15 More Observations About Ponyo


Today, I made the trek up to the Edina Lagoon Theatre for my third viewing of Ponyo. When I finally hiked my way back, I thought I'd write my latest impressions down. I also decided to finally sit down and watch the Japanese DVD with subtitles. Not a bad way to wind up the weekend when you're tired out.

1) There was a solid turnout for Ponyo today. About 25-30 people arrived for the 4:15 pm show, mostly parents with their children. There were also some older kids and even couples. I was very impressed and happy to see so many in the theatre. If I remember, by the time I made my third and fourth showing for Howl's Moving Castle, I was pretty much the only one showing up.

2) Ponyo is expected to break $11 million after this weekend, which means it has broken Spirited Away's record. Yaayy! Great news, everyone! It appears that this movie has some legs, and word-of-mouth has played a role. It's just about impossible to get Americans to see a foreign movie in theatres, especially anime films. The only foreign animation films to gross higher than Ponyo and Spirited Away are the toy commercials - Pokemon and Digimon.

3) Ponyo looks absolutely spectacular on the big screen. No doubt the simpler, more iconic drawings are partly responsible for this. All of the Ghibli movies look better on 35mm film, and never more true than here. I'm also finding my patience for standard DVD wearing thin. Ponyo on DVD looks good, but it's nowhere near as good as a film print, and when I'm watching, all I can see are the flaws. It's a miracle that a feature-length movie can fit onto a tiny DVD in the first place. There are so many corners that have to be cut.

4) It goes without saying that Ponyo on Blu-Ray will be fantastic. If Ghibli manages to successfully port it to the high-definition format, we will have a certifiable killer-app for BD. I'm really interested in seeing how closely it will match the 35mm print.

5) The children in the audience were enraptured from start to finish, as with the previous shows I've attended. I have also noticed that the quiet, natural moments are the ones that capture their attention. Watching Ponyo as a little girl bounce around and run around the house really draws smiles from the kids. And those scenes of the dinosaur fish underwater draws ooh's and ahh's every time.

6) I continue to argue in defense of John Lasseter's US dub, but on my third viewing, parts of it are beginning to wear thin with me. Liam Neeson steals the show every time, and his performance is perfect. The two kids, Donny & Marie or whatever their names are, are very solid. They don't get on my nerves. Tiny Fey does sometimes get on my nerves. She has good moments and not-so-good moments.


7)
Of all the movie roles for Kate Blanchett to become stereotyped in, why Lord of the Rings? Is she always going to be playing the parts of all-wise spirit mothers from here on out? Strange. What inspired her to use an Eastern European accent, I wonder? I was very impressed with that; but I've been a diehard supporter ever since Elizabeth. Now that is a movie!

8) The Disney dub has a rather irritating habit - and this is a flaw with a lot of Hollywood movies in general, so I'm not singling them out - of repeating certain lines or phrases over and over. Life Begins Again. It's a Big Responsibility. Earth Is Out Of Balance. These are the oh-so important "moral lessons" which clog up far too many cartoon movies in America.

Miyazaki is gracious enough to allow his themes to enter and exit naturally. He doesn't beat you over the head with them. Notice that we don't hear anything about the pollution of our world's oceans after those crucial early scenes. We don't even hear much about the balance of nature in the Japanese soundtrack. I think he allows the images to dominate this movie, not the words. Ponyo achieves Ghibli's goal of bringing style of children's storybooks to the big screen.

9) I was surprised to discover that the line about keeping the old women amused by sitting them in front of the window, spoken by an attendant at the Senior Center, does not appear in the Japanese version. Make of that what you will.

10) Of the "new" dialog from the American version, the best one is easily that wisecrack by the old lady: "I'd let a fish lick me if it'd help my back." That gets a laugh every time.

11) When the movie ended and the credits rolled, everybody in the theater piled out quickly. There's no bloody way in hell I'm sitting through that atrocious Autotune Disney wreck of the theme song. How could they ruin such a perfect little song? Even the first stanza, which is just Donny & Marie singing, is run through the computer synthesizer. What a mess.

One great advantage to the DVD and Blu-Ray will be the "audio" button on the remote control. When the closing credits come on, just switch to the Japanese audio and spare your ears the torment. Take that, fake pop tunes! Ugh, what a hideous train wreck of a "song." I suppose I should be happy that Eddie Murphy wasn't brought in to sing.

12) Many people are puzzled about the ending to the movie, where Sosuke must pass his "test" to prove his love for Ponyo is real. What is it? Simple. Ponyo runs out of gas, turns back into a fish. Then Sosuke is asked if he still accepts Ponyo as she really is. That's it.

I think we're expecting a big whiz-bang finish because that's what most movies give us. But such a climax would never work in this movie. We're subjected to loud action sequences far too often, anyway. I have come to appreciate the anti-climactic nature of Ponyo; in fact, the more I see this movie, the more natural and honest its conclusion feels. Miyazaki wanted My Neighbor Totoro, not Star Wars.


13) I really loved this shot. The camera is at ground level, and the children are walking forward. It has a great sense of depth, and I've noticed that Miyazaki has used a lot of "three dimensional" shots in this movie. I'm amazed to see a 68-year-old filmmaker continue to use new techniques and ideas in his work. How many other movie directors can make the same claim?

I also noticed a crucial visual clue on my viewing today - Ponyo's hair has shrunk. This is a great bit of foreshadowing as the two children walk into the dark tunnel. That scene in the tunnel has that wonderful sound of the bucket scraping against the ground. Nobody has to say a word. You already know what's happening.

Has anybody figured out that Ponyo is the closest Miyazaki has come to making a silent film? Scenes like this work so perfectly without dialog, and the speech in the Japanese version is sparse, almost functional. The images and sounds dominate the conversation.

14) Here's how the climactic scene between Sosuke and Gran Manmare plays out in the original Japanese:

Gran Manmare: So you are Sosuke-san, desu ne?

Sosuke: Hello. Are you Ponyo's mother?

Gran Manmare: Yes. I want to thank you for bringing my daughter back to me. Arigatou. Souske-san, Ponyo wanted to be like you, but she unleashed a terrible power. To become human, she must be loved for who she really is. Do you know that Ponyo was a fish?

Sosuke: Yes (Hm.)

Gran Manmare: Your blood made Ponyo almost human.

Sosuke: That's right! Ponyo licked my cut and made it better. So that's why she changed!

Gran Manmare: Can you accept Ponyo as she is?

Sosuke: Hmm (Nod)! I'll always love Ponyo, whether she's a fish, a human, or in-between.


I think that last line works much better than in the Disney version. "I love all the Ponyos. It's a big responsibility" doesn't sound the same. It sounds like a boy taking home a pet.

One of Miyazaki's greatest strengths is his romanticism. It's old-fashioned, quaint, a bit too innocent for the modern world, but it's honest and sincere. His romances remind me of the classic movies of long ago, the kind that are no longer made.

So Ponyo and Sosuke love one another. So what? Remember what Scott McCloud said. These are all symbols and icons, not literal people, places and things.



15) I still don't know why, but this sequence is one of the most moving moments in the entire film for me. Perhaps it's the sense that Ponyo's sisters are saying goodbye, because this is the last time they'll be together. Or perhaps it's this following shot, where the sisters grow into young women. In that single shot, we understand perfectly the nature of Ponyo and her family. It's a beautiful, triumphant shot, the music swells, everyone sits back in awe, and I'm reaching for whatever napkins I have left after finishing the popcorn.

Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to understand this image's meaning. This is what it means to look at your child and see the adult they shall one day become, and realize that day will arrive and pass in the blink of an eye. Life is a miracle, and precious, and oh, so short.

16 comments:

szy said...

2) Great news! Glad to read that :)

4) I'm eager to make Ponyo my first blu-ray adquisition. I read that my country (Spain) will be the first to distribute Ponyo's BR disc. Hooray!

6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 & 14) That's why I never give dubbing a chance, specially oriental movies dubbing. I had once to watch Kiki's dubbed version and, boy, what a pain (why in hell did they replace the original songs?).

12) I'm sorry to say this, but USA audiences are way too accustomed to films that tend to be over-explaining and portrait a by-numbers narrative. As you cleverly pointed out, Ponyo gets the ending it needs, as does Totoro.

13) Miyazaki san has always been impressive at planning and staging. If you watch the pre-Ghibli TV shows you can clearly notice which episodes are directed by the sensei. They're packed with action, strong and dynamic compositions and natural sense of timing and tempo. He's technically impeccable. And yes, Ponyo's almost silent, which made the film even greater for me :)

returnofthesmith said...

http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/08/31/votd-ponyo-on-a-boat/

I guess Ponyo has officially hit pop culture, it already has parody videos. This one is gold and very well done :)

J.R.D.S. said...

"This is what it means to look at your child and see the adult they shall one day become, and realize that day will arrive and pass in the blink of an eye."

See Frédéric Back's Crac ! (1981).

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

I deleted this comment by accident. D'oh! I'm dyslexic. Here's it is, in full:

greentea said...

Nice to hear audiences are showing up and enjoying 'Ponyo'. I'll likely wait until it's on DVD to see it myself. I hope the DVD will have lots of behind-the-scenes extras, and that the English dub will be decent. I'm one of the people who prefers dubs over subs. But I'd prefer the original Japanese song over the techno-pop one.. strange that they make a repetitive, robotic-sounding song for a film that seems to focus on the sea and other natural surroundings.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

I deleted this comment by accident. Dagnabbit! I shouldn't be allowed to work the controls. Here's the full comment:

Neo1024 Said...

Very informative essay - thank you! I too loved the shot #13. Miyazaki has done the first depth-of-field work in Horus in the scene, where Horus climbs up by the axe rope and finds that his axe is held by the demon.

I write to tell you that Ponyo has had its première in Norway last Saturday. They were going to show both the Norwegian dubbed version and the original Japanese (with subs and for a limited time of two weeks). I was going to go for the latter, but it was cancelled/postponed and the copies that the theatres received did not have the subs on them! :)
I guess I'll wait for BluRay then...

Toongirl said...

Perhaps this observation is more suited to the "Seperated by a Common Language" thread, but as you've noted above, this movie has many moments of non-verbal communication that lazy eyes will overlook.

1) Another possible reason for Fujimoto to signal the Giant Squid is so it does not attack. I recently saw a show on big Humbolt Squid that are known to eat divers that fail to ape their light show.

2) Ponyo communicating with her sisters is mostly nonverbal.

3) Ponyo understanding that the grumpy baby is hungry.

4) Gran Mamare (Mare is Italian for sea/ocean) reading Fujimoto's mind while calming him down.

5) Fujimoto grudgingly calling off his servants after being persuaded by his daughters to let them take over Toki & Sosuke (& Ponyo).

That's just a few examples of the glorious power of animation requiring no need for words.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Go ahead and post here. We might as well follow the conversations on the most recent posts.

Interesting ideas. This is the great thing about this artform: it allows for everyone to provide their own narratives.

On #5, I didn't think Fujimoto was grudging anything. He seemed honestly distressed to me. After all, Toki and Sosuke needed the air bubble to breathe.

fujimoto strikes me as more of a cranky worrywart than anything. He's disgusted with humanity in general, but on a person-to-person basis, he's quite friendly. He also carries a slightly clueless streak, which can be a bit funny - see the scene of him on land with his water pump.

Anyway, that's my own take on things.

Chris Sobieniak said...

I agree with the third observation too. I was glad to see it in 35mm where I was. Wasn't sure if they were going to pull the digital stunt on me or not. Seems like the thing that's going on nowadays with most anything cinema-related where the need for a faster, easier means to distribute films have put 35mm on the road to extinction.

9) I was surprised to discover that the line about keeping the old women amused by sitting them in front of the window, spoken by an attendant at the Senior Center, does not appear in the Japanese version. Make of that what you will.

10) Of the "new" dialog from the American version, the best one is easily that wisecrack by the old lady: "I'd let a fish lick me if it'd help my back." That gets a laugh every time.


Anymore, and I'd probably think I was watching Cocoon. :-)

Has anybody figured out that Ponyo is the closest Miyazaki has come to making a silent film? Scenes like this work so perfectly without dialog, and the speech in the Japanese version is sparse, almost functional. The images and sounds dominate the conversation.

It would be interesting if Miyazaki would one day do a film that used no dialogue at all, so we have to pay closer attention to those images and sounds to follow along to the story.

Chris Sobieniak said...

J.R.D.S. said...

"This is what it means to look at your child and see the adult they shall one day become, and realize that day will arrive and pass in the blink of an eye."

See Frédéric Back's Crac ! (1981).


Good example!

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Actually, Yadosagashi, his short film for the Ghibli Museum, was a silent film. The "dialog" composed of actors voicing the sound effects.

Anonymous said...

The On your mark videoclip really was like a silent short film... IMHO.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Yeah, but that's because the music sucks and I turned the volume off. Heh heh.

echoBlaster said...

@Neo1024 - Yeah, it kind of sucks that they were sent the wrong print (i'm from Norway too :)). I actually went to see it on friday when it was being screened in the original version without the subtitles. About 10 minutes into the film they stopped it for a second to explain what had happened, but they allowed us to watch it all the way through. We even got our money back :). I didn't understand much of the dialogue of course, but I could still admire the fantastic imagery nonetheless. Have you seen the Norwegian dub, by the way? If so, what are your thoughts? I for one thought it was kind of silly to change Sosuke's name to Sondre, but I guess it sort of works.

Chris Sobieniak said...

echoBlaster said...
@Neo1024 - Yeah, it kind of sucks that they were sent the wrong print (i'm from Norway too :)). I actually went to see it on friday when it was being screened in the original version without the subtitles. About 10 minutes into the film they stopped it for a second to explain what had happened, but they allowed us to watch it all the way through. We even got our money back :). I didn't understand much of the dialogue of course, but I could still admire the fantastic imagery nonetheless. Have you seen the Norwegian dub, by the way? If so, what are your thoughts? I for one thought it was kind of silly to change Sosuke's name to Sondre, but I guess it sort of works.


Amusingly, this was how anime screenings used to be done in the US back in the good ol' 80's! In those days, the few people who know about Japanese cartoons would often do showings of movies at Sci-Fi con video rooms where they would have to stop the tape every so often to explain what was going on in the film. If you were lucky, there might have been a printed transcript of that film's plot that would be provided or even a translation of the dialogue if one was even done at all.

Of course you didn't see those people complain at all since this was the only way anyone had ever seen this stuff at all. The days before fansubbing became possible thanks to such devices as the Amiga were trying times.

Jessica said...

I'm so glad to read that the Japanese movie has more coherent dialog. I can't wait until I can see the DVD and hear it for myself.

francois said...

Thank you for your beautiful, perceptive reviews Daniel! Our 2 and a half year old loves Ponyo; we must have watched it 20 times with her and I'll never tire of it. (We have the subtitled Japanese DVD version.)

You mentioned the gorgeous artwork: You may be interested in the high-resolution stills available here: http://www.optimumreleasing.com/press/?id=1025 They really made me reappreciate the art, especially the remarkable pastel/pencil backgrounds. (I've only seen the film on small screen so far.)

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