Early warning: expect some mild spoilers here.
Earlier this year Helen and I paid a visit – or perhaps a pilgrimage – to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. One of the main exhibits was filled with information about a film I hadn’t at that point seen: Gake no ue no Ponyo. The exhibit was fascinating, with a special focus on the design and animation of the numerous wave and sea scenes in the film, and I made a note to search out a copy on my return to England. On getting back, however, we found out that for reasons unclear it won’t be released here until sometime next year.
Last night, however, I finally got to see it. Ponyo, which seems to have picked up the rather unwieldly English title “Ponyo on the cliff by the sea”, was being presented in Japanese as part of the Barbican’s Japanimation season with an introduction by Helen McCarthy, and six of us managed to pick up tickets. Actually, on the subject of the title, if anyone with a better grasp of Japanese than I knows where the sea comes from, I’d love to know – it looks like “cliff (no) above (no) Ponyo”, or “Ponyo on the cliff”, to me.
The story is pretty simple: a young boy, Sosuke, meets a goldfish, Ponyo, and they fall in love. Obstacles are presented and – it’s a children’s film, so this shouldn’t count as a huge spoiler – overcome. As with many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, though, this takes place in an environment where everyday Japan meets the supernatural, and with a subtle theme of environmental concern (the drag nets, the idea of nature being pulled out of whack, the moon, etc).
It’s colourful, beautiful and beguiling, with a gorgeous look that mixes realism (the dry dock of the working port, the retirement home where Sosuke’s mother works) with childlike drawings (the house on the hill, the simple boats bobbing out to see). And of course the waves – at times magically transformed into giant fish and in one scene racing the camera as it tracks horizontally – are magnificently animated and almost worth the price of a ticket alone.
The film is funny, too – Ponyo’s first encounter with a sheet of glass and her enquiries as to the profession of Sosuke’s father, in particular, drew big laughs from the (almost entirely adult) audience, while the slightly crazed driving of Sosuke’s mother Lisa raised gasps and smiles. The problems faced by Sosuke, Lisa and Ponyo don’t ever seem *that* dangerous or frightening, and the conclusion isn’t as uplifting as, say, the girls from Tonari no Totoro travelling by Catbus to check on their mother – but they build up and wrap up the plot neatly.
So, predictably, I’d entirely recommend Ponyo when she eventually swims up to these shores sometime in mid 2010. The English version is being distributed by Disney, is produced by John Lasseter and has a cast packed with well known actors – so I’m sure it will at least get a big release, and I suppose subtitles don’t make too much sense for an audience of small children. See it in English, then rent the DVD or Blu-ray for the film as it was intended.