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Ponyo (2009): **

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Ponyo is a beautiful film that haunted and disturbed me at a very profound level. It is one of the more frightening horror films I've seen in ages due in good part to the fact that it's aimed at children. Yes, that's right; Miyazaki made a horror movie for children.

This movie is a bizarre twist on the Little Mermaid story. Ponyo is a "goldfish" (even though she looks nothing like a goldfish; she looks more like a little doll in a red dress) who is the daughter of a former-human sorcerer (whose character design I found horribly unappealing) and a goddess of the sea. The mother is off busy being a goddess or something, so she lives with her father, who is doing something nefarious with elixirs in a well that he hopes some day will wipe out humanity and restore the sea to prominence like it was in the Devonian age. Yikes! Ponyo, being half god and half sorcerer, has immense power potential, so her dad keeps her confined in his ship. But in the opening sequence of the film she escapes, gets caught in a bottle, and then gets rescued by a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke.

This early sequence of Sosuke carrying Ponyo around in a bucket are really very charming, except that Sosuke filled the bucket with fresh water, which should have killed a salt-water fish like Ponyo. I guess being half goddess has its rewards? Anyway, the scenes of Sosuke taking Ponyo to school and the old-folks home next door to the schoole (where Sosuke's mother works) are a lot of fun and are full of those well-observed details about childhood life that made My Neighbor Totoro so enjoyable. It seems that this is going to be a light-hearted, delicate comedy with maybe some life lessons, like Sosuke learning to be responsible for Ponyo or something like that. I was fully prepared to enjoy it. There was an especially delightful and rather poignant scene where Sosuke's father has to take another voyage with the ship he works for, which greatly upsets Sosuke's mother, and the three of them communicate back and forth via signal lights.

But then Ponyo's father kidnaps her back under the sea. And shortly thereafter the horror begins. Ponyo has fallen madly in love with Sosuke and has actually tasted his blood (she licked a small cut on his finger to heal it), which has given her the power to transform into a human. She escapes from her goldfish bowl and makes her way to the well of elixirs where she apparently (this part is confusing) becomes imbued with all of the power contained therein. She then storms back towards shore to find Sosuke, destroying everything in her path in her obsessive quest. Seriously!

She floods the entire town in a matter of minutes and does undoubtebly billions of yen worth of damage, and likely drowning several people. Or at the very least all of the animals that live in the town, including all of the wildlife in the nearby woods. She does all this just so that the sea can carry her up to the car that Sosuke is in, while Sosuke's mom recklessly tries to outrun this monstrous wave that looks like fish. It's an absolutely terrifying scene, except for that it's presented in such a way that it's supposed to be enjoyably magical. "Look at that adorable little girl running on those fish waves! Isn't that cute?" Ignore the fact that thousands (at least) of people are having their homes utterly destroyed by those same waves, their businesses submerged and ruined, their life-long dreams shattered beyond any hope of repair. Just look at how cute she is!

I found something horribly irresponsible about Ponyo from that point on. The movie loses all sense of realism that it had rather carefully built in the first act. People stop behaving like human beings and start behaving like... well, I don't know what. Sosuke's mother leaves her 5-year-old son alone in a horrible storm and rising flood waters with a strange little girl who used to be a fish so she can go check on the old folks at the undoubtedly flooded old folks home. Those geezers are probably dead, lady! This is a disaster--it's time to look after your son!

In the morning when she hasn't returned, Sosuke and Ponyo set out to find her, and they come across a refugee boat with a man, wife, and baby in it, who somehow managed to survive the deluge. And this family acts like they're just out for a relaxing morning boat ride. They're happy and cheerful and are glad to see Sosuke out and about. They don't even seem to realize that their home and livelihood are gone, or that they're lucky to be alive. It just seems like any other ordinary day to them. I was flabbergasted! I couldn't believe this scene at all. Who were these people to be acting so ho-hum about their entire world being destroyed!?

As Sosuke and Ponyo go putting around in their little boat, they notice that the flooded town is full of sea life from the Devonian period (which Sosuke just happens to be an expert on). We see these gigantic beasts swimming among the submerged trees and it's presented as a wonderful, magical time. But these things are monstrous. I couldn't help but think that it was exactly like watching children swimming in a lake full of crocodiles and being expected to think it was a charming scene.

An explanation is put forward that since Ponyo is straddling the worlds of the sea and the land by being a fish in human form, she has destroyed the balance of nature to such an extent that the moon is actually descending to the earth, and its gravitational field is distending the very oceans. Once that idea was introduced, I realized that this flood wasn't just a localized event; all of Japan and, indeed, all of lands that touch the western Pacific ocean had to have been flooded as the sea level rose a hundred feet or more. We all remember from just a few years ago how many hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of a mere 20-foot tsunami. Now here was a disaster on such a global, epic scale that it makes that tsunami look like a 2-inch wave in a kiddie pool. But remember, this is a charming children's movie! So nobody seems at all upset with the fact that the world is being destroyed.

In order to restore the balance of nature, Ponyo must choose to go wholly to one side or the other, either completely fish or completely human. But she's so single-minded about being a human with Sosuke that it's basically no choice at all. And Sosuke is asked if he could still love Ponyo even if she were just a goldfish. But we've seen from the entire first act that, yes, he did love Ponyo even when she was just a goldfish, so it's an absurdly easy decision for him to make as well. Ponyo is never confronted with the horrors that she's caused. She never learns that what she did was selfish, wrong, and hurt a lot of people. In the end she is rewarded for her reign of terror by getting exactly what she wanted all along.

I don't know what happened. Maybe Miyazaki thought that because he was making a film for very young children that there didn't have to be any consequences to anyone's actions? That it was somehow okay to present horror, tragedy, and disaster as light-hearted fun? To reward the monster that caused all of it? Even in My Neighbor Totoro, which is a wonderful kids' movie, there are moments of real fear when Mei goes missing. And Satsuki is actually afraid of the giant Totoro when she first sees him. Satsuki, Mei, their father, and their neighbors behave at all times like well-observed, real people. But now imagine a horror movie where a group of people are stranded in the woods and are being attacked by a horrible monster that infects them with a poison that causes them to die slowly and painfully. Now imagine that every single character in that movie acted like they were just on a lovely stroll through the woods and that everything was wonderful in the world.

There are individual moments of magic and delight in the movie (especially that first act), and I truly enjoyed the animation and the colored-pencil backgrounds. The wavery underwater effects were actually animated that way, not with some later computer-generated waviness added to the animation! But always in my mind was the fact that I was supposed to find it charming that there was all of this horror and this world in chaos and these lives lost and destroyed.

And I don't care what that woman says. Her baby did NOT like Ponyo.


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