Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea is an outstanding movie on many levels, but what is really striking is how brilliantly drawn and animated it is. Clearly this was conceived as a showpiece for all the qualities that make hand-drawn animation great; with Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki throws the gauntlet at the computer graphics programmers.
What really struck at me is the sheer variety of visual effects and motifs. Radical shifts in visual style is more of an Isao Takahata trait, and that's because Takahata himself does not draw. He treats animation like a vast buffet to sample. Miyazaki's style is much more streamlined; he has his own way of drawing that has been developed for years.
With Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki developed a new interest in surrealism, and over the next decade that Fellini side has fully blossomed. Now, at last, with Ponyo, we are seeing those instinctive impulses completely take over.
This scene in Ponyo is a perfect example, and it's a favorite scene of mine. This is the scene where Ponyo, having freed herself from her bubble tank, inadvertently triggers a massive flood through her home, and leads her at the door to her father's mysterious Pangea room.
What happens in this room is something wholly unique in the Miyazaki canon. I've never seen anything quite like this from anime. I guess the sloppy cartoon look of Crayon Shin-Chan would be close, but Ponyo is far more lush in its color. Here is a scene where the artists and painters completely took over.
I absolutely love the colors in this shot, the blues and greens and browns, so lush and saturated. It's drawn as a fish lens effect (!!), which already gives the room a distortion effect. The water and bottles are eager to dance. I'm reminded of the dark caverns from an Atari Lynx game called Todd's Adventures in Slime World, its lush illuminations.
Notice the freewheeling hand-drawn quality, almost improvisational in its lines. This is not what we expect from Miyazaki anime. It's a very iconic cartoon style. Now watch what happens as the water creaks and groans inside. The flood reacts against the mystery elixir inside the well, and all hell breaks loose.
The wild colors just bubble and gurgle forth and it's a spectacular sight. The very look of the room becomes more iconic, more freely flowing. This is a technicolor meltdown and it's terrific.
Poor funny Ponyo is outside, barely holding on to the door handle. She herself has become more simple, more iconic. She's turned into a Kermit the Frog scribble This is one of my favorite shots in the film, and I'm definitely going to stick it here on the blog's homepage somewhere. Look at how action is depicted in the fewest possible lines. It's remarkable in still photos and wonderful in motion.
Ponyo's appearance in her Kermit state (heh heh, she really does remind me of Kermit the Frog) is iconic and mysterious. I'm reminded of Miyazaki's advice to his animators when depicting Totoro: draw the eyes so you cannot tell what he is thinking. There's a slightly distant look to these eyes. Ponyo's motions might be more expressive, but she shares the same eyes as the mindless fish. With a few skillful pencil strokes, we can see that these are peers. Ponyo really does stride between the two worlds - not quite fish and not quite human.