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Andrew Osmond on Miyazaki’s Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki aims his tenth animated feature at young children, with a cute magic character as its star – Ponyo, a perky red goldfish who turns into a little girl. Fans wondered if Miyazaki was remaking My Neighbour Totoro, his previous children’s classic about a cute fantasy creature. But Ponyo, while delightful, doesn’t really feel like Totoro, nor like Miyazaki’s other early films. There’s an array of strange creatures and characters, an unpredictable plot, and offbeat ideas spun into cartoon spectacle.

A boy, Sosuke, lives in a clifftop house with his excitingly reckless mother, Lisa, who treats Sosuke as a grown-up in every important decision. The five year-old’s characterisation switches between a near-toddler and a mini-adult, in contrast to the far more consistent cartoon kids in films such as Mamoru Hosoda’s The Wolf Children, Miyazaki’s own Totoro and Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. In Ponyo, realism is rarely a priority.

Sosuke’s father is away at sea, and Lisa’s exasperation with this is comically exaggerated when the family communicates through ship-lamps and Morse. Miyazaki has confessed to being a largely absent husband and dad, and that’s represented here. Both husbands in Ponyo revere and are terrified by their wives, their femininity linked to the crashing sea.

Playing by the water, Sosuke finds the Ponyo fish stuck in a jamjar. He rescues and cares for her, carrying her around in a bucket and forming a bond, which spills over into love when she speaks to him. Later, Ponyo gains spectacular powers and turns the sea into a torrent of giant foaming fish-shaped spirits, on which she bounds confidently on her new-grown legs.

The bravura animation, showing the magic waves crashing explosively against a coastal road, conveys mighty nature even more forcefully than Miyazaki’s epic Princess Mononoke. Of course, the scene feels far stranger to watch after the catastrophic tsunami of March 2011, though the whole Ponyo scene plays like a children’s fantasy. Miyazaki had used similar imagery three decades earlier in a 1978 TV series, Future Boy Conan.

The flood in Ponyo engulfs Sosuke’s town, but no-one is hurt or hysterical. Instead, the event is treated like a child’s first snowfall, turning familiar scenery into magic. Ponyo draws on “The Little Mermaid” (and “Cinderella” in the way Ponyo’s transformation has a time-limit) but it also recalls how L. Frank Baum described his book, The Wizard of Oz: “A modernised fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” True, there’s brief distress when Sosuke fears he might have lost his mother, but Ponyo is there to bolster him up.

As animation, Ponyo rolls back the frightening shadows of Coraline, Toy Story and even Snow White. Like many Miyazaki films, it stresses how children negotiate their surroundings. In a beautifully observed and paced early scene, Sosuke paddles cautiously out to rescue Ponyo, who flaps around with her head in the jamjar.

Miyazaki also makes play with magic undersea membranes that Ponyo must breach, sluicing water deliciously back and forth. The sequence is humorously contrasted with Ponyo’s experience of dry land, where she dashes uncontrollably round in Sosuke’s house and bangs into a door. Later, she and Sosuke sail a magically-grown toy boat across the flooded town, peering at prehistoric fish swimming placidly down roads and over houses.

Structurally, Ponyo recalls the 1968 Toei film The Little Norse Prince, on which Miyazaki worked under Isao Takahata. The first half focuses on Sosuke’s fascination with the magic alien. The second half shows Ponyo learning what humans are and how to be one. Her exciting first dinner in Sosuke’s home is shown at length, as is her inspection of a glowering baby. Her heritage is borrowed cheekily yet majestically from Norse myth. Her given name is Brunhilde, her mother is a serene red-haired giantess, and the score spoofs “The Ride of the Valkyries” during Ponyo’s plucky wavetop dash.

Ponyo, though, finally breaks free of parents and magic to live her chosen life, reprising themes in Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. As in Howl and Spirited Away, the final reckoning is thrown away insouciantly. Sosuke’s last “challenge” is just to confirm what he’s proved, that he loves Ponyo whoever she is. The build-up to the climax is the climax.

The hand-drawing involves flattened perspectives, soft-textured pastel backdrops and humped-up seas as massive and dynamic as Laputa’s clouds. Straight lines are out; the wavy, childish opening titles recall those for the vintage Japanese puppet show Hyokkori Hyotanjima, which was sampled in Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday. At times it seems that every frame of Ponyo wriggles with mundane and magic fishy creatures, foaming waves and crawling critters.

Ponyo is one of several Ghibli steelbooks released in the the UK by Studio Canal.

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