07/02/2018

Ponyo - Tonal & Logical Consistency

Thoughts On: Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, 2008)


A fish wants to escape her father and become a human.


Ponyo is the first Studio Ghibli film that I've been truly let down by. Whilst this isn't as faulted as Tales From Earthsea in the character department, I find it far more messier in regards to structure, theme and story. In fact, this is the first Ghibli film that I've seen that has such incredible inconsistencies in its tone and logic. The positives of Ponyo are very evident; the animation (I'm not the biggest fan of the character design of Ponyo herself, however) and the imagination behind the construction of the world are astounding. What's more, there are glimmering moments of characterisation that give the story a lot of heart. These positives makes this a joy to watch. Nonetheless, having tried to engage with this film as more than mere entertainment for kids, I have been left so downhearted.

At its most thematically coherent, Ponyo seems to be a film about accepting the many faces of individuals. This idea is stated quite literally with Sosuke having to love Ponyo for who she is - fish, human, or whatever other creature in between. This idea promulgates through other characters with Sosuke having to accept the fact that his father loves him, but also has to be away from home for work. This, too, is what his mother has to come to terms with - and this seems to be what she talks to the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, about. And all of this is wrapped up with the motif of ocean life and nature which begins to take us towards a realm of symbolism that films such as Princess Mononoke exist in. However, I feel as if I am giving this narrative far too much than it deserves here.

Unlike most functional stories, Ghibli stories especially, Ponyo has no stakes at all. This means that everything always seems fine; though the father isn't home, this conflict is completely transitory. And beyond the father scene, there is absolutely no real conflict manifested in this story. I emphasise: no conflict. Every sequence is structured with a soft opening - everything is ok - and then something turbulent happens before very quickly subsiding. The same is true for the overarching structure of the story, which leaves you feeling as if no journey was actually ventured on. Everything then starts ok, things go slightly awry, but nothing terrible really happens; people float around on water for a while before a happy ending.

I don't believe that there is a formula that all stories must follow - conflict isn't everything. However, this narrative functions as if it believes that we are on the edge of our seats, worried for characters and emotionally engaged in their struggle. The truth is, there is no struggle and I was never worried. I very much so liked the characters, but saw no need for this pretence of conflict and this illusion of a journey. Sticking to its surreal world building and playful characterisation, Ponyo should have resembled My Neighbours The Yamadas in terms of structure and I think it would have worked wondrously.

Whilst I can sweep much of what I've mentioned under the rug, what did come to bug me about Ponyo was the way in which the mother was characterised; Ghibli take their strong female character into the bounds of cliche. Whilst I like Sosuke's mother very much so because she is so distinctly drawn as a compassionate woman always in a rush, but always on top of everything, I think the way she drives is ridiculous. That may sound like a joke, but, what mother would drive so recklessly with their 5-year-old child in the car? What mother would risk her own and their child's life during a typhoon to drive home - for no reason at all? Sosuke's mother says she must get home, but why? She doesn't pick anything up. There's no one and nothing left at home, and she leaves pretty soon after. Why would she risk her life to go back home? Why would she leave the elderly people if she was so concerned about them? Why would she risk her son's life not once, but twice? It's with this sequence that the strong, can-do mum becomes an arrogant, illogical caricature who the writers clearly haven't spent much time thinking about.

There are numerous instances throughout this film that are just so irrational and ill-explained. For example, what on earth does Ponyo's father think he's up to? We learn almost nothing about him, nor Ponyo for that matter, but we're just suppose to accept that he enslaves his daughters in bubbles and lets them run off upon a vow of love to a 5-year-old. What?? And why are 5-year-olds falling in love in the first place???

There are so many questions that I have for this film, but they're all quite futile. Tonally and logically, this is the most inconsistent and ill-conceived Ghibli film by far. So, as lovable and as aesthetically wondrous and Ponyo is, I have very little respect for it as a Miyazaki and Ghibli film. Again: disappointing. Whilst you should watch this for the experience and the world building, for more substantial and better designed films, just watch E.T, Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid.

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