Wednesday, 14 April 2010

崖の上のポニョ/Gake no Ue no Ponyo / Ponyo on a Cliff

I’ll admit that I had doubts about this film. The early images of Ponyo looked bizarre and the plot sounded so thin. It was clear that Miyazaki was going back to his cuter roots, revisiting the tone he set in Tonari no Totoro and possibly even harking back to Panda Kopanda. But I wasn’t sure it was going to happen in the right way. Ponyo is a very odd-looking creature, even more so than the Totoros, and after three successful films with an epic tone, I wasn’t sure going back to the more babyish style was going to work. It felt almost like a direct reaction to my impression that his output was less worthy, artistically, than Takahata’s, which I’m sure has been said by more people than me, and now he was going to try to be quirkier, stranger, more experimental, and shy away from the mainstream.

In the event, I wasn’t right about that. Not quite. Ponyo has some very strange elements but is very much a spiritual successor to Totoro, and actually feels much more genuine than, say, Hauru. It feels more like the story Miyazaki wants to tell. And it is not without its populist elements. If you took the basis to Pixar, you would likely get a very similar story by the end, a little sassier and slightly less warm.

The story is straightforward: kindergartener Sousuke lives with his mother Risa by the shore, Risa holding the fort while her husband is away at sea, taking her son to school and working in the old folks’ home. One day, playing at the shore, Sousuke finds a funny fishlike creature with a human-like face and calls it Ponyo. However, mysterious watery creatures come and take Ponyo away. Her ‘father’, wild-haired and beak-nosed Fujimoto, tries to ensure she stays at home, but she breaks free, accidentally spills all of his magic supply and with it, finds herself able to pursue her desires, so along with her numerous dot-eyed siblings, goes to find Sousuke.

Because the central characters are around 4 years old, it was easy to understand most of what was being said in Ponyo, and I understood about 95% of the dialogue, with most of the 5% remaining being not understanding what Fujimoto was babbling about when he was talking to himself. I was worried that it would be contrived, but Ponyo has genuine charm and it’s impossible not to think of little Mei from Totoro when watching. The best parts are the sweet little moments, the cantankerous old woman getting water in her face and thinking there was a tsunami coming, Risa and Sousuke sending messages to his father about what a ‘baka baka baka’ he is, and of course Sousuke and Ponyo’s interaction, especially when they are out on their boat bumping into the various townsfolk.

The usual Ghibli staples are here: metamorphosis and an uncanny acceptance of it; spectacular high-paced sequences (cars and waves this time); the warmth of family and friendship; antagonists who are revealed to have a good side; and, of course, spectacular animation. The odd simplicity at the beginning soon gives way to that trademark naturalistic human animation, and then there is the stunning beauty of Ponyo’s mother (‘I love her! She’s scary!’ ‘Ah, sounds like Risa!’) and the amazing water effects – the copy available to pirates like me at the moment is a little jerky and does feature the silhouette of a guy standing up, being a ‘camrip’, but given that it’s just a camera in a theatre is of remarkable quality.

It’s far from my favourite Ghibli film, and yes, the cutesiness trivialises the film overall. I prefer Miyazaki’s epics, and it just can’t match Totoro in terms of mixing the fantastical (and adorable) with the starkly realistic and nostalgic. That said, it was well worth seeing and very heart-warming, and there’s no denying that Sousuke and Ponyo are irresistible. Miyazaki’s mastery is his ability to get us to support his characters, the strange ones as well as the instantly loveable. And no-one does loveable like Miyazaki.

(originally written 31.7.2008. Upon watching it again in April 2010 with English subtitles, I 'actually felt that the film was rather slow this time, even dull in its first act, and that Sou-chan wasn’t as cute as I remembered him being. That said, I found Fujimoto rather more awesome and amusing, perhaps simply because I was able to understand more of what he was saying.')

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