I snapped another large batch of photos from the Japanese Ponyo DVD, and noticed this one scene with a very telling pair of gestures. The more you study this film, the more you appreciate it as animation. Miyazaki envisioned this movie as a showcase for pencils and paints.
This scene, where Sosuke and Ponyo carry their toy boat outside into the flooded yard, is a great example of defining a character through animation. In this short sequence, we learn a lot about Ponyo without any dialog. And this expressiveness is portrayed through the naturalist Japanese style, not the exaggerated caricature of American animation. Nothing will be handed to you or shouted out at you.
Ponyo isn't a little girl as much as a fish who is pretending to be a little girl. Watch how she just runs out of the house and over the water. She has this happy look on her face, living each moment with glee. But she crashes into the water, legs running and kicking. It's a funny moment, like all the Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote drives off the cliffs.
Now observe her movements in the water. Now she is in her element, and her swimming more closely resembles a fish in her deft and graceful movements. In these few seconds, she reveals her true identity. She also demonstrates a gleeful obliviousness, and that's something I really love about Ponyo. She hasn't been taught the rules. And so her behavior, puzzling and amusing to the humans around her, reveals a freedom of the spirit.
I'm also considering that this scene is a foreshadowing of Ponyo's weakening and loss of her powers later in the movie. The night before, she could dance and leap among the tsunami waves with no effort. Now, she runs over the water and sinks like a stone. Maybe I'm over-thinking this point, so it's not something I'll spend much time on. I just enjoy this scene because it shows Ponyo in such a spirit of fully living, and that's what stays with me.