Saturday, 13 February 2010

'Ponyo' Review: The beauty of Miyazaki

I’ll make it known from the off: I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Because of this, I probably have a little bit of trouble evaluating his latest film with much objectivity. I quite simply can’t see what anybody could dislike about “Ponyo”.

Miyazaki’s first feature since 2004’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, ‘Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea’ (to use its more picturesque Japanese title) will be enthusiastically devoured by fans of Japanese anime, by fans of traditional hand-drawn animation in general, as well as by fans of its legendary filmmaker. Indeed, it will be a film welcomed by all of the above all the more enthusiastically as it comes in the wake of Studio Ghibli’s last, rather lacklustre, 2006 effort ‘Tales from Earthsea’ (directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son: Goro).

‘Ponyo’ is the story of a fish who desires to become a human after falling in love with one. In this way it is essentially an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. However, that is not to say that the film does not bare the auteurist stamp of its director, as all of Miyazaki’s usual preoccupations are on show here: Miyazaki transforms Andersen’s mermaid and prince into two young, self-sufficient children; the film has similar environmental messages to ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’; our hero saves the day (spoiler!) by overcoming trials of the heart, rather than tests of physical strength (see any of Miyazaki’s heroes); and Miyazaki again displays his fascination with people at work – here seen in the sections featuring the men at sea or the young boy's mother tending to the old women of the nursing home.

All of these motifs are echoed in this film, but there is a far more important one which is also present here. Miyazaki carries everything off with his customary lightness of touch and effortless charm. The characters in his films are unfailingly good-natured and there are never any bad guys to speak of (perhaps with the notable exception of Muska in ‘Castle in the Sky’), as he refuses to deal in straightforward good versus evil. It's heartening, that the villains in Miyazaki are never too far from redemption, often befriending the heroes.

As is to be expected by now, the film is superb from an animation standpoint. The animation is colourful, fluid and detailed throughout, whilst nobody in the history of the art form has so effectively captured the spirit of childhood through the depiction of children in motion. Like ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ before it, ‘Ponyo’ features some of the most sensitive and poignant animation of children I have ever seen and it is here that the film really excels.

However my enduring memory and perhaps my favourite moment of the film was its depiction of a downcast and rainy early-afternoon. I have never seen any film (animated or live-action) so accurately evoke that time of day and the feeling that comes with it. As you can no doubt tell from this review: I loved ‘Ponyo’. It was purely and immensely joyful and if my fandom of Miyazaki has in any way compromised my judgement and rendered me unable to find any negatives in this film, then I am entirely happy with that outcome. In an age where most children's films have a post-modern, knowing cynicism about them, it is really refreshing to find something so sincere in its unabashed enthusiasm and childish naivety.

'Ponyo' is playing all week at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton (in subtitled and dubbed versions) and is rated 'U' by the BBFC.


  1. Sounds great. I'm planning on seeing it tomorrow. I wonder where you might rate this film among his other works, and also perhaps people might like to post their favourite Miyazaki film.

    I would say Howl's Moving Castle (but it's a very hard choice).

  2. I don't know. But 'Castle in the Sky' is a favourite.