Ghibli Month: Ponyo

Tsunderin: Perhaps the only thing stronger than Miyazaki’s drive to write love stories with an unconventional twist is MadameAce’s drive to not actually watch the films until a month has passed since the last Ghibli film review. However, she finally got around to watching Ponyo, another unconventional love story, and though I doubt she’s very happy about it, she can save the complaining until her part.

PonyoPonyo is unconventional in how polarizing it is: people I know either love it or hate it. And while I know that I encourage artists of any medium to experiment and do things out of the box, there’s something about this film that just doesn’t work.

The film starts in an underwater laboratory inhabited by a strange-looking, magical man named Fujimoto, who lives there with his school of fish daughters. The oldest daughter sneaks out while her father is busy and travels to the mainland, getting trapped in a jar before winding up on shore and in the hands of a little boy named Sosuke. As little children are wont to do, Sosuke is compelled to take the strange looking ‘goldfish’ home. However, in breaking the jar she’s imprisoned in, he injures his finger. Before he has the chance to stick a Band-Aid on it, the fish-girl licks his wound, making all traces of it disappear completely. Thinking this is the coolest thing, he takes her back home in his bucket and gives her the name Ponyo.

Fujimoto has, of course, noticed that his daughter has gone missing and assumes the worst: that she has been kidnapped. With the help of his water spirits, he finds where Ponyo has gotten to and makes the trek back to human soil where he is promptly ignored and written off as a “freak show”. …Which isn’t too far from the truth, really. After waiting about an hour (I’m guesstimating here), he’s able to retrieve Ponyo when Sosuke runs away from his school and the next-door retirement home which his mother works at—both places Ponyo has assaulted people with water and Sosuke taking the blame—to the shoreline. There, Fujimoto overwhelms the poor boy with his water spirits, causing Ponyo to float back to him and leaving Sosuke very distraught with only the bucket she was kept in and the memories of their time together.

Ponyo is having none of this. When she returns to her father’s lab, she tells him straight up that she wants to be human and that she’s in love with Sosuke. In fact, she wants to be human so bad that she gives herself arms and legs and attempts to break out once more. It’s only when Fujimoto magics her back into her guppy form and into slumber that she quiets down. When he’s out of the room, that’s when things really change. With the help of her sisters, Ponyo awakens once more. She’s determined to get back to Sosuke, so she breaks out of her room, gets into her father’s magic, and returns to the surface. But what’s simple transportation to her is actually a typhoon to the humans on land. Running on the waves of the storm she helped exacerbate with magic, Ponyo finally returns to Sosuke as a human; his mother taking everything strangely well, considering.

Ponyo StormOn land, the storm continues raging on and Sosuke’s mother must leave to take care of the seniors at the retirement home. Underwater, Fujimoto has called his wife, Granmamere, the Goddess of Mercy, for an emergency meeting. He raves on and on about how nature is out of balance and humans are terrible, but stops when Granmamere offers a simple solution: a test. Ponyo and her love for Sosuke and her desire to be human: all of these things were the cause by an imbalance Ponyo created, since she is a creature of magic who became human, a non-magical entity. She still has magic, though, which is causing a schism in reality. So they will test Sosuke and if he passes, Ponyo will become a real girl. If not, she’ll turn into seafoam.

The next day Sosuke and Ponyo set out to find Sosuke’s mom since she hasn’t come home yet. However, the water level has risen so much that most of the town is inaccessible. Luckily, Ponyo still has her magic, so she enlarges Sosuke’s toy boat and they go on their way. This quickly becomes a problem. Although Ponyo’s magic is strong, she’s still young and doesn’t have the stamina to keep it up for very long. They manage to make it to “shore”, which ends up being a road, but Ponyo has nothing left in her in terms of magical ability. As they pass through a tunnel, Ponyo reverts back to her guppy form entirely and falls asleep. Alone, Sosuke tries to find his mother, but is instead greeted by Fujimoto. The sea wizard tries to speak to Sosuke about this ‘test’, but is cut off by one of the women from the retirement home. As Sosuke runs toward the familiar old woman, Fujimoto decides he’s had enough of this shit and once more sends his water spirits to take the two humans and the wannabe human to the bottom of the sea.

I’m not being metaphorical. It turns out that the other women and workers from the retirement home, including Sosuke’s mom, have been living quite peacefully underneath the water. With everything now in place, Granmamere finally explains the test to the poor kid. She asks him that even though Ponyo was once a fish, would he still be able to love her were she to become human? After his reassurances, she then goes on to tell Ponyo that if she is to become human, she will never again be able to use magic. Ponyo agrees to the terms readily, and so Grandmamere packages Ponyo up all nice in a bubble and tells Sosuke that if he kisses the bubble back on land, Ponyo will become a real girl.

The test over, everyone returns to land and “life begins anew”. Nature is back in balance and everyone seems to be reinvigorated, the old women of the retirement home most of all. Not wanting to waste any time, Ponyo leaps out of the bucket herself and smooches Sosuke, turning herself into a human.

Ah, young love.

MadameAce: This movie is… ah, well… it’s very… odd. Yeah, that’s a good word for it. cannot say that watching it was the worst thing in my life; I did not have high expectations for this film, so it turned out a lot better than I thought it would. It was still, however, not very good. To be sure, the animation was amazing, and the movie was certainly enjoyable in its own right. It’s based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, and I like that story—the Disney version at least—so I did find some nostalgic value in this movie.

That said, something about Ponyo just doesn’t work, and Rin and I are both about to explain why.

To start off, Ponyo has no real reason to want to be human, and this is the driving plot of the movie. Remember how in the Disney version Ariel was obsessed with human culture and wanted to learn all about it, and this drove a wedge between her and her father? Maybe I thought it was selfish of Ariel to leave her family without telling them anything, in order to go off with some guy she didn’t know, but at least the conflict was set up. That is not the case with Ponyo. Ponyo runs away for unexplained reasons, comes across people by happenstance, meets Sosuke, who keeps her in a bucket, and she falls in love within the course of a couple hours, if even that, because he fed her ham.

Also, someone please explain to me how no one but one of the crazy old ladies at the home noticed that Sosuke’s pet goldfish has a human face.

Also, someone please explain to me how no one but one of the crazy old ladies at the home noticed that Sosuke’s pet goldfish has a human face.

This short amount of time Ponyo spends with Sosuke leads to massive amounts of catastrophe, as in her attempts to get back to him she unleashes a gigantic storm upon the town. I have no doubt that plenty of people died in the course of all this. At one point, we can see hundreds of shipwrecked boats at the base of a towering mountain of water. We can see homes completely submerged as well. And yet, the tone of this entire movie is happy and light despite all the destruction. Additionally, kind of like Ariel, Ponyo learns nothing. She doesn’t become more responsible, and she certainly doesn’t suffer from any kind of consequences. Like Ariel, she gets what she wants, only in this case the world suffers for it.

Of course, the world suffers off-screen, because we don’t get to see the full extent of the damage caused by the rising sea levels.

Yay! The destruction of all humanity!

Yay! The destruction of all humanity!

Due to Ponyo’s lack of agency, she is sadly more of an object than a character. She causes this mass destruction, but it is Sosuke who has the power to fix it, by accepting her and promising to love and protect her. She loves Sosuke, but it is Sosuke’s love that matters. He has the ability to calm the storm, and he holds the key to Ponyo’s future. If he rejects her, she’ll turn into seafoam. I realize that that’s in keeping with the original The Little Mermaid, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that Ponyo’s character could probably be replaced with an actual goldfish and not much would change.

Tsunderin: The second, and most damning, aspect of the film is the reactions of the main characters to what’s going on around them. As a children’s movie, there’s a certain amount of leeway given towards the fantastical—I’m not expecting people to call up the government to check out the weird magical creatures hanging about—but we’re still dealing with a human world here. And when fantastical things happen, humans, spoiler alert, react to them. Which is exactly what they don’t do in Ponyo.

We get our first taste of this right at the moment when Sosuke decides to take Ponyo home. As he’s scooping Ponyo into his bucket, the sea morphs into Fujimoto’s water spirits which then try to engulf Sosuke. These water spirits? Yeah, they’re not just made out of water, they have eyes and later on are shown to make noises that are more akin to human grunting than crashing waves. Still, Sosuke, who takes a clear look at these things, only musters up the response of, “that was weird.”

"That was weird." Try: that was terrifying.

“That was weird.” Try: that was terrifying.

Yeah, Sosuke. It was weird. Could you maybe show a little bit more emotion over seeing, and almost potentially getting killed by, something you’ve never seen before? It’s not even played off as a childish seeing something that wasn’t there; he doesn’t even mention it to his mom. It’s never brought up again. Ever. By anyone. These water spirits are more ignored than the canon of The Last Airbender in M. Night’s adaptation.

Speaking of Sosuke’s mom, she’s the worst offender throughout the entire movie. Though her personality shines bright when she’s interacting with her family (Sosuke and her husband), everything else is terrible. She just believes that this little girl that shows up on her doorstep is Ponyo, the goldfish, because why not? She lets Sosuke be put under this test with nary a question to what’s going on, the only reason being because if she didn’t, the movie would be a lot more complicated.

I can be sympathetic toward her, really I can: she’s a strong woman who has to deal with her husband being away constantly and never being sure if he’ll return home. Suffering through that and the fact that Sosuke may be growing up at a faster rate than her own immaturity can deal with, allowing something that makes her son happy and to exist without question is believable in at least that respect. Letting Sosuke believe that the little girl is Ponyo because her son missed his pet so dearly probably could have been one of the most heartwarming moments of the film: the uncertain mother letting her son have something fantastical so he can hold onto his childhood a bit longer. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it comes off. With the way it’s written, it makes her seem like she knew about this magic stuff all along, and that there’s nothing actually fantastical going on.

I also hold a grudge against her—or just the writing in general—because it’s presented as sympathetic to drive her child home during a typhoon while the town is flooding behind them. They’re even begged to evacuate, but no, they don’t. Because reasons. The reason that they give us is because she wants to radio her husband, but in a port town there’s no way that their place houses the only radio. There’s no way that her house is the only house with the means to contact the sailors, who are probably the city’s main source of income. And when she gets there and finds that she can’t establish radio contact? Nothing. No emotion. Instead we have another scene where Ponyo and Sosuke eat stuff.

Yeah! Who cares about the disasters befalling our world when we have instant ramen with ham!?

Yeah! Who cares about the disasters befalling our world when we have instant ramen with ham!?

Don’t think that Fujimoto and Grandmamere get off without complaint either. Grandmamere deserves a bit more leeway because she’s a literal goddess and has a lot more shit to worry about, but Fujimoto doesn’t get a pass. He’s shown as extremely emotional in the very first scene and very misanthropic. So why is he suddenly okay with letting Sosuke essentially marry his daughter? Why does he suddenly forget about his hatred for humans when the plot calls for it? He’s worried about the impending doom of the earth, but not enough to get actually worked up over it. As opposed to the cases of Sosuke and his mother, however, I can’t tell if this is due to the lines themselves, or the way they were delivered. There are lines that sound like they should be brimming with emotion and paranoia, but they don’t. At least not in the dubbed version.

It ends up being where rather than a town full of lively characters, we have a town filled with plot devices. I can’t form an emotional connection with any of these characters because they simply don’t act like real humans. And with a story that depends so much on human relationships, this is a devastating failure towards the understanding of the film as a whole.

MadameAce: Another problem with the film is just how young both Sosuke and Ponyo are. For plot-relevant reasons, no one seems at all concerned about placing huge amounts of responsibility on Sosuke’s shoulders, despite him being five years old. Not only is saving the whole damn world up to him, but so is Ponyo’s life. He has the power to reject her and turn her into seafoam.

However, that doesn’t stop anyone from asking him to take on the responsibility of loving and protecting another person for the rest of his life, because at the ripe old age of five, he understands all the implications of such a decision or something.

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

He cannot make that kind of decision at the age of five, and I cannot believe that anyone even asked him to accept this burden. I don’t care how responsible Sosuke seems. The implication here is that the two of them are going to grow up together and be a couple, and by having him make this promise, Ponyo’s life is now dependent on that being the case. They hardly know each other, and they also hardly understand what love is in a romantic sense. What if Sosuke grows up and realizes that he likes boys? What if he and Ponyo grow personalities and decide they’re not compatible for one another? What if Sosuke dies in a car crash due to his mother’s reckless driving? What happens to Ponyo then? I was in love at the age of five, too. I had a boyfriend and we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. It didn’t last more than a couple months, because there was no way that it would have. We didn’t understand love and commitment, and I have a hard time believing that Sosuke and Ponyo actually feel this way for each other.

On top of that, Sosuke’s mother is going to take Ponyo in and care for her. So the two of them will never have any time apart. And regardless of their relationship to each other, society is going to view the two of them as siblings. Then they’re going to grow up together and potentially engage in a romantic relationship like their parents made them promise. Of course, I don’t think society’s going to bat an eye at this or be disturbed at all, since emotional responses seem to be beyond anyone’s ken.

Child-grooming issues alone make this pairing highly unlikeable to begin with, but I also cannot get over the fact that their relationship started by Sosuke keeping Ponyo as a pet goldfish. I wouldn’t mind if this movie had ended with them being friends and Ponyo being allowed to return to the sea, or even with them loving each other romantically as much as children are capable, which is more cutesy love than anything else, but it doesn’t end that way. It ends with them together for life, in an arrangement they cannot possibly fully comprehend, and we’re supposed to view this like it’s a good thing.

The parents might as well have thrown a fucking wedding ceremony right then and there for all the more they seemed to give a shit about the long-term consequences.

Darling, let's marry our five year daughter off to some boy she met only yesterday and never see her again. <3

Darling, let’s marry our five-year-old daughter off to some boy she met only yesterday and never see her again. ❤

Tsunderin: Other than these points, I find that the overall message of this film is somewhat muddled as well. Since it’s a Miyazaki film, there’s a message of environmentalism thrown in alongside everything else. However in Ponyo, arguably one of the easier movies to work such a message into, it’s completely disregarded. It’s not even that it’s never brought up—in the beginning scenes we’re shown that the bottom of the ocean is littered with trash and Fujimoto makes a statement about how disgusting humans are—it’s just that it’s never brought up again. So humans are careless with their trash, but they don’t suffer any repercussions from it; it’s just another thing for Fujimoto to rant about. This is possibly the least nuanced, least impactful environmental message I’ve ever seen; no one’s going to be moved by a character labeled as a nutcase trying to guilt the audience into taking better care of the ocean.

Ponyo could have been a really great movie. All the pieces are there, but the entire script is surprisingly unskillfully written and carries none of the wonder of other Ghibli films. Instead, it comes across as confusing and creepy. I really think this film would have been better if the main characters were older: they’d have the time to form more agency and more of a personality. As it stands, the characters are too young for the problems thrust upon them and it’s quite clear that they don’t understand the impact of the choices they’re making (because they’re five), which, in turn, makes the story’s conflicts seem inconsequential to everything. Not exactly what you want with a “the world’s going to be destroyed” story.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

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