By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
rafu entertainment editor
There are great joys in any Hayao Miyazaki film, and that is enough reason to make necessary arrangements to see them. The scenery is magically beautiful, the characters populate a dimension rarely found in animated movies (or live-action ones for that matter) and his stories nearly always leave you feeling that you’ve experienced something wonderful.
I was more than eager to see “Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea” despite knowing absolutely nothing about it other than the name of the title character. I have been very pleased and repeatedly surprised by the films of Miyazaki, 68, who has reached near-deity status in Japan and among animation enthusiasts. His latest begins in wide release in the U.S. Friday under the Disney-shortened title, “Ponyo.”
I opted to screen the film with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles, rather than the English overdubs. Among the cast are some of Japan’s most popular actors, including Tomoko Yamaguchi (“Long Vacation”) and perennial TV personality George Tokoro. American tweens will be drawn to the U.S. release, which stars Noah Cyrus (little sister of Disney mega-star Miley) and the younger sibling of the Jonas Brothers, Frankie Jonas.
As with any film from Miyazaki, there is an established world you simply must accept right off the bat, such as the requirements and norms for young witches in 1989’s wonderful “Majyo No Takyubin,” known stateside as “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” Usually, Miyazaki spends little or no time explaining why things are the way they are and you’re either in his world or you’re not. In his most successful movies, like “Kiki” or “Spirited Away,” accepting the preexisting reality occurs effortlessly.
In the case of “Ponyo,” there’s a somewhat creepy fellow who has adapted himself to living under the sea, having denounced his humanity as a result of mankind’s polluting of the world’s oceans. Among his offspring are scores of little fish-girls, said to be goldfish but with human faces, that he keeps contained in his underwater bubble world. One of his children, a spunky sprite whom he calls Brunhilde, breaks away for a bit of wandering, only to get caught in a passing trash collection net dredging the sea floor. She frees herself, but gets perilously stuck in a glass jar, which then washes ashore. She is extracted from the jar by a five-year-old boy, Sosuke, who cuts his thumb on the shards of broken glass. As she gasps for air, the little fish licks the blood from his finger and that’s where the magic–and the trouble–begins.
Having been renamed by Sosuke, Ponyo is returned to the sea but by now is smitten and has decided to follow her father’s biped bloodline and transform herself to live above water. With the help of her multitudes of sisters (as well as some newly-sprouted arms and legs) Ponyo returns to the human world and throws the relationship between sea, Earth and moon dangerously out of balance.
Miyazaki has said that it was seeing trash in the ocean during a coastal vacation that inspired the ideas that eventually became the movie.
“I saw how people have polluted the sea, and came back home really angry and irritated,” he said.
I’ll admit that when “Ponyo” ended, my wife–a native of Japan–and I were struggling to find a point to the story. But the more I thought about, as well as after a second viewing, I realized that I was holding onto the Hollywood/American notions of plot development. Miyazaki operates in a different realm and that extends to the established expectations of narrative form. There are moments of sheer exhilaration in Ponyo’s journey, the most delightful being when Sosuke, riding in his mother’s car as she tries to outrun a torrent of tidal waves, sees the fully-human toddler girl running atop the crests of the oncoming waves, which have taken the shapes of whales. It is an inspiring and unexpected sequence in which viewers share every bit of Sosuke’s surprise.
Appreciation of a moment and absorbing the emotions within that moment are key to “Ponyo’s” success. Ponyo’s gaunt and solemn father, Fujimoto, is menacing but never outwardly scary. Clad in a striped blazer a la Austin Powers, we watch as he operates in a world that looks like an alternate dimension of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and we can feel the sense of mission with which he goes about his business. Later in the film, a group of elderly ladies who live at a senior center under the care of Sosuke’s mother experience a shot of youthful energy (courtesy of Ponyo’s sea goddess mother) and take off on a giggling foot race. At these points, along with the sight of the little girl running gleefully atop surging ocean waves, “Ponyo” ranks among Miyazaki’s best work.
Unfortunately, Disney has said that the current U.S. engagement of “Ponyo” will not include any screenings with the original Japanese soundtrack, as was done with “Spirited Away.”
It should also be noted that like all of Miyazaki’s work, every one of “Ponyo’s” nearly 200,000 frames was drawn by hand. While computer-generated films have become the standard for animated blockbusters, Miyazaki said technology has little, if any place, in his work, comparing his Studio Ghibli to an old wooden boat powered only by sails.
Compared to his recent output, Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” is surprisingly simple and at 100 minutes is prudently short in length. Let the dazzling visuals appeal to your inner child and the experience will offer an emotionally satisfying day at the cinema.
“Ponyo,” rated G, 100 minutes. Opens in wide release Friday from Walt Disney Pictures.