Ponyo - Spoiler alert
After singing its theme song innumerable times while poking an aggravated niece's round belly, I finally watched "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea". I'd like to come clean before I go any further; I am a fan of Studio Ghibli's, though there are some films that I have resisted and haven't watched to this day. I wasn't too keen on "Ponyo", despite the hype that the highly addictive theme song created, because it seemed as if Miyazaki was having too much fun with himself there for the film to be a general success.
At any rate, I watched it finally, and I was pleasantly surprised. I say surprised, because I had read somewhere that some oversea viewers thought the plot didn't quite make sense in some places, so I expected something in the lines of Princess Mononoke, but even more enmeshed in the Japanese mythology. The film turned out to be nothing of the sort; nothing is less perplexing than a little girl (albeit of unknown species) causing a world-engulfing tsunami, causing the Moon to go off its orbit, and creating general mayhem in the world, just to be with the boy of her heart's desire. Girls tend to do that.
The plot is obviously a re-write of "The Little Mermaid" (or at least its framework is), as the Little Mermaid's bubbly demise is even referred to in the film. I am surprised that I haven't come across any review that mentions this, and only hope that it is not a well-guarded conceit of the latest wonder of Studio Ghibli (...just found out that the Japanese Wikipedia page does mention this!)
I loved the film. What amazes me more than the not-so-cute frog-like form that Ponyo takes when she performs magic, is that a man as advanced in years as Miyazaki hasn't forgotten the heartache he must've felt when he first heard the tale of the Little Mermaid. As I remember, it was the most heart-breaking story for a child yet unacquainted with The Little Match Girl; the level of sadness quite unknown in Snow White or Red Riding Hood. I already love the man but what endears Miyazaki to me even more is that he evidently wanted to rescue the Little Mermaid from her beautiful but sad foamy end.
Haven't we all a sad story or two that we'd like to re-write, given the chance? My pet fantasy is that the phantom of a certain opera house turns out to be quite a good-looking ardent fellow, and receives love despite his rather irregular facial features. (Has someone done that already?) Miyazaki may be just having fun here, rewriting the choking tale and letting Little Mermaid have another go at the prince and her life, but he made a brilliant job of it. Our little fish-girl is full of life. No such nonsense as disappearing into sea foam and sacrificing herself for the sake of unrequited love with her; she grabs both her boy and life with her chicken-like hands. (Only worry I have is that the kind of love that makes a fish-girl forsake her world and magic is a little too weighty for a boy of five. They have a very long "Happy Ever After" to go through after this.)
So all in all, Ponyo may not have the serious, profound messages of other Ghibli films (though we could argue perhaps that Ponyo actually represents Nature and that what happens in the film is that Nature takes revenge on the human race and we finally learn to live in harmony with it when submerged by it, or something like that, if we must); it may not bring Miyazaki another Oscar home (a five-year old girl's love, no matter how cute, and geographically and cosmically catastrophic, cannot win against an octogenarian's love for the diseased wife). But it is an exuberant film, fairly bursting with the joy of loving and living, as only a five-year old can experience. A joy to watch.