REVIEW BY SHAMUS MAHAN
When discussing foreign art, there is an American tendency to seek analogs close to home. Hayao Miyazaki is often called “The Walt Disney of Japan” in such exchanges. This is not entirely inappropriate, and it has been over a decade since Disney purchased American distribution rights for the films of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. But the comparison is superficial at best, and Miyazaki’s recent return from semi-retirement to helm the latest Ghibli opus Ponyo will test how willing American audiences are to embrace the differences that make his work entirely and spectacularly unique.
The film follows a small goldfish named Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) as she sneaks away from her over-protective father, the sea-wizard Fujimoto (Liam Neeson). She is found by Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a young boy who lives with his parents in a signal-house by the sea. Sosuke’s father (Matt Damon) works aboard a cargo ship in the nearby port, and his demanding schedule is a source of constant frustration for Sosuke’s Mother, Lisa (Tina Fey). Sosuke is mature and clever beyond his five years, while retaining his sense of wonder and five-year-old indifference to logic. This odd contrast is what allows him to overlook the human-like head his new goldfish has, and also causes him to spontaneously declare that he will protect her and love her forever. Almost immediately, Fujimoto comes searching for his lost daughter. He is venomously anti-human, seeing people as little more than barbaric polluters of an otherwise ideal world, and blames them for despoiling his beloved oceans. Upon finding Ponyo with a human boy, he snatches her away angrily, fearful of Sosuke’s corrupting influence. Ponyo, however, has become utterly infatuated with the boy and defies her father, escaping again, this time after drinking some of Fujimoto’s potent elixirs, and becoming a human herself.
Unfortunately, the potion is one which Fujimoto has been slowly distilling from the essence of the ocean over the course of many years, and contains the elemental power of the seas, and in drinking it Ponyo has disrupted the very balance of the world. She quickly finds her way back to Sosuke, but the ocean itself, now ascendant and roiling with primal power, begins to devastate the entire planet. Ponyo and Sosuke are given the opportunity to put things right in the course of a quest orchestrated by Ponyo’s mother, the sea goddess Granmmamare (Cate Blanchett).
Of course they succeed. You know from the very instant the theater lights go down they’ll do just fine. The point is the journey, and the emotions that Miyazaki is able to call up in the audience and use like watercolors along the way. It is a study in contrasts, clearly made for children, but not childish. It is not life simplified but rather distilled, like Fujimoto’s potions, into its elemental components, and strengthened in the process. Indeed, Miyazaki is Fujimoto, a stubborn, crotchety anachronism in love with a time long past if it ever existed at all. Though as Fujimoto asks Sosuke late in the film, judge him kindly despite his quirks, because the time he evokes is universal, and beautiful. The film is gorgeously hand-drawn, comprising nearly 180,000 cels, as Miyazaki felt computers somehow filtered away the experience of observing the world as it is for a five-year-old. That viewpoint drives every aspect of the films composition, as it is anarchic, joyful, comforting, imaginative, vivid, illogical and totally devoid of cynicism and irony. It is also very nearly perfect.•••
Shamus Mahan is a freelance writer and devout anime fan living in Worcester, MA.