Ponyo is without a doubt the most operatic of all of Studio Ghibli’s works. It is, after all, partly inspired by Wagner’s opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), and parts of Joe Hisaishi’s score for the film reflect this. With very little dialogue (even by Ghibli’s standards), the story progresses most often through wordless spectacles of vivid colour, where lines dance and curve to music. Perhaps this is why so many people find it the least involving of the studio’s animations. When I first watched it around three years ago, I found it a little alienating.
On a second watch, however, I felt it possessed much more of a charm. I don’t know whether it was the setting (I was much more comfortable watching it this time round), or simply the fact that I wasn’t expecting as much, but it won me over somehow. Whereas before the film’s visual and sonic palettes had seemed elementary and borrowed, like an unplanned explosion of a child’s poster paint collection, they now boasted a brave boldness that I admired.
The titular character is a goldfish named Brunhilde, who is lent the name ‘Ponyo’ by a young boy, Sōsuke, whom she befriends after being accidentally separated from her Sea Wizard father. Ponyo takes a strong liking to Sōsuke, and makes it her aim to find her way back to him after being returned to her ocean home. In terms of plot, there are shadows of The Little Mermaid (there is a ‘test of love’ towards the end, which if Sōsuke fails, will cause Ponyo to turn to sea-foam), but things never stray too far from a simple tale of companionship. Unlike in Miyazaki’s other works, there is little narrative darkness to be found here, meaning the film runs of the risk of seeming shallow in comparison to its predecessors.
However, what the film triumphs in is its absolute unabashed preoccupation with pattern, texture and movement. Water not only flows and runs in its natural form, but bubbles, oozes and churns once enchanted, ripples and waves transforming into the heads of great fish and leech-like monsters which seem composed of honey. Crystal clear liquid turns sky-blue, indigo, and cobalt within minutes. Whereas other Studio Ghibli films may be extraordinary for their great attention to detail, filling every inch of the screen with elements unexpected in animation, Ponyo is extraordinary for its interest in the senses, dazzling its viewer with lights and colours which have enough life in them to be characters of their own.
Like a stained glass tableau, each frame of the film buzzes with child-like brightness. The moment Ponyo breaks free from her bubble prison and cuts holes in her father’s submarine is a visual highlight, with great shoots of water, thick as rope, bursting through the walls and winding their way across the screen. Ponyo is thrown this way and that, submerged by the ocean but ecstatic at escape.
This may not be the most profound of Miyazaki’s works, but it is by far the most exuberant. For those who prefer the quieter side of Ghibli, it might not be an instant favourite, but its audacious beauty cannot be denied. At times schmaltzy, this tale of a little red goldfish is bolstered by its innocence and iridescence.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★