Sosuke lives by the sea with his mother Lisa, a carer in an old folks’ home. With his dad away at sea and Lisa often busy, Sosuke lives by his curiosity. One day he rescues what appears to be a fish in a jar, bobbing in the water, and names her Ponyo.
But Ponyo has a floppy ginger fringe and a human looking face. And she can talk. Kindred spirits, Sosuke and Ponyo form an unlikely bond. But Ponyo’s under-sea, wizard-like father wants her back. So begins a magical fantasy of friendship and freewheeling adventure.
Unlike most animated kids’ films from the west, Miyazaki’s movies brim with ideas, images and vivid emotions. Complex yet beguilingly simple, Ponyo is no different. And sure enough, it contains some of Miyazaki’s favourite things – a feisty heroine, warnings of eco-disaster and a distinctly Japanese blending of nature and magic.
Ponyo fizzes with energy and wonderful set-pieces, kicking-off with an undersea carnival of creatures, bursting magically to life. Ponyo’s free-running across the waves in joyful pursuit of Sosuke in his mum’s car is a delight. And a tsunami-like storm is terrific – in all senses.
As always, Miyazaki’s characters are credible and genuinely appealing. Sosuke’s innocent, intrepid spirit and Ponyo’s cheeky, water-spouting faithfulness, are engaging and affecting. And funny too. Ponyo sprouts arms and legs, like a human, and bounds around Sosuke’s house – snaffling ham in preference to fish food. But Lisa too is spot-on – kind-hearted, a mean driver and given to sulky outbursts, morse-coding her husband he’s a ‘jerk’.
Filled with more animated cels – nearly 170,000 – than his previous films, Miyazaki’s animation is lush, fluid and eye-watering. Eschewing CGI, it’s a hand-drawn movie which suits the infants’-eye view of the world that the film inhabits.
And Joe Hisaishi’s score is equally unpredictable. Unlike his hum-able soundtracks of Miyazaki’s older kids’ films (like Spirited Away), Ponyo’s music plays fast and loose, riffing on Puccini and Wagner, and dropping away entirely during the scary storm sequence. But the end-credit song, with its nursery-school ditziness was a hit in Japan.
Called Ponyo on the cliff by the sea in Japanese, you can see why the title was shortened. But it suits Miyazaki’s sense of place. Based on the real seaside resort of Tomonoura, it’s a town you feel you know, so successful is Miyazaki’s blending fantasy and reality.
So you swallow it like a five-year old would: the sea-goddess, the dark aqua-fish, elderly people re-given their youth, a boat that shrinks and grows. And a ginger-fringed fish called Ponyo who wants to be human.
Catching it in Japanese adds to the cultural immersion. Miyazaki felt only kids would understand it. But he’s wrong: only grown-ups will appreciate it fully. But the kid in each of us will be wonderfully entertained – and invigorated.