Animated Shorts: MIYAZAKI's Latest Welcome Return to Roots

According to his official site, Ghibliworld, animation master Hayao Miyazaki was in a quandary after completing his previous film, Howl’s Moving Castle (2006). He didn’t know what he wanted to do next.

So he consulted his longtime partner at Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki. Suzuki, made two comments. The first was to create a movie that would be as popular as the Japanese children’s story Iya Iya En by Reiko Nakagawa. This tale apparently is so popular with kids that every year elementary schools have to supply their libraries with fresh copies.

The second comment was even more interesting. Suzuki admitted he was not satisfied with the CGI effects used on Howl. They didn’t seem “natural,” especially when it came to the moving castle. He then gave the master’s ego one incredible stroke when he said that no computer was anywhere near as great an artist as Miyazaki-sama.

Apparently these comments resonated deeply with Miyazaki. Their results will finally be seen in the U.S. this Friday. It’s American-ized name is simply Ponyo. In Japan, it’s actually called Ponyo On a Cliff by the Sea, a title that turns out to be profoundly more satisfying after viewing. That’s because the ocean is a dominant factor in this movie. Miyazaki as much as says so in the accompanying press notes.

“If a child looks at the sea, it could look like a living creature,” he said. “I made the film with the idea that the ocean is a living thing.”

Even more illuminating is a comment Miyazaki made in an interview with the site Screencrave.

“I think Ponyo’s natural strength is connected to the strength of the sea and ocean,” he said. “I think when you look deep, the strength of people is connected to nature. That is why, when Ponyo reaches land, she uses the strength of the sea to come. It is not really a film about environmental or ecological issues in it, but more so about the strength and the power of nature.”

“A little seaside town and a house at the top of a cliff. A small cast of characters. The ocean as a living presence,” says Miyazaki in the press notes. “It’s a world where magic and alchemy are accepted as part of the ordinary. The sea below, like our subconscious mind, intersects with the wave-tossed surface above. By distorting normal space and contorting normal shapes, the sea is animated not as a backdrop to the story, but as one of its principal characters.”

Now it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are strong ecological messages in Miyazki’s films. They’ve been there for as long as his first ever self-written film, Nausicaa. It also doesn’t hurt that into this mix Miyazaki has added a bit of his own fascination with Western culture. The director openly admits the film isn‘t just inspired by Nakagawa’s story, but is his own adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.

Some are calling this the master’s most personal work to date. Whether this really is or not, Ponyo is a throwback in many ways. Fans who go to see it will be instantly reminded of such works as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Friend Totoro.

For starters, one would be hard pressed to find an obvious bit of CGI throughout the entire film.

“Do everything by hand, even when using a computer,” Miyazaki apparently told his employees on the making of this film.

“There are so many ships in the animation sea that are computer driven,” he said in an interview granted to the site Collider, “…that I think we can have at least one that’s just a log raft that we can row by hand.”

According to Suzuki, Miyazaki’s personal fanaticism regarding hand drawing went to such levels that even every crashing wave seen on the screen is uniquely drawn. No limited animation tricks. No short cuts. This is a hardcore, old school film that would have made two of the "Old Men" Miyazaki took lessons from, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, would have been proud of.

At the same time, Ponyo carries that same kind of high-spirited élan that made Totoro and Kiki the masterworks they are. His attention to detail is, especially when it comes to the multiple aquatic scenes, downright awe-inspiring, especially when you consider they were primarily done by hand.

To counter this, the tale itself is pretty simple. It’s centers around two five year-olds, a boy, Sosuske, and a goldfish princess, actually named Brunhilda. Sosuske (voiced by Frankie Jonas) is the son of a never-home fishing captain (Matt Damon) and his overworked mother Lisa (Tina Fay). Lisa’s main job is with an elderly center, where he’s become the unofficial pet of three old ladies (Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman, and Betty White). It doesn’t take long to see that he’s not the most popular child in this island-based fishing town, and prefers the company of the ocean than other children.

Brunhilda is a particularly spunky goldfish. Part of that is because her father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), is a water mage who gave up his humanity and now works on restoring ecological balance. Her mother, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett) is no less than the goddess of the ocean. Their child is a small force of nature who does her best to break out of her father’s confines and explore the surface world. When she’s accidentally trapped in a glass jar, and then rescued by Sosuske, she impulsively falls in love with the very innocent boy. What she doesn’t realize, which her father most certainly does, is this love affair could shake the balance of nature to the point it could destroy the planet.

As such, with a bit of a call out to Spirited Away, Gran Mamare sets up a test for Sosuske. If the results go one way, the planet will be saved. If it goes the other, Ponyo, as Sosuske dubs Brunhilda, will have to be turned into sea foam to save the planet.

Naturally, it’s how Miyazaki mixes the magic with the mayhem of an all-powerful five year-old that truly sets this film into high gear.

Still, when all is said and done, what can’t be denied is Miyazaki’s mastery of the animation field. He’s created a picture that is sure to be talked about by hardcore otakus to more elitist cineastes for the next few years…when he then hopefully presents us with another master work for his 40th anniversary in the biz.

Thanks should also be given to his longtime friend and booster Suzuki. As mentioned earlier, a lot of this film is based on two seed ideas Miyazaki’s partner in crime gave him after Howl. If this is any indication, let’s hope Suzuki has more to offer.

SPECIAL NOTE: Viz has just released a four-volume manga based on the movie as well as a picture book. Both are made with direct, high res screen grabs from the movie and are well worth adding to the library. Source them out for your own pleasure.

Next Column: Hard Lessons Learned. First time director Marc Adler created the film Delgo last year. It apparently cost $40 million and only made $500,000. We sit down with the rookie director and talk about what the experience has done for him, negative and, oddly enough, positive..

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