2016 Film Essays

Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘Ponyo’


“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.

In what is perhaps the best way to explain to a child where his little sister came from, Ponyo carries with it the unmistakable adventurousness of Hayao Miyazaki’s unrivaled imagination, while journeying into the oceanic past in search for ecological balance. As if the narrative embodiment of his waning spite towards humanity’s rocky relationship with nature, this fun-loving and entirely gorgeous cartoon preaches the inherent goodness of humankind’s ability to love. Skewing far younger than any of Miyazaki’s pervious works, Ponyo ventures into the impossible irresistibility of early-childhood, using the adult audience’s memories and its younger viewers’ adventurous wonder to endear itself in a real and truly lasting way.

Ponyo (Brunhilde if her maniacal father had his way) is an enchanted goldfish — a totally unexplainable bit of backstory Miyazaki cannot bother to elucidate upon — who dreams about being human. When given a small window of inattention, she manages to escape her father’s magical undersea vessel and climb to the shallow depths of an unnamed fishing village. Discovered by the five-year-old Sôsuke, the young “goldfish” is able to get a taste for humanity (literally while healing a small wound on the boy’s thumb) and sets her sights on becoming a full-fledged little girl. Part Pinocchio, part Brother’s Grimm, Ponyo charts the incorruptibility of its young protagonists with a stunning visual style, providing a guiltless bit of fun and ensuring its audience cannot bear to look away, if for even a second.


Evoking the unmistakable bold lines of ukiyo-e painting (Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawacomes immediately comes to mind), Ponyo cannot rest on the imaginative qualities of its simple narrative to capture the hearts of viewers, and must instead strive to visually stun them into submission. Unlike many of Studio Ghibli’s preceding films, this childhood romp features no easily discernible color palate, and cannot be bothered with sprawling vistas of gently-rolling hills and breeze-blown flora. Instead, Miyazaki and crew give us a manic display of oceanic fury and gold-tinted bursts of aquatic life. Obsessed with the Devonian seas of prehistoric earth, Ponyo fantasizes about placoderms, trilobites, brachiopods and conodonts taking control of the Earth’s oceans, and the planet itself reverting to a placid, pre-human state of being. Miyazaki’s early Ghibli installments may have veered into a completely anti-human message of environmental protection, but here, he seems to have mellowed with age, accepting that the intangible benefits of man’s existence far outweigh the concrete “greenness” of an environmentally virgin planet.

Flowing harmoniously through the DNA of Ponyo‘s visuals is the constant sign-wave of the ocean’s fluttering surface. Walls of water confine the citizens of Sôsuke’s isolated archipelago as their livelihood shows its teeth; the fish want revenge for their lost brethren, and the water’s constant roiling becomes a symbol for their writhing anger. Drawing on Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Miyazaki draws Ponyo with a pen that dances to the tremble of an orchestra, and that works in conjunction with the music that scores it. Carefully drawn images and rough-hewn illustrations take it in turn to tell their half of the story — one of childhood wonder, and one of stunning spiritual beauty.


Perhaps not the film for the adventurous young adult, Ponyo proves that remarkable visual inventiveness more-than makes up for candy-sweet morals and glass-fragile plot lines. A colorful blast of rainbow magic, Ponyo sees Miyazaki finally loosen his grip in order to give up a little ground in favor of humanity in his continual cinematic battle for the environment.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.