine (not nearly as sublime as Totoro’s grinning cat bus), loveable tadpoles, and a crazy old coot who lives in the sea. Somehow none of it worked for me. In Totoro, the fanciful wood elves and cat bus added a pleasent child like element to a story that’s firmly grounded in the real world–the drama of a sick parent from the point of view of a young child. In Ponyo, the plot isn’t grounded in much of anything. Although it’s a beautiful story to watch, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The climax involves one five year old marrying another, while the parents watch. In Totoro, the hightened reality seems to describe a spiritual world accessible only by children. In Ponyo, they seem to be trying for a spirit world accessible by children and adults, but it just falls flat for me. A friend of mine, equally flummoxed, called it the best movie about a five year old getting married she’d ever seen. That about sums it up for me, too.

Watching the credits, I asked Aaron, who rarely offers an unkind opinion about anything, what he thought. He turned to me and said, “Well, Dad, it’s no G.I. Joe.”

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3 thoughts on “Ponyo

  1. mattbriggs says:

    I liked Ponyo. My daughter liked it as well. It is odd to think that five year olds are capable of making decisions like this. We do expect five year olds to commit to things such as citizenship or family or tribal affiliations. So I suppose committing to a supernatural fish isn’t that far removed. I found the supernatural unsettling in a good way as well. Ponyo itself/herself shifts in and out of focus, and as such is hardly anthropomorphic much less a little girl. From a kind of jellyfish dress with a head, she wills herself into existence. By the end of the movie, it seems the world is kind of reversed. Even though it is sort of “right,” it remains unsettled. It reminded me mostly of the transition scenes in “Spirited Away” — where the protagonist’s parents turn into pigs. The supernatural and natural world overlay each other. Ponyo ends with that instability between the supernatural and natural world in balancing but articulated in a way that makes it obvious to could fall apart. In a way it like a kind of secret moral framework — our choices even as children have ramifications/implications on the rest of our lives.

    One of my favorite movies by Stephen Soderbergh, “King of the Hill,” (protagonist is 12) tells the story of a boy left alone during the Great Depression. This to is also kind of unsettling in the same way because the boy makes choices outside of a standard moral framework. In this case, it leads into more of a standard development, the kind of choices that result in maturity. Ponyo though is unsettling I think because the boy’s choice seems made without thought to his future. Instead it is a more holistic choice, I think, one that is bigger than a person, if that makes sense? I keep wondering what characters might look like if they can be shifted into a kind of collective identity — in some ways, this might be it, at least the boy in this movie.

  2. Tim Elhajj says:

    That’s a good call on the pig adults. I saw Spirited Away and Howl’s, but I can’t remember the plot in either of them. I think that’s because of the same problems I had with Ponyo. Something about not being grounded in a real world struggle. It’s fine to portray a spirit world, but in Ponyo I didn’t understand the stakes, so it was hard to get too invested.

    In Ponyo, I think you’re right about it being a choice about something bigger, some sort of relationship to the world, ecology, but I am just guessing. I found it interesting that all the depictions of adult marriage were either failed or strained. I loved the light signalling scene (BUG OFF, BUG OFF, BUG OFF) and the mad wizard’s amicable split with the sea goddess. I also enojoyed the wizard’s futile attempts to control Ponyo. At one point, he has her little tadpole body in his hands and he seems to be trying to mold her with all his might. All to no avail… She is out of there on the next jellyfish.

    Mayazaki is amazing at taking ordinary scenes–a walk down a tree lined lane during fall, or a drive up a mountain in a storm–and infusing them with some sort of dread, like the kind of fear you face as a child in the dark. Really amazing visuals.

  3. mattbriggs says:

    I really don’t know enough about it, but this duality of supernatural/natural world is also present in Murakimi’s books (Wind Up Bird Chronicles, in particular) and Banana Yoshimoto’s books. I just took a fantasy class, and the teacher of it the class, John Crowley, managed to touch on how language can distort/imply a world outside of the physical world. I find something very compelling about writing that walks that line: Russell Edson for instance. I like the that other world in Mayazaki is only grudgingly anthropomorphic… so there is a lot going on, and it doesn’t really resolve itself in a way many stories do.

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