Actor, trainer, writer, pugilist, and clown Lyam White makes his 10YA debut with Miyazaki’s Ponyo, finding something almost radical about its vision of love.

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When I saw Ponyo back in 2009, I felt certain that it was made for young children. By which I mean, while I had been a fan of some of Miyazaki’s work, and particularly enamored of Spirited Away, Ponyo felt…not for me, somehow. I remembered it as a film without conflict—not necessarily without any risk or suspense, but with stakes barely above the daily norm; even the outsized, colorfully rendered perils of sorcery throwing nature out of balance left characters more bemused than truly disturbed. For this reason, in a way, in 2009, Ponyo seemed like a charming letdown. I wasn’t dazzled like I had been with Princess Mononoke or mystified as I’d been by Spirited Away. Its mysticism was gentler, more whimsical, less adult. The sheer novelty—and it definitely has that—amused, but didn’t enchant.

Was I wrong? Well…not exactly. But as proves true of all of Miyazaki’s filmography, nothing is as simple as it appears on the surface. Then again, the surface isn’t all that simple. What is simple is the spine, so let’s stick with that for a sec. Ponyo is ostensibly inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”; little remains of that tale but the story of an aquatic being (in this case, a sort of barely anthropomorphized goldfish who shifts toward and away from human form in stages that, in their combinations of body-morphs, seem to refer to birds and amphibians) who falls for a human boy and is granted the opportunity to become human. Both Andersen’s grim moralism and Disney’s small “r” romanticism and big “C” Commercialism are jettisoned in favor of a nature-magic far less apocalyptic (though not less sanguinary; more on that later) than in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Nature is thrown out of balance, which can only be restored by love, but that imbalance never seems particularly threatening, even as it pulls the moon out of orbit and sends prehistoric fish swimming through flooded forests.

Rest assured it’s all much stranger than I’m making it sound. I’ve noted that Ponyo’s transformation to a human girl involves passing through other phases; in fact, when first she develops hands and feet, they’re not unlike a chicken’s claws; she has a mid-phase when she’s tired or using magic where her face looks like a frog’s. Her father, Fujimoto, is an apparent former human with an unruly tumble of red hair, a demeanor like an extra-misanthropic Willy Wonka, and a steampunk submarine and lab that calls to mind Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We don’t meet her mother, Granmamare, until later in the film (it’s never clear to me whether Fujimoto and Granmamare are together, amicably separated, or, like Sosuke and Ponyo, in some sort of aromantic partnership which just happened to produce a whole school of giggling, mystical carp), but when we do, she’s an enormous sea-goddess, apparently an incarnation of Guanyin, a Chinese incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion.

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Fujimoto’s journey is given short shrift, which is too bad, because it’s a fascinating one that hints at the surprising ambivalence within Miyazaki’s environmentalism. Early on, he expresses his open disgust at humanity and its polluting of the world (though he, too, utilizes technology alongside magic; nothing is really said about his apparently carbon neutral fuel sources); the imbalance into which the world is later thrown is at least partially his own doing, as he cooks up a burst of new life meant to rival the Cambrian explosion (Ponyo’s escape from her father’s clutches to return to Sosuke unleashes the maelstrom ahead of schedule). There’s something there, probably, about how nature needs to work in its own time, how nature and humanity in a state of shared, selfless love provides the only hope of preserving the environment as we conceive it, but we the audience—children and adults alike—are left to infer it, and somehow reconcile all of it with Ponyo’s strange affinity for ham (an environmental vision that leaves room for a fish’s craving for cured pork walks an interesting balance, to say the least).

But in a way, his relationship with Granmamare is a fascinating mirror to that of Sosuke and Ponyo—an aromantic romance across a divide between worlds. What looks innocent and born of play in the children presents as something knowing, gentle, and vast in the adults.

As in Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, love conquers all; unlike in Disney’s version, the love in Ponyo is more the innocent bonding between children. Or is it? It’s obviously more platonic, but it’s also self-sacrificial: Sosuke’s (our young boy who is the object of Ponyo’s affection—no prince, but a five-year-old boy living in a house on a cliff with a father in the Navy and a mother surprisingly easygoing in the face of supernatural events) blood both revives the wounded Brunhilde (the name by which our heroine’s father, Fujimoto, calls her; it’s Sosuke who innocently calls her Ponyo) and starts the process of her becoming more human. Ponyo/Brunhilde’s tasting of the blood, in turn, heals Sosuke’s wound. This is the first time the pair sacrifice for each other, but this exchange continues throughout the film. Ponyo’s use of natural magic saves the duo when she turns a toy steamboat into a life raft by making it grow, but the act so fatigues her that Sosuke must carry her later on when her magic and, it seems, her life force begin to fade (which he does, it should be noted, with no complaint, and a fair amount of pluck).

Looking at it now with fresh eyes, there’s something almost radical about this vision of love. It ignores boundaries between the platonic, the romantic, the familial, in favor of respect, mutual self-sacrifice, and companionable good cheer.

In this light, even the muddled environmentalism seems less out of order. The worlds of adults and children alike are left to what they require; the sea is restored to its known state of punctuated imbalance with the ever-consuming primates that ride its back. If sometimes Miyazaki seems to be raging for a less corrupted world, Ponyo suggests, in the end, that what he’s really hoping for is a gentler one.

— Lyam White

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