Ponyo: Miyazaki’s Misunderstood Masterpiece

With 2008’s Ponyo, Studio Ghibli celebrated nearly two decades of successfully bringing the world of traditional Japanese anime to the world stage. With its eighth feature film—and tenth overall by seasoned director, and master animator, Hayao Miyazaki—Studio Ghibli broke new ground once again, leading the way with its dynamic hand-drawn animation, but now with a difference: where once Miyazaki had previously depended primarily on the fantastical visual elements to craft a near-plotless dreamlike feast for the eyes, with Ponyo, he opted to tell a full dramatic story—his own twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a direct answer to Disney’s 1989 American blockbuster based upon the same source material. Additionally, the esteemed director brought to the forefront his own personal passion for environmental responsibility, wrapping an eco-friendly morality tale in his usual fantastical elements, and in doing so, polarized western critics and audiences. But a decade later, does Ponyo hold up, or does it deserve its place as Miyazaki’s only misunderstood masterpiece? As YouTuber Mark Kermode claimed in his assessment of the film:

Miyazaki apparently said at a comic convention that he was inspired to this by [Disney’s] The Little Mermaid because there’s always been a kind of ‘to-and-fro’ between the East and West, and this whole idea that, somehow, Miyazaki’s animation exists outside of Disney and they’re two things—which is completely wrong. In the same way, in fact, hand-drawn animation uses CG, and CG uses animation.

YouTuber Justin Watches Movies agreed with Kermode’s opinion, citing Studio Ghibli’s usual emphasis on hand-drawn animation over current dependencies one of its strongest points. He stated:

With all the CGI animation [out there], here’s this film—and it’s hand-drawn and it’s stunning, and it’s better than anything that came out that year.

But as the commentators at Justin Watches Movies continued, the animation isn’t what makes Ponyo stand out—rather, the unique plotting and characterization usually foreign to a Studio Ghibli film is the movie’s standout element. He added:

What I really admired about Ponyo is how charming and innocent and friendly this movie is … It’s about children and it’s about relationships and it’s about loss and letting go. And people might think that it’s really fun and it can be a really cute kid’s film, but it’s way more than that. It’s a movie that adults can really relate to and looking at relationships you’ve had in the past…

But in telling the story of a young goldfish who yearns to be human so as to experience friendship with a human boy—and in the process, defying her father, an emperor of the ocean, skeptical of humans’ negative impact upon the environment—many felt that Ponyo teetered on the brink of preachiness, not to mention the unspoken element of making the film’s father-figure the closest character the story has to a traditional “villain.”  At Dyligent Picks, the YouTuber saw the film’s lack of a clear-cut antagonist to be one of the story’s more “mature” themes, allowing children to instead revel in the fun of the visual fantasy, rather than a focus upon good-versus-evil.  He stated:

There aren’t really any characters that come off [as villains], but here are certainly elements to this film where people are in different conflict with what they want to have happen and what they’re trying to do, or protect … [And] there are some of the most visually stunning animated scenes that you will ever see, hand-drawn, or otherwise.

Likewise, YouTuber Mark Kermode found the simple story refreshing, and found the movie’s eco-friendly themes well balanced within the overall epic scope of the cinematic experience. In his assessment, Kermode added:

This was just a joy. I sat there in the cinema and I was thrilled—I just smiled. It was beautiful to look at, it was incredibly strange and the story was bizarre and had these kind of, you know, this [ecological] thing going on, but it doesn’t feel like it’s being rammed down your throat because it’s magical and enrapturing and beautifully orchestrated and the sound of its lovely, and the visuals—you're just lost in them.

Other YouTubers were not as pleased with the tone that Miyazaki opted to take with Ponyo, with some finding the narrative too simplistic, or the sweeping scope of the film muddling beneath the director’s altruistic intentions. As YouTuber Golden Fox stated:

This one definitely differentiates from [Miyazaki’s] previous installments. It doesn’t have as much action involved, there aren’t as many political elements in the film, and there isn’t as much weird atmosphere as the rest of his work does. Instead, it has an appeal to a much younger audience, as well as its simple storyline.

Golden Fox added:

As I sat through the movie, I felt a little disappointed in the content. I mostly enjoy all the weirdness that all the Miyazaki films have, and I wanted to see that for the first time on the big screen, but it wasn’t as climactic as I expected, either … Now, I’m not saying that it’s a bad movie. In fact, it’s a great movie—[but] it saddens me to miss out on such an iconic thing on the big screen. I still enjoyed the film, nonetheless. It’s very cute, there are a few really good, funny moments in it, and a few odd ones, which I don’t mind.

In defense of the film, YouTuber Justin Watches Movies added that Ponyo’s status as Studio Ghibli’s most misunderstood film makes it all the more ripe for re-watching, and perhaps, the most open to interpretation. He stated:

I feel like Ponyo is one of the lesser-talked about Studio Ghibli films, but it is one of my favorite ones, it is one of the most charming ones, one of the most innocent ones—and it’s one that’s focused on children, much like My Neighbor Totoro, but deep down, has a really intriguing story that’s much more than it appears to be.

Dyligent Picks agreed with many of those views, citing the storyline, pacing, and—as usual with all the films of Studio Ghibli—the visuals as more than compensating for any minor missteps director Miyazaki may have taken with his passion project. The YouTuber claimed:

First off, it’s got this beautifully simple story that is presented with such energy that it really takes its time in just showing you everything you really need to know and build-up to make this film work … This film has two leading characters that are both children, and that gives a very great, interesting perspective, as they are given so much prominence in this film.

He added that the very concept of making a fairy tale that sly incorporated relevant cultural themes and adult situations made Ponyo not a step backwards, filmmaking-wise, but rather, a great leap forward for Studio Ghibli’s output. He added:

Where do I start? I mean there’s so many great things about it: whether it’s the music, obviously the visuals and the animation, are amazing—that’s to be expected with Studio Ghibli. But one thing I still find very fascinating about this film is, even though it’s G-rated and mostly features characters that are children, and is geared towards kids, it is very, very much an entertaining film for adults, as well.

In his conclusion, Justin Watches Movies summed up his take on the film, stating the overall cinematic experience being exactly what he expected going into yet another Miyazaki animated epic. In his reassessment, the YouTuber stated:

Hayao Miyazaki creates such a beautiful-looking film—but when doesn’t he create a beautiful-looking film … [And] the characters in Ponyo are really great, especially Ponyo the little goldfish. I really admire her as a character … and her sense of wonder about the human world.