The James Clayton Column: Liked Ponyo, disliked Ponyo

Studio Ghibli fan James pops off to see Miyazaki's latest film, Ponyo. But what's it got to do with Rocky?

I like Japanese anime movies. Most of the time the productions of Studio Ghibli look stunning, have charming stories and characters and make me feel all warm and happy inside. (With the exception of ultra-tragic World War II tale Grave Of The Fireflies. It’s a moving masterpiece but all the bomb damage, death and despair suffered by those two orphans left me depressed. On the comparative war misery scale, it makes Schindler’s List look like The Sound Of Music.)

Unsurprisingly, then, I enjoyed Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest motion picture. It’s a sweet film, flows nicely and delivers the glorious visuals that Ghibli does best. It’s also easily the most child-friendly flick the Japanese director has made yet, which increases its all-round accessibility and appeal to a greater audience beyond anime geeks. Ponyo has that sense of purity and I’d recommend it to parents looking to give their kids something with more soul than Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Despite this, I disliked Ponyo, the goldfish-turned-girl of the title. This is a little disturbing: I shouldn’t have negative feelings about the chief character in a Miyazaki movie. Totoro freaks me out a little when he does the full-on ‘Cheshire-Cat-on-crack’ smile, but I’ve never felt such ambivalence to a Studio Ghibli hero before.

It’s a bit like enjoying Rocky as a movie but hoping that Sylvester Stallone trips over when he’s jogging up the Philadelphia steps. Most often you’re meant to sympathise with the title character and establish a compassionate appreciation for their quest. Puzzlingly, I find such empathy hard to conjure up for the eponymous Ponyo.

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Maybe I’m expecting too much from a 5-year-old goldfish princess dubbed by Hannah Montana’s sister. Her overzealous hyperactivity and childishness can probably be excused by young age but, even so, Ponyo is weird.

I’m really disconcerted by those hybrid moments when Ponyo is neither fish nor little girl but instead some kind of halfway frog-faced oddity with bird-like feet. The way she bounces around screaming “I love Sōsuke!” looking not-quite-human reminds me of The Fly when Jeff Goldblum has gone on a sugar bender and started climbing the walls. Observe the freakish similarity of Ponyo and Brundlefly and “be afraid, be very afraid”.

Speaking of food, what’s with her crazed craving for ham? She goes mental at the sight of pink meat in a manner which strikes me as unnerving and unnatural. I’m sure that it’s totally antithetical to all natural order and the rules of the food chain for a goldfish to be chewing on a pig product. Fish should only swallow water, plankton or smaller fish (or haggard old sea captains called Quint if they are really big and have vicious, sharp nasty teeth).

In my eyes, though, what makes Ponyo most bizarre is the ambition to become human. When will these misguided movie animals learn? Being human is overrated and depressing. We’re a loathsome and ugly species who’ve overpopulated the planet and are undoubtedly heading towards ignominious decline. I’ve tried it and, quite frankly, I feel cheated.

Seeing as Ponyo is reckoned to be a Japanimation adaptation of Hans Christian-Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, it’s worth revisiting the Disney flick to further examine the odd desire to be a human woman. Emaciated redhead Ariel whinges on and on about wanting feet as if they’ll bring her emancipation and never-ending happiness. She won’t feel so liberated when the fungal infections are festering beneath her toenails and she’s suffering the torture of high heels.

At some point in using a fork as a hairbrush I can only assume that the mermaid princess spooned out what little common sense she had in her head. Life underwater as the daughter of Triton may be a gilded cage, but being a prisoner to Atlantica is better than being stripped of your fins and stuck on dry land with drippy Prince Eric.

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The old Caribbean crustacean proverb “life here is better down where it’s wetter” rings true. Why would you want to live on land when you can swim free in the sea, especially when the sea is as appealing to the eye as it is when imagined up by Miyazaki? Ponyo could spend her days happily playing with jellyfish and all other manner of mesmeric marine creatures. With three-second memory she’d spend her entire life free from regret and trauma. She lives a charmed life in a wonderful anime water-world with a dad who looks like David Bowie. Why, little fishy, would you want to give it up?

Yet Ponyo trades utopian ocean fantasy and magic powers because she falls in love with a 5-year-old boy and ham sandwiches. Really? All it takes is a bland packed lunch and a peck on the cheek from a boy who’s barely out of nappies? This could well be the most astounding crisis of aspiration and imagination ever committed to screen.

Don’t get me wrong: Sōsuke is a nice kid and a very caring, resourceful character. You have to feel for the little fella having that unfortunate crop haircut and Japan’s most irresponsible mother (what kind of a parent takes her hands off the steering wheel, insists on eating dessert before dinner and leaves two children on their own in the house on a stormy night?). Even so, as compassionate a little boy with the bucket and the captain’s hat is, to abandon all the privileges of being an ocean princess to enjoy a childhood romance is insane.

Are these people mature enough to make such massive life-defining decisions? I think not and I can’t help but feel that the fact a romantic resolution is required to put nature back into balance is a convenient narrative tag-on to try and justify Ponyo and Sōsuke’s unlikely relationship.

Those watching Ponyo are presented with the explicit message: accept their mutual affection or drown helplessly as the Moon gets bigger and the mountains sink below the surface of the sea. It’s like an arranged marriage carried through because of impending environmental catastrophe. This is contemptible.

Who feeds these fish-girls fantasies about being human women? Human women get athlete’s foot and rarely get the opportunity to ride on the back of a dolphin. It’s a no-brainer, yet Ariel and Ponyo get it completely wrong. Have they been brainwashed or are they just lacking in intelligence and imagination? If only they’d listened to the singing crustacean…

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James’ previous column can be found here.