Before Hayao Miyazaki‘s latest opus, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake no Ue no Ponyo) gets Disneyfied this August, interested parties might wish to purloin one of the pirate copies floating around and get a sneak peek. I’m not advocating not going to the movies to see the film–one of the greatest pleasures of Miyazaki’s works is the sensory overload of his stunning visuals–but Disney’s dubbed versions tend to over-explicate Miyazaki’s mysteries, draining his films of some of the unsettling ambiguities that make them so interesting.
Ponyo tells the story of a little fish-girl (girl-fish?), a mermaid who escapes from her mad-scientist father and meets a boy named Sosuke. After tasting some of Sosuke’s blood, Ponyo begins to morph into a human. However, her transmutation causes bizarre and violent weather, including a giant tsunami resulting in a massive flood; even the moon starts to pull out of orbit. Sosuke and Ponyo navigate this surreal post-flood world, searching for Sosuke’s mother Lisa. The tale of these children is sweet but never maudlin, and like most Miyazaki films, Ponyo taps into sentimentality and pathos without ever becoming mawkish.
Visually, Miyazaki employs a sketchy, watery style here, painted in beautiful pastels and flashy complimenting brights. The look of this film is a significant departure from the fine detail and rich heaviness of Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), and might disappoint some, but we thought it was both beautiful and fitting. Of course, we were watching a pirated version that someone lovingly and bravely shot in a theater, undoubtedly inferior to the spectacle we expect from the theatrical release.
Perhaps the best critic of the film would be my two-year old daughter, who sat riveted and zombie-eyed throughout the whole film, only diverting her gaze occasionally to clarify some plot point. She loved the movie and talked about it the whole next morning, pretending that she was Ponyo (or, alternately, that someone else was Ponyo). Ponyo has more in common with Miyazaki’s lighter, kid-friendlier films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service than it does with his epic adventure films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, but it retains enough adventure and glows with enough charm to keep longtime fans and newbies alike invested for all of its ninety minutes. Great good stuff. Here’s the trailer for the US release: