A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 311 – Ponyo

Ponyo – January 5th, 2011

Since we did all those Christmas movies and then we had New Year’s and birthday and whatnot we hadn’t watched a subtitled movie since Morozko, which was right at the start of our twelve days of Christmas. It was well past time for another. Looking through our list of unreviewed subtitled movies we found that about half of what we have left is either anime or live action in one of three Asian languages (Japanese, Chinese and Korean). The rest is a mix of European languages, though at least four are from Central and South America. So we went with anime – our last remaining Miyazaki film (until we purchase Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, that is).

This movie regularly crosses my desk at work, as do all the Miyazaki films. But while I had some prior knowledge of all of the others before watching them, this one was totally and completely new to me. As the opening credits played Andy told me “All I know about this movie is that it’s Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid.” And that was well more than I’d known prior to that. If I hadn’t known that I think I still would have been able to make all the connections. After all, it’s got a fish girl who longs to live on land, her overprotective father who dislikes humans and the threat of becoming seafoam if things don’t go well. And I like that it’s got nods to the story without being too blatant. It’s all got its own spin on things.

We’re not dealing with a real mermaid here, for one. Ponyo is one of a vast number of little fish girls who live in a castle with their father, a wizard who studies the sea. Ponyo escapes from the submarine he’s taken her and her sisters out on and swims up to the surface on the back of a jellyfish. Once at the surface she meets a boy named Sosuke who becomes thoroughly enthralled by her. This is a fateful meeting, for after a short time together Ponyo ends up back in the ocean, told by her father to forget the surface and humans. But Ponyo wants to be human now. She wants to go back to Sosuke and live on the land. The rest of the movie follows her in her quest to be human and Sosuke’s quest to help her. Oh, I’ve got issues, but they’re issues with the basic story, not issues with this specific movie.

Part of my problem with the story as a whole is that it takes a lot of control away from the mermaid character. She wants to be human, but her fate ends up being dependant on the actions and emotions of the male lead. She’s basically handing control over her own life from one male (her father) to another. That being said, this movie does have its share of nicely powerful women to balance all of that out. There’s Sosuke’s mother, a bit wild with terrifying driving habits and a cheerful disposition. Her husband is out at sea and she and Sosuke live a very nice life in a fantastic house on a cliff by the sea. She works at a senior center in town and while she’s pissed when Sosuke’s father takes another job at sea instead of coming home as planned she also keeps things going, not depending on him in the least. There are the elderly women at the senior center, who are all fantastic and caring, even grumpy Toki who is the only one who seems to know what Ponyo’s presence on land might mean. And then there’s Ponyo’s mother.

In the credits Ponyo’s mother is referred to as Gran Mamare, but I couldn’t help but think of her as Tethys. She’s enormous, easily as big as Ponyo’s father’s submarine. But she can be small as well. She is beautiful and powerful and wise and dangerous. She’s referred to as a goddess of mercy, but as an ocean goddess really, mercy would only be one side to her. Yes, there are other possibilities (Kannon, perhaps, though the water association isn’t as strong in what I’ve read) but well, Tethys was the mother of the Oceanids, three thousand daughters who were the patrons of small bodies of water. And with all those little fish daughters following their titanic mother? She will always be Tethys in my head. And I like that. It adds to the mythic feel of the movie for me. And if she’s a mix of various ocean deities, then all the better. It’s Ponyo’s mother who intercedes for Ponyo and Sosuke, allowing them the chance to travel and work together and for Ponyo to decide what she wants and for Sosuke to decide what he wants.

There’s a dream-like quality to this movie. A lot of that has to do with the imagery, which is all rolling waves that might or might not be alive, flooded roads, prehistoric sea creatures, treetops sticking up out of the water. When Ponyo begins to use magic on land, causing chaos in the ocean and the sky, the visuals of the tidal wave and fish and storm are gorgeous and dangerous without being nightmare fodder. And the undersea refuge where Sosuke and Ponyo meet up with their parents and the elderly ladies (rejuvenated after their trip to the ocean depths) is a lovely mix of land and sea. But there’s also the mood of the village too. It’s clearly a tight knit community. Everyone knows Sosuke’s mother by name and therefore him too. When the village floods everyone cheerfully bands together to find refuge, with some villagers punting their way around as a casual outing. Sosuke’s mother accepts Ponyo’s presence without much question, simply saying that the world is full of wonders or something like that. It’s a world where magic exists and people might not see it regularly but they’re not shocked when they do.

Perhaps I enjoyed this movie as much as I did because of how steeped it is in the sea and how gorgeous the oceanic visuals are. Perhaps I liked that there wasn’t a villain so much as an obstacle. A movie doesn’t need a villain in order for there to be a quest, and I like that. There can be hardships and tasks without there being a bad guy, hamming it up and being nasty for the sake of being nasty. Life doesn’t always hand you a nemesis. Perhaps I liked it for Ponyo’s mother and her daughters who follow her into the ocean. Sure, Ponyo’s father’s background and role aren’t made super clear (he’s supposed to be safeguarding the ocean but he’s also making magic elixirs for some reason, to make new life – it’s not gone into in detail). And the whole role of Sosuke’s seafaring father is minor at most. But I don’t mind. They’re part of the details of the story and it all just works so well for me.

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January 5, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , ,

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