Twenty observations about the new Hayao Miyazaki movie, Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, which opened in the US this weekend:
1) A lovely romantic children's film that celebrated love and affection and a thrill for discovery. This movie was made for 5-year-olds and anyone who still connects to their inner child. It's Totoro with fish.
2) Hayao Miyazaki's personal story of his family, of his wife who sacrificed her career to raise their children. There is actually an essay in Starting Point that addresses this, and you'll be shocked to see how much of what Miyazaki wrote about appears in this movie.
3) Miyazaki's defiant defense of hand-drawn animation. I had to constantly remind myself: this was all made by hand. It's astonishing. Just watching the screen full of people and things moving around, in that wonderful watercolor-painted style.
4) I've never seen water used so effectively in any movie. It was like the waters were a whole cast of characters in and of themselves. Thick water, runny water, water that bubbles and gurgles like blobs, torrents of rain and wind.
5) Miyazaki understands the iconic (Scott McCloud's term) nature of animation. He understands the value of depicting symbolic action, or something "magical" that's from a child's point of view. Why Americans insist on taking animated images literally, I'll never know. The question is not, "What is this that stands before me?" but "What does this mean?"
One great image - the father's hands struggling to squeeze down Ponyo, to force the growing child into a baby again. I watched that and felt like shouting out, "Hey, that's my adolescence! I was there, man!"
Same thing with the crashing waves against the rocks early in the movie, and the fish-waves in the storm. I felt like I was seeing these through the eyes of a 5-year-old child. To Sosuske, the tsunami waves were living things, characters with eyes and faces. To the mother, they were just crashing waves to avoid.
6) All the scenes with Ponyo's sisters were stunning. I was completely spellbound by their movements, their rhythm and flow. In one scene, the entire screen was filled with them, and it was astonishing to admire the artists' skill. In another scene, they grew into a more humanoid form, and I realized that they look just like their mother.
7) There's a moment during the storm when the old women are sitting in wheelchairs, watching out the windows. They appear so sad, so lonely. They have no family, their bodies are failing, and the workers at the nursing home are treating them like, well, the way elderly people are typically treated by the young. I didn't think the attendant, Lisa's co-worker, was mean or cruel; this was a carelessness of the young.
These scenes of the old women only made me feel more frustrated with Pixar's Up than ever.
8) Hokusai's paintings appear to be quoted in this movie. That similar moment in My Neighbors the Yamadas springs to mind, only more beautiful and colorful.
9) The title sequence is spectacular. It's an open celebration of traditional cel animation. Have you noticed shots where some objects (boats, buildings) have slight shadows behind them? I was reminded of that weird "shadow" effect in cel-drawn cartoons, where the cels aren't completely flat against the background when photographed. Is there a word for that? It was remarkable to see that effect, a mistake, really, appear in a Miyazaki movie.
This is a movie that celebrates hand-drawn animation, and it deliberately throws the gauntlet at the feet of the cgi programmers. So your machine can render water? Top this!
10) I felt the star of the first half was not Sosuske or Ponyo, but Lisa, the mother, the Wife, the Miyazaki Heroine in Blue. She dominated her scenes. The second half of the movie belonged to Sosuske and Ponyo.
11) I want one of those little boats! Can you really run a boat on steam power like that?
12) I knew Miyazaki dealt with pollution of the earth in this movie, but when I saw the scenes of dredging the ocean, with its endless volumes of garbage and plastic, I wept. This is not something sprung from the director's imagination. This is real life. If anything, the "plastic ocean" is worse.
It's no wonder Miyazaki prays for the tsunami to sweep the city away.
13) Speaking of which, Miyazaki sticks his apocalyptic revenge fantasies into the middle of a children's movie. And it works. How does he get away with that?
14) This movie is a celebration of water; not water as a resource, or a commodity, or a landfill; but water as a miracle.
Now I'm thirsty and deeply worried about the global water supply.
15) John Lasseter's Disney dub is superb. I was amazed. I'll have to watch a couple more times, and see the movie in its Japanese soundtrack, but I couldn't think of anything that was wrong or misplaced. They even kept the honorific names, like -san.
Despite the famous names of the child actors, they played their roles perfectly. In five years, Miley Cyrus will be in and out of rehab, broken by the child celebrity machine, because that is what the machine is designed to do. This business grinds up human souls and hurls them into the sea like plastic. There is also a negative side.
16) I think if long red hair and '60s striped mod suits make a comeback, Peter Max should get royalties.
17) I think adults need to get away from this obsession with having to explain everything. Life is not an episode of CSI. Ponyo opens with the man in the Peter Max suit pouring elixirs from tall jars into the ocean deep with something that resembles a turkey baster. Why is this? What is he doing? What is in these magic elixirs? I don't have a clue and I don't care. I also don't want to hear pseudo-scientific arguments about that moon in the sky, that giant woman in the water, or how that particular marriage works out.
18) The ending felt anti-climactic, and very abrupt. Miyazaki ends his movies the way John Lennon ends side one of Abbey Road. Steady...Steady...Wait for it...Stop here! We're done. In his movies, the final scene is pretty arbitrary, anyway. It's just something you must make your peace with.
Miyazaki usually places his climax earlier in the film, before the final scene or two. It's largely due to the way he makes movies, which is incredibly hectic, seat-of-the-pants, almost completely improvised after the first act.
19) I was reminded of Totoro in some moments, like Ponyo running around the house, and the second Panda Kopanda, with its flooded house. And the spectacular action sequence of Ponyo and her sisters rushing from their underwater home to the surface, an ocean of water and fish in an exuberant explosion, directly quotes the climax from Hakujaden, Japan's first color animation movie from 1958. Now that I think about it, Hakudaden does share a certain sensibility with Ponyo, with its innocent romance and magical father figure.
20) The "remixed" Disney version of the Ponyo song is fake, processed, Autotuned mud. I reflect on the popularity of such "music" and weep for the mindless fools who consume it all. But I'm a child of the punk-rock revolution, and this sort of thing kind of goes against our religion. That said, this "song" only plays during the second half of the closing credits. The normal version of the Ponyo song - just the children singing - plays during the first half (but strangely enough, still with Autotune - I have to laugh at this).
Oh, and did you notice that Hayao Miyazaki's name appears buried deep among the staff members? Naturally, he appears as a pig, but he does not fly a plane, nor have long talks with Robert Westall.
Should I mention once more how breathtaking the visuals in this movie are? The color design is simply smashing. And should I mention again the personal elements of Ponyo? Hayao Miyazaki has truly become the Fellini of our age.
He appears to be making peace with his family, and this worries me when I realize his age. Most of his peers have retired or died. I hope he continues to make wonderful movies for years and years and years, but this is greedy of me, and I know it. Ponyo is a story told by an old man to a young child, and he celebrates both. And they join together and dance and imagine faces on the ocean waves.
Technically, there are more than 20 observations about Ponyo in this essay. But if I actually sat down and counted them all, I'd have to change the title, and I really prefer keeping the title just the way it is. Besides, it's late and the adult part of the brain is no fun. It's the part of you that doesn't believe in candle-powered boats and goldfish that grow up to be little girls. Keep that part of yourself under armed guard at all times.