2009 marks the 30th anniversary of legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature, The Castle of Cagliostro. The 68-year-old Miyazaki is commemorating the occasion by releasing a new film, Ponyo. During the thirty years between those films, Miyazaki has built a rich body of work (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, Nausicaä) that places him among the greatest filmmakers of our time. Only the lingering snobbery against animation has prevented that fact from being widely acknowledged. No such prejudice exists in Japan, where Miyazaki is a cultural figure on the level of Walt Disney. While Miyazaki doesn’t have a theme park (yet), he does have a museum in Japan dedicated to his work. Although most of his films are aimed at children, they possess a visual sophistication and thematically complex vision that far surpasses most movies made for adults.
While most feature-length animated films are produced by committees of producers, often watering-down the final product to appeal to the widest possible audience, Miyazaki’s films grow from the fertile imagination of one man working in an atmosphere of remarkable freedom. Because of the massive expense and time that animation demands, animated features are usually carefully scripted even before the first pencil test. In contrast, Miyazaki is able to begin animating as soon as he comes up with a concept. He literally improvises through animation, allowing the film to grow organically.
After several works about children on the brink of maturity, Ponyo returns Miyazaki to the surprisingly complex universe of very young kids that he explored in his classic My Neighbor Totoro. Ponyo is a goldfish princess who escapes the undersea home of her over-protective father to explore the tantalizing life of humans. Along the way, she develops a charming friendship with five-year-old Sosuke, but her gradual transformation into a human upsets the balance of nature and unleashes the terrifyingly destructive power of the ocean. Within this deceptively simple tale, Miyazaki is able to continue exploring his favorite themes of environmentalism and feminism. As in all of Miyazaki’s films, this is a world of many consequences but few villains.
Ponyo’s actions are driven by the impulsiveness of youth. Her escape is triggered by her father’s harshness, but he is motivated by both love for his daughter and his prejudices against the human society he abandoned to be with Ponyo’s mother, the Goddess of the Sea.
Ponyo features some of the most dazzlingly beautiful imagery of his career. A phantasmagorical storm and the children’s haunting journey through a flooded landscape are particularly memorable highlights.
Miyazaki’s films are best appreciated in Japanese because of the emotional and thematic subtleties lost in dubbing. However, Disney has assembled an excellent English-language cast for their release of Ponyo, including Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey and Matt Damon. The original Japanese track may still be preferable, but this skillful translation offers a wonderful opportunity for American movie lovers of all ages to discover this unique and brilliant artist.
Dylan Skolnick is still enchanted by watching a great movie and tries to bring as many as possible to the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, where he is Co-Director.