Ponyo is a 2008 film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It tells the story of Brunhilde (Ponyo), a young fish girl living with her wizard father and numerous younger sisters under the sea. She is curious about the human world and, on an impromptu trip to the surface, meets a young boy named Sosuke, who she takes an instant liking to, and it becomes her desire to become a human girl and stay with Sosuke and his mother. The film is set in present-day Japan in a seaside town.
At first glance, Ponyo seems to be simply a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Little Mermaid, but while the basic plot is similar on the surface, Ponyo diverges from The Little Mermaid in terms of themes and the progression of the story.
While the tale of The Little Mermaid highlights the theme of self-sacrifice, and focuses on the trials the mermaid must endure in order to obtain a soul, Ponyo focuses on acceptance, devotion, harmony, happiness, and love.
In her article Through the Eyes of a Child: Aspects of Narrative in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Jane A. Lightburn states that while The Little Mermaid has Christian overtones (mermaids don’t have souls, but humans do; on top of that, human souls go to Heaven after they die; there is also the idea presented at the end of the tale that the mermaid can work to gain passage to Heaven through doing good deeds), Ponyo has no such overtones. Furthermore, while Miyazaki follows the basic narrative of The Little Mermaid, he also draws inspiration from Japanese folktales (in particular, the folktale of Urashima in which a sea princess and a human fisherman fall in love and live together under the ocean). Lightburn points out that this folktale contains the same motif of a mermaid and her human love.
Another interesting point that Lightburn brings up is the comparison between the land/sea and fantasy/reality. Ponyo and her ocean world represent the creative subconscious of the human mind, contrasted by Sosuke and his life on the land, which represents the outer, conscious human mind. This comparison ties in nicely with the theme of harmony and happiness (when these two worlds meet and balance each other, harmony and happiness is achieved).
While Ponyo may contain some of the more traditional elements of a fairytale (a trait not shared by many of Miyazaki’s other films), the film contains some themes and motifs that are prevalent in all of Miyazaki’s works. In his review of Ponyo, Funda Basak Baskan points out the presence of strong female characters, which are apparent in many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films: Ponyo, who is headstrong, adventurous, and stubborn, Lisa, who can be a bit eccentric at times but is powerful and daring, and Gran Mamare, the goddess of the ocean who serves as a maternal figure as well as a protector.
Ponyo, like other Studio Ghibli films, contains environmental overtones; the character of Fujimoto is concerned with keeping balance in the sea and views humans as destructive to that balance. Miyazaki also takes great care in showing the amount of trash that litters the ocean (a scene to note would be one of the early scenes in the film, in which Ponyo is nearly caught in a net and gets stuck inside a jar).
There is also the absence of a distinct “bad guy” character, a trait shared with many of Studio Ghibli’s other works. Baskan points out that Fujimoto, at first glance, might be considered a villain, but he is only a concerned and overprotective father who is also very concerned with keeping balance between humans and nature.
Ponyo is a deceptively simple tale of acceptance and love (in order for Ponyo to become a human permanently, Sosuke’s love for Ponyo must be true and unyielding), as well as balance (the balance of nature and man, as well as the balance of the subconscious mind with the conscious mind). Hayao Miyazaki’s penchant for storytelling shines through in Ponyo; it’s obvious that this story was intended for children and on the surface, it is simple enough for children to enjoy. However, there are many layers contained in Ponyo that makes for a deep and engaging tale if one takes a harder look at it.
Baskan, F. B. (2010). Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake No Ue no Ponyo) (review). Marvels & Tales 24(2), 363-366. Wayne State University Press. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Project MUSE database. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/marvels_and_tales/v024/24.2.baskan.htmlLightburn, J. A. (2010). Through the Eyes of a Child: Aspects of Narrative in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Foreign Languages & Literature, 35. Retrieved from http://kyouyou.agu.ac.jp/contents-data/GokenKiyou-35.pdf#page=96Miyazaki, H. (Director). (2008). Ponyo [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli