Quick-n-dirty first-viewing notes on Hayao Miyazaki's beautiful Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea follow. The film opens in North America on August 14, in English dubbed form. While the Disney-produced dubs of Studio Ghibli films have been relatively respectful, they have frequently suffered from tasteless American stunt casting; anyone who suffered through Billy Crystal in Howl's Moving Castle is likely to agree. The value of the Ghibli vocal track cannot be overstated in this case, as the original beguiling, earnest child performances have been replaced by polished and cornball Kid Disney stars, and one particularly Japanese character type -- the shrieking, androgynous fop -- is filled in and manned-up with Liam Neeson's deep, stern purring. The necessity of dubbing a film intended for small children is acknowledged, but anyone old enough to read subtitles is strongly encouraged to pick up the R2 DVD, rather than wait for the inevitably overpriced Disney disc.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea rides on waves of matter-of-fact folktale logic, its plot all bargains and deals, loaded choices and mystical, half-explained rules. An overzealous young goldfish falls in love with preschooler Sōsuke, a sea captain's son who names her "Ponyo". Rejecting the name "Brünnhilde" and defying her sorcerer father, Ponyo transforms into a rambunctious human girl by means of magic elixir, a drop of human blood, and sheer force of will.
A contemplative child-view take on Hans Christian Andersen's troubling and haunting "The Little Mermaid", Ponyo plays out against a modern rural backdrop and its focus is not Andersen's fatalistic sexual politics and outsider angst, but animistic Shinto spirituality, the kami-electrified world, and island culture's relationship with the sea. In this fishing community, everyone's lives are tied directly to the ocean, their concerns and fortunes bound up in the swells and storms of the sea. Besides the anthropomorphic creatures passing as goldfish, who are the product of magical union of man and ocean goddess, the sea creatures all behave like fish and much of Ponyo is devoted to the spectacle of great clusters of marine life moving gracefully, impassively through the water. As Ponyo's rebellion against natural order begins manifesting, the town floods and Sōsuke and the fish-girl name, with casual awe, the species of massive Devonian creatures they observe gliding beneath the surface. They are not made pals or villains; they are animals, they are there, they are awesome.
This is Ponyo's simple, reverential strategy and philosophy throughout, an attitude toward simple wonders of man and nature and unfathomable chaos alike. A bowl of ramen takes three minutes to cook. So wait, smell it cooking, consider the process, which is both mundane and cosmic, but in any case takes three minutes. Consider that gifting a mother with a Thermos of soup makes milk for a baby, a convoluted route to calming a grumpy infant, but: that's how it works, that simple, that complicated. We spy the realistic problems of adult lives through Ponyo and Sōsuke's eyes -- Sōsuke's mother, Lisa, fumes about her husband's working all night, Ponyo is likewise snared in her father's obsession with the ocean -- and from this low-to-the-ground vantage these troubles seem bottomless and straightforward at the same time. Everyone is yearning, everyone finds happiness in their simple pleasures, everyone's gaze is cast at the sea.
Ponyo vs. Ham: Cinematic Battle of the Year!
Hayao Miyazaki's pinpointable pet themes are encouraging concerns to begin with, whether the project is pessimistic or sunny: female rebellion and independence, the futile, banal horrors of war, human impact on the environment. Ponyo certainly runs through the checklist, but depicts a universe operating on pushing and pulling forces, vacuums and spillovers, action and reaction. One of the senior center regulars in Lisa's care warns, when Sōsuke introduces her to the little fish in a bucket, that fish with faces always bring tsunamis: those are the rules, laid out in old stories. And the tsunami comes. It's Ponyo who brings the tsunami, of course, she brings it practically on purpose, blasting up from the ocean floor on a water spout; attempting to rejoin Sōsuke, she nearly capsizes his father's boat in the process. Sprinting joyfully along the waves, great crashing gouts of water in the form of massive, grinning fish, Ponyo runs, red hair streaming in the dark breeze. It is an exhilarating sight, the maniacal little girl's screaming laugh, as she gallops in pursuit of Lisa's tiny, careening automobile. They race along an oceanside road, Ponyo chasing her friend, Lisa and Sōsuke attempting to speed to ahead of the weather. The enthusiasm of Ponyo's pursuit could kill them in the process. They race away from each other, they race towards each other. They race on the cliff by the sea.