No clamshell bras or singing crabs,
just a fish and her love for a boy.
Ponyo is to anime like The Cure are to Goth: technically they each fit into their respective genres, but each is so mainstream that people don’t automatically draw upon the given association. I’m sure there are people out there who found Ponyo charming and would rather get a root canal than call themselves anime fans. However, it is indeed an anime feature film, and a very good one at that.
The story is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”: Ponyo is a little fish with an overbearing sea magician for a father named Fujimoto. One day she sneaks away and gets trapped in a glass bottle, and a boy named Sōsuke rescues her. The two become fast friends, but her father sends the waves after them and retrieves Ponyo, then traps her in his underwater castle for her own good. However, Ponyo has fallen in love with Sōsuke, so with the help of her sisters she escapes.
On her way to the surface she unleashes Fujimoto’s store of magic, which throws the world out of balance and causes a tsunami, among other things. Ponyo reunites with Sōsuke, only this time as a human girl thanks to the magic. Sōsuke’s mother Lisa makes them all dinner, then heads back to town in order to help the nursing home where she works survive the storm. The next day Lisa still hasn’t returned, so Sōsuke and Ponyo set off to find her. Meanwhile, Fujimoto has called on Ponyo’s goddess mother, Granmamare, for help in all the chaos. Granmamare says that if Ponyo truly wishes to stay with Sōsuke, he must pass a test. If he succeeds she will remain a human girl and the world will return to its natural order. If he fails Ponyo will turn to sea foam.
I’ve seen most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films to date, so I knew going in that Ponyo would be a bit strange. True to form, it was, but it was also fantastical. There were some breathtaking scenes in the film, most notably when Ponyo and Sōsuke are searching for Lisa in their new ocean landscape. They float downstream among lush greenery and in the clear water underneath their boat you can see majestic prehistoric creatures swimming gracefully fathoms below.
Pretty much everyone knows the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s ill-fated mermaid (and if they don’t most are familiar with Disney’s dramatic good-verses-evil retelling) but Ponyo is a fish of a different colour. It’s not as cut-and-dried as all the other versions of “The Little Mermaid” thus far brought to life in film. Instead it’s like viewing an abstract painting with similar themes, so it leaves much up to the viewer’s own imagination. I loved it; I thought that it was graceful and colourful, and it made me want to crawl through the screen and swim in those animated seas with Ponyo. It never got as intense as the Disney version, but I enjoyed being able to sit back and let the story wash over me. And the song played during the credits is so super cute that it’ll stay in your head for days!
If this is your first foray into the wonderful world of Hayao Miyazaki, I would recommend starting with one of his earlier works, even something as relatively recent as 2001’s Spirited Away (which was my first Miyazaki) in order to get used to his off-beat storytelling. But Sōsuke is so endearing and Ponyo is so charming that viewers of all ages can enjoy this seaside tale, regardless of whether you call it anime or just a really darling and magical cartoon movie.