Monday, September 26, 2011

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

We suspend disbelief when we enter the cinemas – at least, it usually helps if we do. With a Hayao Miyazaki film, we’re also required to suspend expectations of narrative coherency and the conventional logic of linear storytelling. “Dream Logic” is a term frequently ascribed to Miyazaki’s work, and even in this, one of his most simplistic tales, the moniker is apt.

Ponyo is the journey of the eponymous character, who starts out as a five-year-old mermaid, daughter to an initially sinister-looking underwater dwelling man and the Goddess of Mercy, who makes her way to the shore. Once there, she comes in contact with the similarly aged Sasuke, and the two form an instant bond. A barrier comes in the way, however, when Ponyo’s father comes to reclaim her and drag her back into the ocean. She’s having none of this though – it’s being human that she desires and soon enough, she’s reunited with Sasuke, now with arms and feet to boot. The transformation comes at a cost: Ponyo’s upset the balance of nature by crossing the divide and causes a tsunami to engulf the seaside village – though everyone remains miraculously unhurt. It is also important that Sasuke manage to prove his faithfulness to her – if he does, she stays human, if he doesn’t, she turns into the sea froth.

Ponyo Poster

If you notice any similarities to the plot of The Little Mermaid, rest assured that this movie is regardless a dazzlingly original work. The whimsicality of Miyazaki’s imagination is evident in almost every frame – be it the lush underwater opening sequence or the image of prehistoric fish swimming over a seaside road that’s been submerged under water. The characters react in wonderfully matter-of-fact ways to the bizarre happenings of the story, making the turn of events all the more fantastical. This is a world in which magic and mysticism exist nonchalantly along with the mundane. So Sasuke’s mother’s only reaction to Ponyo’s proclamation that she’s from the sea is to offer her soup; while the discovery of the town’s flooding is met by simple musings about how it will now be navigated.

There’s an environmental agenda that trickles through most of the Japanese animators’ works, and here it is first witnessed when Ponyo is dragged through a filthy sea-bed near the start of the movie, and later on when her father elegaically chastises humans for upsetting the balance of nature. Never does the preachiness get heavy-handed however; this is a movie that prefers to show rather than tell.

Miyazaki’s ultimate achievement may be the fact that aside from the regular basket of wonders he unveils with every successive work, it’s the humanity of his characters that remains particularly indelible. Sasuke is an incredibly empathetic character here, and the dynamic of two children simply playing is captured quite perfectly. His mother Risa is another well-developed character: occasionally moody, mildly neurotic, but also heroic in her own manner. Her struggles involve dealing with the fact that her husband patrols the ocean waters and thus lives away from home. This then leads to Sasuke and Risa sharing the most quietly beautiful scene in the movie as they communicate with his father (in a patrol ship in the ocean) with a series of signalled light flashes.

“I LOVE YOU”, signals the father.

Risa is a bit annoyed with him, though, and the lights signal back to him: “STUPID, STUPID, STUPID”.

The father’s response to that is something that wouldn’t look out of place in a typical Hollywood romantic comedy. But since this movie isn’t “typical” in any sense of the word, I’ll leave you to savour that moment.

(as published on

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