Ponyo (2008) is an adventure film about the friendship of a young boy and a magical creature (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Souske, a 5-year-old boy, lives in a seaside town with his mother, Lisa. One when Souske is playing by the ocean he meets Ponyo, a magical sea creature. After meeting Souske, Ponyo decides she wants to become human. Through the use of magic Ponyo becomes a little girl who appears to be about 5 years old. Once human Ponyo stays with Souske and the two become close friends. With the story being centered on a pair of 5 year olds it seems that Ponyo was meant to appeal and be understood by little kids. As such the film is fantastical and upbeat. Odell and Le Blanc (2009) said “Ponyo is a life-affirming film that sees the possibilities for good in everyone as well as accepting that all people, good or bad, are capable of causing mishaps, intentionally or not” (p. 138). Ponyo’s father, who could be the bad guy in the film, takes Ponyo away from Souske because he is worried about his daughter’s safety. Ponyo causes a tsunami (a rather large mishap) when she changes her form and runs away to see Souske again.
Miyazaki films are known for their hand animation and Ponyo is no exception. Miyazaki’s last few films utilized CGI, but Ponyo is comprised of 170,000 traditional animation cels making the film one hundred percent hand-made (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Like most Miyazaki films Ponyo is fantastical with real world detail. One way to tell that the film is hand-made by man who is very keen on realistic detail, is the way the waves move especially along the shoreline, it is very organic (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Sometimes the waves roll along gently, other times they lash out and wipe out anything in their path. According to Odell and Le Blanc (2009) each school of fish in the film is “hand animated” which gives “each creature true individuality” (p. 135). Even when the creatures in a group are the same there are little variations in each that make them different. One fish might have a little more gray, red, or blue making it look a little different from the fish next to it. If the fish had been mass-produced in a computer they would all be the same, but since they were drawn by hand they all look a tiny bit different.
Like Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo also has to do with metamorphosis. Ponyo is a magical creature who wills herself into human form. Her magical transformation shows her will as well as her emotional state and fatigue (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Ponyo starts off as a fishlike creature, with a human head, and becomes a young human girl. Poyno wants to be human, because she likes Sosuke and he is human, so she uses magic to change herself. Ponyo’s strong will and determination make the magic stronger and her form quickly changes. When Ponyo uses magic she strains her body and sometimes this strain makes her regain her chicken like arms and legs or fishlike face. When Ponyo stops using magic she regains her human form.
Upon first glance Miyazaki’s environmental theme might not seem to be present in Ponyo, but it is. According to Odell and Le Blanc (2009) the sea in is a character. Sometimes the sea has eyes and other times it follows or lashes out at other characters; the seas interaction and sometimes human like characteristics make it a character. In the film the tsunami happens because of an imbalance in magic; this shows that the environment is impacted by the balance of magic (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). With the sea as a character, it can be assumed that they environment is important to Miyazaki. Another way Miyazaki shows the environments importance is through the discussion of pollution, but is done so subtly. Towards the beginning of the film, when Ponyo first escapes, there are glass bottles, plastic containers, and miscellaneous other garbage strewn along the ocean floor. When Souske plays at the water’s edge there is also trash. Throughout Ponyo there is a black sludge in the water, it is seen at the shoreline and around boats out at sea. On numerous occasions Ponyo’s father complains about humans and the filth that they bring. The pollution shows that humans threaten the environment and their own surroundings (Odell and Le Blanc, 2009). All the trash in the water or at the water’s edge was something carelessly tossed aside by a human that could not bother with a trash bin. The sludge comes from the boats and the cars that are constantly in motion.
Poyno is one of few Miyazaki films to have a distinctly Japanese setting. The film is set in the port town of Tomonoura, Japan, a tourist town that Miyazaki visited in 2004 (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). The majority of the characters in the film look Asian, with dark hair and eyes. When Souske goes to school, it is a Japanese school; at the front of the building is an area where the children change their shoes. As most Japanese children are taught to respect their elders, Souske respects his. Even when he plans to leave school he says hello to his teacher and bows to her. Souske also makes presents for the old women at the old folks home that his mother works at. In the film Ponyo and Souske also eat some Japanese food, ramen. Souske explains how ramen is made to Ponyo as the two of them sit in front of their covered bowls and wait for it to be ready. Ponyo is one of few Miyazaki films to not have a western influence. The film is very Japanese, from its setting to its characters.
In Ponyo there are two strong women, Ponyo and Lisa. Poyno is inquisitive, oblivious, cheeky, and fearless (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). When she arrives at Souske’s house she inspects everything and follows Souske or Lisa around. She burns herself on hot food more than once, due to excitement and impatience. At one point in time Ponyo runs into a sliding glass door while she is looking outside, the idea that a door could be there did not even occur to her. As a fish she spits water in the face of people she does not like, which is cheeky. Poyno runs away from her dad and leaves her home to become independent and human, by changing herself and her location she shows no fear. Sosuke’s father is away working on a fishing vessel so Lisa cares for the house Sosuke and works at an old folks’ home. Lisa is strong, resourceful, and can hold her own (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). In the house is a backup generator, that Lisa knows how to get working. She also talks to her husband by light signal, both of which shows that she is resourceful. Taking care of two children on her own shows that Lisa is strong. Lisa is a crazy/fearless driver, who drives during the tsunami to make sure the people at the old folks’ home are alight; this shows she is courageous and caring.
Ponyo is not inundated with flying crafts and flight like most of Miyazaki’s films, but the element of flight is still present. When Ponyo’s father goes searching for her his submarine has small wing like flaps that take him up towards the surface. The upward motion and the wings give the appearance that the submarine is flying. After the tsunami most of the town is underwater, boats float overhead and people move about freely (even if they did not before). The flood creates weightlessness, which is often associated with air and flight. Flight in Ponyo is used very sparingly and in a different way, in the way of water and weightlessness, than Miyazaki normally does, but it is still there.