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Hayao Miyazaki’s «Ponyo» – Japanese Animation Screens at Viewpoint

    By Malin Meyer. March 21, 2014 - 11:22 am

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When I first had a look at this semester’s Viewpoint schedule there were a handful of titles that really caught my eye. One of these was “Ponyo”, the award-winning animated film by acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki.

I first watched “Ponyo” back in 2010, having already seen Miyazaki’s earlier works, like “Princess Mononoke” from 1997 and “Spirited Away” from 2001. It’s one of those movies that you enjoy watching over and over again, because it never loses its charm.

Released in 2008, Ponyo is the story of a goldfish princess who meets a 5-year old boy named Sosuke and decides she wants to become a human girl. Upon finding the goldfish stuck inside a glass jar on the shoreline beneath his house, Sosuke rescues the goldfish and names her Ponyo. Their encounter is the beginning of a wonderful and close friendship, which is a central theme to Miyazaki’s story.

If you think the plot about an ocean creature with aspirations to become human sounds vaguely similar to Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” story, you’re not entirely wrong. While Miyazaki got his inspiration for “Ponyo” from the well-known fairy-tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen – made even more famous by Disney’s adaptation – the two stories are still very different.

As was pointed out in the discussion segment, many of Miyazaki’s films showcases strong female characters and “Ponyo” is no exception. Apart from Sosuke himself, there are hardly any male characters in the film, and the few men that are present are in no way taking up center stage. In addition to the strong headed Ponyo herself, there’s Lisa (Sosuke’s mother), a group of elder ladies at the senior center where Lisa works, and the Goddess of Mercy – Ponyo’s own mother and the Queen of the ocean.

In the film it’s revealed that Ponyo’s actual name is Brunhilde; she is the daughter of the Goddess of Mercy and Fujimoto, a once-human wizard who lives under water. Fujimoto is determined to prevent his daughter from becoming human, but she opposes her father’s will. There’s another delightful scene in which Koichi, Sosuke’s father, is apologizing to Lisa by Morse Code from the fishing boat he works on, telling her that he’s sorry he can’t make it home that night as intended. Lisa, in no way interested in his excuses, tells him to bug off.

Disney has received a lot of praise lately for its movie “Frozen”, where the focus is on the relationship between sisters Elsa and Anna rather than falling in love, but it’s important to remember that directors like Miyazaki have been emphasizing female empowerment for quite some time already.

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Another important aspect of Miyazaki’s films and one that appeals strongly to me as an Environmental Studies major, is the way he presents human society and his use of themes like pollution and resource depletion. When Sosuke and Ponyo first meet, she’ stuck inside a glass jar. She could have suffered a worse fate, as she was originally ensnared by a fishing trawler that was attempting to clean up the vast amounts of trash strewn along the bottom of the harbor. Fujimoto doesn’t understand his daughter’s desire to become human, because he believes humans to be destructive creatures that are upsetting the balance of nature.

Animated movies are celebrated for their entertainment value and appeal to both children and grown-ups. However, many mainstream animations aren’t concerned with showcasing themes like pollution and feminism – which I can understand because people often expect animated movies to be cheerful rather than leave you with thoughts racing about complex societal issues.

Still, I think the works of artists like Miyazaki are important precisely because they’re different from the norm and aren’t afraid to leave some audiences perplexed. We need films that can balance the yearning for a good story with the need for awareness.

Photos: Stills from movie

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