Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Sense of Wonder - Some Thoughts on "Gake no ue no Ponyo" (Spoiler Alert)

Master film maker Miyazaki Hayao proves the power of hand drawn animation in ways Disney’s upcoming Princess and the Frog never could. Even more so than in his recent epic fantasies he doesn’t care for classical plot construction or superfluous explanations. Instead, Ponyo is truly cinematic in its uncompromised artistic vision and simultaneously the first genuine children’s movie I’ve seen in a long time. In a nice reversal of mainstream formula, what the clueless adult characters consider to be the climactic challenge is so easily overcome by the unprejudiced children’s sincerity that the sudden resolution may come as a surprise.

Nowadays it’s difficult to write about films like Inglourious Basterds, Antichrist or Ponyo because such iconic works immediately spawn innumerable online reviews and commentaries. What’s more, many of these dig much deeper than a classical movie review in print ever could. Veritable secondary literature is therefore spreading like the swine flu and buried among even more recycled superficial articles on the subject. So I can’t probably add anything (except my personal opinion) that hasn’t already been said. Well, I try anyway.

Universally positive reactions
All of these films mentioned above are created by directors many of whose devoted followers are themselves active participants in the blogosphere. So in addition to rave reviews in almost every American newspaper, Ponyo has been discussed in about every conceivable way by animation enthusiasts and professionals. But contrary to many professionals’ more distinguished reactions to the last four Pixar films that often differed heavily from what live-action critics thought about them, Ponyo has been hailed as a masterpiece by almost everyone in the community despite its freewheeling and uneven pacing.

Miyazaki has always emphasized that his movies are first and foremost for Japanese audiences. But because of his underlying themes of ecological devastation, pacifism and devotional love, most of these stories are universally understandable. On the other hand, what is conceived by most Western movie goers as a specifically Japanese element – animism and unexplained magic in everyday life – is probably more characteristic of Miyazaki Hayao’s own personal artistic world view. And it is exactly what makes his movies so seductive.

Balance and shape-shifting

As always, literally everything is animated in the truest sense of the word, i. e. there is a soul in everything (animate = ensoul), be it water, wind or a tree. Humans are just part of this world but not its masters even if at least the adults are oblivious to this fact. Although in my opinon, this is decidedly not an ecological fable, environmental pollution is ever present and metaphorically handled in the unbalancing of nature Ponyo accidentally causes by trying to become human.

The pollution of the Minamata Bay in the 50s and 60s has been cited as one of Miyazaki’s key inspirations ever since the Nausicaä days. (In the original event, the fish in the Minamata Bay have absorbed poisonous mercury and continued to reproduce.) I believe that this is the character defining moment for Ponyo’s father Fujimoto who is still wearing Sixties clothes. It may also explain his deep contempt for his fellow humans. But fortunately, his strange actions and contemplations are hardly explained and activate our imagination far more than most fantasy films well-grounded on painstakingly explained rules. It’s been reported (Michael Sporn, Daniel Thomas McInnes) that the American dub contains additional lines of explanatory dialogue which I’m very skeptical about because I didn’t feel that there was something missing in the subtitled Japanese version I saw.

Like Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo is able to transform herself depending on her emotional state. Miyazaki may be one of the last animation directors who believe that a character’s physics should reflect their emotions. What Tytla was able to convey in his unique acting style by animating forces is translated to the possibility of shape-shifting. The balance between characters is also expressed by changing sizes (as is visible in the case of Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamare). Shape-shifting, of course, extends to the waves as well. After Ponyo has provoked the strangely suspended tsunami, underwater life is unbalanced by the advent of scarily calm prehistoric creatures.

A Sense of Wonder
Ponyo may not be very focused at first glance but it is certainly true to a child’s perception of the world in every aspect. The adults whose actions and motivations go over their children’s heads have no clue what goes on around them while hurrying through life. Sosuke himself behaves like a real five-year old, something we hardly ever see in animated movies these days. His (and Ponyo’s) animation contains so much human observation and small recognizable gestures that it is a joy to witness even though some of the animation is on 3s (which I will never be able to adjust to on a big screen).

Ponyo herself is even more like a child, in some aspects like a baby (much has already been written about the staring scene with the real baby) who is constantly wondering about the unknown human world. One of Ponyo's greatest merits is doubtlessly its power to activate our own sense of wonder when we discover the environment with Sosuke. Despite the relatively simple designs, the screen is always brimming over with details to discover and Miyazaki is sage enough to give us the time to revel in these discoveries. Joe Hisaishi’s lush score is equally important to create a dreamlike mood. (Probably as a concession to Western tastes the music in the Japanese version is now almost wall to wall unlike in Laputa, for example.)

For once, the worn-out expression that a film “appeals to our inner child” is really appropriate. It isn’t just an excuse to be silly or sentimental (children are less sentimental than adults would like to see them, anyway), it is an adequate description of the power of Miyazaki’s intuitive storytelling that manages to make us accept a world of wonders without wanting to ask mundane questions.

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