PONYO ON A CLIFF BY THE SEA
(Gake No Ue No Ponyo)
Choose any of the above titles and they are all anime masterpieces, classics in their own right. Of Ponyo on a Cliff By the Sea, one can perhaps say that it is Hayao Miyazakis least great film to date. This is all relative in any other animation directors hands, Ponyo on a Cliff By the Sea would be a standout classic. However, Ponyo is a film where Miyazakis recurrent themes seem more perfunctory, the film less lacking in the beautiful contrasts of epic and fragile he specialises in. The story is even one that Miyazaki seems to have recycled from Disneys The Little Mermaid (1989) princess of an underwater realm who is in thrall to an evil sorcerer falls in love with a human boy and sacrifices all at great cost to develop legs (plus arms here) so that she can be with him on the surface.
There are all the familiar themes of a Hayao Miyazaki film. There is the genteel respect for nature and the frequent sense of its pollution by the uncaring. One of the interesting pieces of subconscious symbolism is how when the film starts, the fish and sorcerer are surrounded by a constant profusion of detritus and human junk in the oceans, whereas when the typhoon overruns everything, the oceans are drawn with a plethora of marine life everywhere leaving the assumption that a balance between the two needs to be restored or overturned (as the typhoon symbolically does). The film even includes an oblique criticism of driftnet fishing (a commercial fishing method mainly practiced by Japan that is highly destructive to the marine environment and has been condemned internationally). There is also Hayao Miyazakis love of eccentric flying machines, although here this has been changed to eccentric marine vessels the sorcerer driving about underwater in a boat that flaps its fins like a bird, while Sosuke and Ponyo putter about in a candle-powered toy boat that has magically been blown up to medium size. There are also the sweetly appealing child protagonists much beloved of Miyazaki you can almost guarantee that no American mainstream animated film would emphasise the issues that Hayao Miyazaki does here gentleness, kindness, respect for the elderly and a sense of community spirit. Everything is hand-drawn in the ligne claire style that Miyazaki borrowed from Hergé indeed, in an era where animation has been overtaken by CGI, Hayao Miyazaki may be the one animator left out there still making his films by hand.
There are all the sweetly charming moments that make one go aww that you find in a Hayao Miyazaki film. There is an entirely delightful scene where Sosuke communicates with his fathers passing ship by signal lamp, where the mother angrily spells out Baka Baka (Idiot Idiot) because of his delayed return and the father responds by spelling his reply out with the whole ship lit up in lights like a Christmas tree. The scenes where Sosuke and Ponyo set out on the toy boat and come across a family afloat and then an entire flotilla, or the scenes with Ponyo trying to adjust to human life all have a tender beauty. On the other hand, Ponyo on a Cliff By the Sea is much quieter when it comes to these moments than all of Hayao Miyazakis other films. There is what seems to promise to be an epic struggle against the sorcerer Fujimoto (who could easily be an evil twin brother of Howl in Howls Moving Castle) but this dissipates and finds its resolution far too easily.