Thursday, March 11, 2010


Hey, Space Monkees!  Fifty posts, can you believe it?

Hayao Miyazaki is not simply the Japanese Walt Disney.  He's the Japanese Santa Claus.  I do not have words for the visual brilliance and magic of his animated films, as any description would weaken their visual effect.  One after another he makes great classic movies, like he has some kind of magic well of pure childish delight which he spreads over the film reels with an enchanted paintbrush.  The only problem is this:  he's relatively unknown here in America.  Oh yeah, in film nerd circles and among anime fans, you'll hear plenty of praise for him.  But ask the average person on the street, or even just the majority of people you know, and you'll get nothing but a blank stare.  "What's a Mee-yah-zak-kee?"  There's a perfect word for this:  criminal.

And then entirely forgettable, DreamWorks movies infected with a disease of "clever" pop-culture" references in exchange for a good story and characters make hundreds of millions of dollars.  Uch...

So out of my hope to spread Miyazaki to the masses, or at least the barely two dozen people who read this blog, I will now give my thoughts on "Ponyo", or as its known in Japan:  "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea:  Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire".  I wish I had a larger audience to which I can push Studio Ghibli, but that's not the case.  Though I think if all we little tiny bloggers do our part, it could eventually be pushed forward grassroots-style - you know, like those Tea Party rallies.  Actually no, not like the Tea Party rallies, since they were created and finances by a major multimedia outlet, Fox News.  If Fox News wants to stop calling democrats "socialists" all the time, and back me up in making Miyazaki more famous, they certainly are welcome to.  I'd love to see Bill O'Reilly scream into the face of some DreamWorks executive, and listen to Glenn Beck ramble about a "conspiracy" by Nickelodeon to keep Japanese cinema out of the American culture.  It would make for some interesting episodes of the Daily Show that night.  But since nothing like that is happening (or ever will), all you got is me.

Well, this movie isn't that obscure.  The Greater Rodent Reich of Disney actually did pour plenty of resources into making this movie as big as possible.  Just for starters, for the central characters Disney threw in several of their best actors who are tangentially connected to huge Disney Channel names:  Ponyo is played by Miley Cyrus's baby sister, and that one other Jonas brother who isn't in the band plays Sosuke, Ponyo's terrestrial love interest.  Both are about the right age for the parts, so it works well.  And then there's Matt Damon, Liam Neeson*, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, and Betty White.  Wow.  It also got the widest release of any Studio Ghibli movie ever, though tragically not close enough for me, since the closest theatre was all the way in Staten Island and I couldn't get a ride.  Just three miles closer and I could have seen this movie half a year ago.  Unfortunately the movie made only fifteen million dollars, which is about as low as a wide release in American only will get you.  Internationally there's another 185 million where that came from, so don't worry about Miyazaki or his paycheck.  He'll be fine.  As for western releases, I don't know if they'll ever throw so much support behind one of his movies like this again.  Hopefully they will, but with Disney you never know.  (These are the people who made me almost miss the Oscars, after all.)  Thankfully there's now a DVD release, so its time to start renting!  Be it RedBox, Netflix, or - God Help You - Blockbuster, make sure little "Ponyo" is inside your DVD player as soon as possible.  And get all the other Miyazaki movies too, while you're at it.  Seriously.

Okay, onto this movie itself.  "Ponyo" is essentially the Studio Ghibli version of "the Little Mermaid".  The stories are somewhat similar in that they focus on the daughter of an over-protective aquatic ruler who wants to become human so as to be "part of that world".  Only this time there's no songs, no overt gags, and no villain.  As you can see from that picture above, Ponyo and Sosuke are only toddlers, so the love story is about as innocent as you can get.  Sorry, developers of "Disgaea 2", you aren't getting anything more than that out of these kids, you weirdos. Of course, with Studio Ghibli, you'll get amazing panoramic views of an amazing world, even when this is supposed to be taking place in the "real" world of coastal Japan.

I find that the best way to describe the fairy tale whimsy of the plot is just to summarize it.  The story begins with Brunhilde, a magic fish in an undersea castle, escaping from the bubble she and her smaller sisters live in to see the surface.  Her father, an evil wizard played by Liam Neeson*, immediately goes after her so that she does not become too attached to the surface world.  However, she quickly gets stuck in a glass jar after escaping a fishing boat, and then washes up to shore next to Sosuke's house.  Sosuke finds the fish and rescues her.  Somehow the fact that she is a fish with a face and hair does not surprise him, or his mom, Tina Fay, or anybody for that matter.  Instead the fish is carried to preschool in a water-filled bucket, enjoying a slice of ham from Sosuke's sandwich, and squirting water into the face of anybody who doesn't like her.  Also she heals a cut on his finger by licking it.  Sosuke also decides to name her "Ponyo", a name which the former Brunhilde takes with love.  She even says her first words:  "Ponyo loves Sosuke!  Ponyo loves Sosuke!", just before being dragged back under the sea by her dad.  But this doesn't last long, as the free-willed Ponyo had decided she's had enough of being a fish.  Immediately she demands hands and feet to replace her dress-like bottom and nub arms, which she grows.  Then, by breaking into her father's magic elixir well, she bursts out to the surface with her sister's acting as a typhoon she can ride all the way up to the surface so she can return to Sosuke.  But in doing so, she's also broke the fabric of all reality.  Oops.

One bit that I love is how Ponyo, when growing from a fish to a girl, goes from a far more cartoony design to a realistic one.  Her fish form is a cute little creature, but one that could never exist in more realistic world above the sea.  While as a girl, she fits in with the world above.  I don't know if this was intentional, but the change in style adds a whole level to this movie's visual brilliance.

I'm not going to spoil anything, but I am going to warn you that this problem is fixed with continent ease.  In fact, it amounts to just two promises, which, since this is a fairy tale, will naturally be kept forever and then everybody can live happily ever after.  The plot is actually rather shallow, since there really isn't a villain and in fact no serious conflict, thus no villain.  You go to A to Z, pretty much with nothing being solved that wasn't established in a matter of seconds.  In fact, some issues that the movie brings up, such as Ponyo's dad trying to destroy the humans in order to save the seas, are simply forgotten without any explanation.  Maybe he only put it on hold until he can get back to it later.  Or maybe the story isn't really all that important compared to the fairy tale tone of the film.  There are plenty of fairy tales that do not have much conflict, yet they still are remembered for years to come.

I'll admit, however, this is far from Miyazaki's best work.  But even Miyazaki on a bad day is far from terrible.  When Miyazaki writes a script that isn't exactly a perfect storyline, he makes sure to make up for it with stunning visuals and pushing the limits of traditional hand-drawn animation as far as he can go.  There's always love behind these movies, which is what makes them eternal classics.  Yeah, "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away" were better movies, but "Ponyo" still is a movie with a soul, and that should be respected.

So be good Space Monkees and take my recommendations!  Also there needs to be more of you readers, dammit!  =)

* Its weird watching a typical anime pretty boy with the voice of Liam Neeson, trust me.


  1. Ponyo was certainly good, but like you said, not Miyazaki's best. I got to see this movie when it was first released (actually the very day after my birthday) in a cinema that was a ten minute bus ride away. It lagged at times, but is very memorable. It somewhat reminded me of my favorite Miyazaki film, My Neighbor Totoro.

    And a lot of people in New York seem to either know who Miyazaki is, or have at least seen one of his movies but just never bothered to find out who the director was. (And I'm not talking just about The City, but Queens as well.)

  2. You dont give Dreamworks enough credit, they made "Road to El Dorado" which was one of the best animated movies ever made. I just love the comedic timming in it, hilarious.

    On the subject of Ponyo, I never saw it but I really want to, I have seen most of Miyazaki's work though, such as Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Princess Monoke. All where great

  3. Why can't they ever make a good Swedish Dub of a Miyazaki film!? Try watching a Miyazaki film of choice with swedish audio, i bet you'll get a headache after ten minutes with for example Mei in My Neighbour Totoro. Kiki had an acceptable voice, but she's an exception.

    Why do they have to ruin those excellent movies with bad dubs?

  4. See, I really disliked Castle in the Sky. I've never even seen it through to the end, every time I've ever tried to watch it (and it is a great many, as I've had the VHS since I was about nine) I have fallen asleep, even when not really that tired before putting it on. It just really bores me.

  5. man miyazaki makes me so happy! I have a stuffed totoro by my bed who guards my dreams... unfortunately he's sans the umbrella
    Ponyo reminded me of Totoro in the sense it was a simplistic story but steeped in the natural world
    plus it's got the 'awwww' factor in abundance
    even if those disney goons totally ruined the theme tune with a godawful remix
    thought I'd agree with the critics and say Tina Fey was very convincing as the mum.

    i had a choice of seeing Ponyo or Princess and the Frog at the cinema and somehow the decision i made was the best for me that day when it seemed 90% of the Ponyo audience were people over 18 with huge grins on their faces :D

  6. Oh, I completely forgot about that silly theme song at the end credits! What the heck was up with that? Man, that was goofy. I haven't heard music like that since I grew to three feet tall and stopped watching Barney.

    I can't decide it was good or bad though...

  7. Did you watch the Japanese or English version of the theme song? They're very different.

  8. Yeah, the English version is more techno-y. I like it better because I can actually sing along, instead of "guessing" whatever they're saying in the Japanese.

    Most anime theme songs have this same problem. I just make up lyrics or fill it in with scat when I want to sing them. Damn Japanese.

  9. Or you could just turn on the subtitles, so you can hear the original voices and still know what they're saying