A confession. When I was watching Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea at the cinema yesterday, I was a little choked up during one scene. And yes, damn it, I teared up too. I was so awed by the exuberance and beauty of a scene that I couldn't help but find a single tear trickling down my face. I won't spoil that scene, but it involves the storm, and a girl running frantically ON the crashing waves.
Yes, I went 'Wow' and teared up.
PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA is the second Hayao Miyazaki film I have the pleasure to catch on big screen (the first one was SPIRITED AWAY). I was slightly disappointed by his previous film, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, which was very good but not great. And that shows how high a standard Hayao Miyazaki had set for himself after all these years. Anything less than great or classic status, I would regard as 'disappointing'.
When I first saw the teaser of PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA (as early as May, when I saw SHAOLIN GIRL), with that crazily catchy theme song sung by an 8-year old kid Nozomo Ohashi (in an off-key... but endearing manner) and the duo Fujioka Fumaki, I really had my reservations. The art style was a little off-putting. It seemed so simplistic, so, er, childish. I wasn't a slight bit surprised that my friend Jason snobbishly chose not to go to the cinema with me (though I ended up going with another friend who was more excited with Studio Ghibli fare)
I've watched every single HAYAO MIYAZAKI film since I first discovered LAPUTA when I was 8. My favourite ones are normally his more mature and ambitious films, like LAPUTA (still my all-time favourite), SPIRITED AWAY, and PORCO ROSSO. Surprisingly, the one Miyazaki film I liked a little less than the others (besides the aforementioned HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE) is probably the most beloved one of them all, MY NEIGHBOUR, TOTORO. It's a little unfair because my initial impression of the film was really ruined by the 'much too cute' Cantonese dub. (to think that at the age of 9, I was already turned off by something 'too cute' shows how much of a cynic I already was then).
PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA is more TOTORO than PRINCESS MONONOKE. It's skewered more towards the younger crowd, but still so visually amazing and mindblowing that I reacted the way I described in the first two paragraphs. Eschewing the CG animation that he had used in his previous three films (MONONOKE, SPIRITED AWAY and HOWL'S), PONYO was done completely with traditional hand-drawn animation. And Miyazaki proved that 3D animation is never a replacement for 2D, just an alternative. There are some things done in PONYO that wouldn't have been so awe-inspiring if it were done in 2D, and can only be appreciated fully when watched on big screen.
And as Benjamin Whaley's review had stated, the film makes use of warm colour palettes, giving the film a look that evokes water colour paintings. (although to me, the scenery really looks more like crayon illustrations than water colour paintings. Porco Rosso was something that went for the water colour painting look, I think)
The story is loosely based on THE LITTLE MERMAID. Ponyo is a goldfish with the head of a human girl who decided to leave her underwater home by climbing onto the back of a jellyfish. She barely escapes a drift net but gets her head stuck in a glass jar (subtle but obligatory environmentalist message from a Miyazaki film). Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy who lives in a house on a seaside cliff, spots Ponyo and rescues her. And thus begins a friendship between the two, Sosuke happy with his new pet, Ponyo uttering her first words. She later begins her transformation from fish to human.
In the world of Ponyo, the children are often more developed than the adults. It's not that the adult characters are shallow, just that this is a world seen through the eyes of the two child protagonists. So I was wrong to worry about this film for its childishness, as this film was aiming merely to be child-like. Mark Schilling's review of the film at JAPAN TIMES said it best when he observed that Miyazaki's re-inhabiting a younger self, like James Joyce did with the opening chapter of 'PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN'. That's why the adventures of the two are so dream-like and fantastical, so brimming with wonder and excitement. It's very light-hearted. The fact that both Ponyo and Sosuke are really voiced by children (Yuria Nara and Hiroki Doi) instead of voice actresses with cute voices make them much more believable.
It's not as if the adult characters in Ponyo are boring though. I like the relationship between Sosuke's feisty mother whom he calls Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi, yup, the one from the Takuya Kimura dorama, LONG VACATION) and his mostly absent ship captain dad (Kazushige Nagashima). It's sweet and romantic when he passes by his house in the distance, and they communicate with Morse code via light signals (him saying that he loves her, her repeatedly calling him an idiot, annoyed that he couldn't return home). The closest thing to an antagonist is Ponyo's human dad Fujimoto (George Takoro), having the ability to control waves (turning them into living creatures under his command) who needs to bring Ponyo back at all costs. But he's really more like a worried dad than a sinister villain (Muska he ain't).
The film ends almost abruptly and unexpectedly (though not exactly a cliffhanger ending, just as if Miyazaki's wrapping things up swiftly), but the whimsical final shot lingers.
Yup, another film worthy of Hayao Miyazaki's name.
I can't say that the film score done by Joe Hisaishi is as good as his best ones (NAUSICAA, LAPUTA, PORCO ROSSO and SPIRITED AWAY, some of them I used the play on the piano, haha), but he had definitely unleashed upon us the catchiest theme song ever!