Studio Ghibli #16: Ponyo (2008)

As I sat down to watch this film, I checked the handy list of Studio Ghibli films I made in order to keep track of their release order and came to the realisation that this is the second-to-last Hayao Miyazaki film left to watch. Before starting this journey through Studio Ghibli’s filmography I had already seen all of Miyazaki’s films and it was mostly the films made by other directors that the Studio produced that were going to be first watches for me, but still as I draw to the close of Miyazaki’s career so far I can’t help be feel a newfound appreciation for his work and his craft. And this is especially true of Ponyo (2008), this was the second ever Studio Ghibli film I watched, after My Neighbour Totoro, as I remember catching it on a Sunday afternoon on FilmFour (which is a UK TV channel dedicated to playing movies for any American readers out there), but despite being exposed to it so early on in my Anime watching, it left very little impression on me. But watching it now I found a whole new appreciation for the film.

First and foremost, Ponyo is arguably Miyazaki’s most beautiful film. It’s a return to tradition for Miyazaki as the film is almost entirely hand-drawn animation, something that Miyazaki and animation supervisor, Katsuya Kondō, prioritised heavily during the production, even going as far as closing the computer graphics section of the studio during production. While this seems like a lot of extra-work for what some would argue is very little gain, the pay-off in Ponyo’s case is tremendous. And there’s no better sequence that demonstrates this than the very opening of the film; the first thing the audience is shown is a simple landscape of an imposing but calm sea, with the distant lights of different ships on the horizon beneath clouds like that look like they’ve been painted on. But in an instant this relatively simple and stripped back art style is contrasted when the camera cuts to under the water; the camera pans down as Joe Hisashi’s beautiful score starts to swell and we see a massive group of Jellyfish intermingle with different species and types of fish (some real, some not) as they move towards a submarine, with a mysterious man experimenting with different vases and bottles, creating explosions of rich colours across the screen. This scene alone allegedly required over 1,500 pages of conceptual sketches during the making of the film to give you an idea about the level of work and detail that Miyazaki and his team put into this film. 

But one of the greatest feats of the animation in Ponyo is the seamless blend of styles throughout, while the characters mostly retain their traditional Miyazaki style, it is the landscapes and backgrounds that use comparatively experimental styles when contrasted with the rest of Hayao’s filmography. You can see an obvious example of this clash of styles when Sôsuke finds Ponyo, the way his house is drawn looks like it was done with coloured pencils, the cross-shading of the shadows and the natural curve the lines of the building make clear the hand-drawn nature of the building. Similarly the grass fields that neighbour the house look like a collection of individual brush strokes that create a powerful contrast in the scene. Meanwhile the underwater sections of the film feel a lot more traditional Miyazaki, all of the fish and sea creatures as well as the underwater landscape retain the style that can be seen throughout Miyazaki’s work; the bold linework, the fantastical exaggerations and a way unique but still traditional anime style of design.  

Now unfortunately for me, the narrative of Ponyo is one of the film’s weakest elements. Admittedly this comes as a result of it being explicitly aimed at children, and while films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro manage to excel despite their target audience, Ponyo feels much more constricted by it’s childish narrative. The film follows the titular Ponyo, a goldfish that uses her inherent magical powers to transform into a little girl to impress the boy who caught her, Sōsuke. But as she maintains her transformation the balance between the Sea and the Land are thrown into chaos, resulting in an enormous storm that floods the sea-side town that Sōsuke and his mothers live in. It’s a decent framing narrative that allows for the relationship between Ponyo and Sōsuke to develop at a very natural place, which in turn allows for the romance to feel very special and beautiful as it never feels forced or unnatural. Outside of the main two leads, there are interesting characters that add to the world of the film, with Ponyo’s magical parents as well as the residents of the care home that Sōsuke’s mother works at are particular examples that stand out, with the latter characters adding some great humour into the film. 

While Ponyo is easily in the conversation of the most beautiful looking Studio Ghibli film, for me it is held back by it’s narrative. As beautiful and gorgeous as the animation is, there’s very little about the story and the characters that compels me to come back to Ponyo. While I’m sure I’ll come back to it eventually, it definitely doesn’t have the rewatchability that the majority of other Miyazaki films have. While the themes of environmentalism and the core romance are both superb and handled well, and as I already talked about the animation is almost unparalleled when comparing it to other Ghibli films, it still manages to fall to a middling position in my ranking as there isn’t quite enough for me to enjoy rewatching now as an adult.

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