Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” is another perfect illustration of why he may well be the most quietly influential feminist filmmaker out there right now.
Unlike previous works such as “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away,” “Ponyo” is aimed squarely at very young children. Think of it as more in the realm of “My Neighbor Totoro.” For that reason the plotline has been simplified, and a lot of the background explanations that you’d usually find in Miyazaki movies eliminated, but the core characteristics that the man has built his career around remain.
“Ponyo” is a gorgeous movie. Though the plot is very similar to Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” the visual style is different. While the Disney version features a rather glamorous adolescent princess Ariel, Ponyo starts out as a goldfish with a face, one of many identical but smaller sisters (let’s all pause to give thanks for a filmmaker who actually understands where little fish come from). If you’re a parent looking for movies for your little girl that won’t warp her body image, Miyazaki is always a good bet, and “Ponyo” is no exception. It’s incredibly refreshing to see children in animation who actually look like children, with soft round faces and little round bellies.
They act like children, too. Ponyo and her human friend Sōsuke are the core of the movie, and they’re about as believable a pair of five year olds as you’ll ever see on screen. OK, so the movie is full of magic, and Ponyo is technically a fish, but in terms of characterization the main characters behave like actual children (witness their immediate bonding, for example). The idea that children can be smart, brave and resourceful, without being inhumanly perfect, is one that kids need to hear early and often, and “Ponyo” delivers admirably.
Critics have been arguing about whether Ponyo and Sōsuke’s relationship is a love story or a deep friendship. Yet these are children with childlike emotions – when they say “Ponyo loves Sōsuke!” it’s not really any different from declaring love for any other important figure in one’s life, which is aptly illustrated by Sōsuke’s immediate attachment to little goldfish Ponyo and how easy it is for him to transfer it to the human girl that she becomes. One of the key messages of Ponyo is that the people you love are simply the people you love, and there really doesn’t have to be a logical reason for it.
Part of the subtle magic of Miyazaki’s movies, the part that explains his huge popularity with adult women, is how remarkably real and well drawn his female characters are. Lisa (Nisa in some translations), Sōsuke’s mother, is a character so perfect that it would be easy to sit through the whole movie and not even realize what a radical thing Miyazaki has done with her, precisely because it shouldn’t be radical at all.
Lisa is simply a mother, not the universal mother figure in abstract, which is a thing that occurs so rarely in movies that it’s worth noting every time. She’s not solely defined by her role as mother either – we see her at work in an old people’s home, arguing with her husband via Morse code when he’s out at sea, getting drunk when she’s angry with him, passing out on her bed, and then hugging her son with glee when he does something particularly endearing.
Lisa isn’t an idealized mother figure, she’s simply a person who happens to have a child, and is drawn as trying to do her best for everyone around her without losing herself. She’s a whole person, something that Disney has always been notable bad at depicting. It’s lovely to see her body language, because so often in animation women’s movements are depicted as either overly sexualized or graceful in an inhuman way, but Lisa moves like a normal person.
She’s drawn as pretty, but her prettiness is allowed to simply be incidental, not her defining feature. It’s a quiet illustration of how Miyazaki excels at depicting female characters that at a key point in the movie Lisa leaves her five year old son alone in the middle of a storm, instructing him to look after the house, because she’s worried about the old people who she works with and wants to go help them. In no way is this depicted as abandonment. The audience sees Lisa through Sōsuke’s eyes, as an adult who’s brave and caring and who trusts him to make the right decisions. It’s a gorgeous moment, one of the most real parent/child interactions I’ve ever seen on film.
“Ponyo” departs from the classic little mermaid story in several important aspects. Ponyo’s father is controlling but not as overpowering a figure as in the original story – it’s clear that he’s doing what he thinks is best. In a lovely twist, there’s no Sea Witch, and instead the role is taken over by Ponyo’s mother, a version of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
“Ponyo,” like all Miyazaki movies, also features a strong undercurrent of environmentalism. The idea of humans as a destructive force that pollutes the natural environment turns up constantly in Miyazaki’s movies, and it’s perhaps his only real nod to traditional thinking about gender that it’s always women or girls who spot the imbalance and work to correct it.
The environmental theme is rendered a little less explicitly in “Ponyo” than in movies like “Princess Mononoke,” but it’s still there, retold in a more simple mythological way that should make more sense to it’s young audience. The movie leaves children with the very clear message that the ocean is it’s own world and not simply a dumping ground for human waste or a resource to exploit.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the quietly poisonous Disney Princess industrial complex, this, like all of Miyazaki’s movies, is a way to give your kids beauty and magic and a sense of wonder without leaving them feeling inadequate. What could be a better message for children than that friendship can save the world?