The release of a new Hayao Miyazaki film is guaranteed to get fans of animation excited. Miyazaki has long since established himself as perhaps the world’s pre-eminent director of animation, spearheading many of the major releases from Japanese animation studio Ghibli, who’s films have exploded onto the international scene following on from the release of Princess Mononoke in 1997, after years in the relatively niche realm of anime fandom. Miyazaki captures the innocence of childhood and the beauty of nature like few other film makers, promoting conventional sentiments often found in children’s films such as compassion, pacifism and a broader sense of humanism while avoiding the pitfalls of cloying sentimentality and preachiness so often found in children’s entertainment.
Ponyo is one of Miyazaki’s most child-friendly films. While some of his more recent efforts have contained themes and imagery more suitable for older children and teenagers (Princess Mononoke’s feudal Japan setting, replete with limb severing combat sequences springs to mind), Ponyo is closer in mood to My Neighbour Totoro, the seminal 1988 release in which two young girls encounter strange forest spirits after moving to the countryside with their father and ailing mother. In Ponyo, the central character is a young boy named Sosuke, who meets the eponymous princess goldfish while playing at the water’s edge near his seaside home. After tasting Sosoke’s blood when he cuts himself, Ponyo’s transition from fish to human begins, along with her desire to complete the transformation and leave her watery origins for good.
After the sumptuous, meticulously detailed visual experiences of Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, one of the first things that strikes the viewer about Ponyo is its simplicity of style. Colour palettes are sparing and much of the background artwork resembles a child’s crayon drawings, with crudely defined edges and shading and misjudged proportions. This style – unusual for Miyazaki – lends itself to the content of the film perfectly, enhancing the viewer’s affinity with the child protagonists and reinforcing the idea that this is a world viewed from their perspective. Having somewhat reluctantly adopted CGI in his more recent films, Miyazaki eschews the technique for Ponyo, prefering to handle the many ocean-based sequences with traditional hand-drawn animation, creating immense, rolling seascapes and waves that dominate the screen – he’s not averse to the occasional nod to Japanese tradition, with Hokusai’s Great Wave appearing in the frame, particularly during the dramatic storm sequence.
If this combination of quirky, childlike visual style married with lush animation and the wide-eyed wonder of the central characters evokes a nostalgic feeling amongst adult viewers, for children it’s bound to be a real treat. There’s some irony that this is another Miyazaki film released in the West by Disney, since Miyazaki has had more than one altercation with the corporation, not least over the eagerness to interfere in the artistic process. Thankfully, Ponyo demonstrates once again their failure to stamp a “Disney feel” on his work: the setting is distinctly, culturally Japanese, the use of music – sacharrine to the extreme in Disney’s films – is subtle, moving and lyrical in the hands of Joe Hisaishi, while the characters themselves are nuanced and real, compared to the exaggerated caricatures and grating sidekicks commonplace in Disney animation. So often labelled “the Disney of Japan”, Miyazaki is anything but; his films are, if anything, the antithesis of Disney, and are all the better for it.
Ghibli: The Miyazaki Temple: