Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Shameless Juvenile Love for Miyazaki's Ponyo

Okay, Ponyo was a freakin’ GREAT film. As an adult, there are a few things I automatically have the urge to do: 1) find a way to see this film as IMPORTANT, conceptually/historically/whatever… 2) find a way to compare this movie to Miyazaki’s other films, which I can smugly identify and characterize… I’m hesitant to fall into these traps right away, as I’m afraid they may misrepresent the profound joy I felt at watching this film.

So, first of all, I wanted to throw this out there: what do kids think of this ridiculous movie? Does it really work for them, with its confused physical laws, painterly backgrounds, and fairy-tale allusions? Its endearing 5 year-old characters are drawn partly from the uncontrollably-manic/inexplicably-wise archetype of children in popular fiction, and part of me suspects that maybe these stock characters are designed to appeal to adults, rather than the kids themselves.

At least one reviewer said her children LOVED it. I’ll take that at face value, and I’ll generally assume that this movie is as fun and charming and engaging for young kids as it was for me. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, though, please let me know, as I understand that I write from a limited point of view.

Roger Ebert said of the film, “It’s wonderful and never even seems to try” (Ebert, 8/13/2009). This has become a standard feature of Miyazaki’s films: they provide an easy transition into their strange narrative worlds, and they always seem to play out with an organic unity, so the viewer feels that they’ve been taken on a journey, not walked through a program. With such an easygoing talent at the helm, a film like Ponyo may be mistaken for something childlike, rather than what it is: a visionary artist harnessing emotional forces that penetrate to the most childlike part of you.

My argument, here, is that Ponyo is a great piece of art (the more I think about it, the more it may be my favorite Miyazaki film), brilliantly executed to act on the most primordial human impulses. I think we can agree that there are certain emotional forces that are rooted more deeply than our daily financial/sexual/social/intellectual concerns. These forces precede even idealized concepts like romantic love, personal politics, jealousy, and revenge. After all, those are all built upon rather mature complexes, like possessiveness and self-image.

Ponyo goes past these psycho-social glitches and touches the deepest emotional places in our souls. The oceans around Sosuke’s village represent the fear and lure of the unknown, the void that we all associate with depthless, endless bodies of water. In the face of the storms and waves, the tremors of nature’s rage, Sosuke has a shelter, his little house on a cliff, where his mother puts him to sleep at night. Shelter is one of the deepest emotional instincts we have (ask Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space), and the power of the mother-figure is another (ask Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sigmund Freud).

Finally, Ponyo herself represents an inescapable force for Sosuke… the force of compassion and companionship, which precedes all its mutations (romantic love, sexual love, and friendship), and which ushers in a host of other deep-seated emotions: responsibility (“I know it’s a big responsibility…”), regret (“I wonder if Ponyo is crying, too”), and hope for the future (“I’ll leave this pail for when she comes back”).

In this mission, Miyazaki is following in some very traditional Japanese footsteps. In his art, we can see references to woodblock prints and Sumi-e paintings of cliffs, mountain roads, violent seas, and fish. These paintings capture the full force of the scene in just a few brush strokes, and they resonate in a deep emotional place for the sensitive viewer. Miyazaki’s work should do the same thing, and if you’re open to it, you should feel the same sort of effect.

Miyazaki is an artist of the highest degree, and though his work may not touch all the keys of the intellect, it tugs at the strings of the soul. I hope history comes to remember this film as fondly as I already do.


Monk said...

Reading this review brought back every emotion that I felt while watching Ponyo. I couldn't put my finger on exactly why I loved this movie so much, and to be honest I didn't care. Reading your words however, brought tears to my eyes as I could see the deep parts of the human spirit that this work of art truly touches. I also love what you wrote about the innocence that this movie charms us with. There are very few complex human "glitches" that show up in this film, and yet it is extremely entertaining. I found it interesting that the few complex, adult concerns that were presented (in Ponyo's father, in The cranky old lady at the seniors center etc) were gracefully overcome by the innocence of the two children. This, I feel, is really the heart of the movie. Thank you for your review, it is the best I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

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