Deep beneath the sea there lies a marine wonderland teeming with jellyfish, crustaceans and colourful sea anemones. While flame haired, candy stripe-suited sea sorcerer Fujimoto (voiced by George Tokoro) is distracted with tending his flock, a cute little fish (Yuria Nara) bids farewell to her siblings and floats atop a jellyfish to the surface world. Here she meets five year old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi), who lives in a coastal town where his kindly mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi) works in the local old folks’ home while his dad Koichi (Kazushige Nagashima) is away at sea.
Sosuke names his fishy friend Ponyo and is astonished when she learns to talk and wields magical powers. Soon Fujimoto arrives and with his “wave demons” carries his rebellious daughter back to sea, leaving Sosuke heartbroken. But Ponyo has her heart set on becoming a human being and magically grows hands and feet. This creates an imbalance in the world, which results in a terrible storm, as Ponyo rides the waves to be by Sosuke’s side. Fujimoto frets as the moon is knocked out of orbit, satellites fall like shooting stars and the town is submerged underwater. However, Ponyo’s mother, the beautiful and wise mermaid goddess Granmammare (Yuki Amami) knows if Sosuke and Ponyo can pass the ultimate test, her daughter will become a real girl - or else, be turned into bubbles…
After a string of large-scale fantasy epics, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea marks a return to the serene and meditative Hayao Miyazaki of old. The pace is gentle and leisurely, with once again no clear-cut villains, although this does not preclude the inclusion of magical thrills and action set-pieces. Beautiful, hand-drawn visuals flow like child’s storybook come to life and one can sense Miyazaki’s delight in submerging the coastal town (inspired by the real life town of Tomonoura, near Setonaikai National Park) just so Sosuke and Ponyo can sail their toy boat and admire extinct sea creatures like Gogonasus and Licosus swimming around the neighbourhood.
Oddly enough some critics charged Miyazaki with failing to keep things simple. In fact, with elements that recall everything from The Little Mermaid (1989), E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), and Studio Ghibli’s own classic My Neighbour Totoro (1988), this ranks among his most accessible movies, albeit no less idiosyncratic and enriched with subtext. It essentially retells the oldest story in Asian fantasy: “the spirit that wants to be human”, but perhaps in response to Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea (2007), this becomes the tale of a rebellious child, interlaced with the theme of fathers struggling to reconnect with youngsters who have outgrown them.
Miyazaki admits that Sosuke is based on the young Goro and note the name of Koichi’s ship: Koganeimaru - a reference to Studio Ghibli’s location in Koganei, Tokyo. In contrast to the encouraging paternal figures in his past film’s, Sosuke’s dad is barely glimpsed, out at sea and - as we see in a beautifully observed scene - only able to communicate with his irate wife and son via flash signals. Similarly, the bumbling, well-intentioned Fujimitsu (part Merlin, part Captain Nemo, part Mr. Bean) succeeds only in proving fathers don’t always know best. Contrast this with Sosuke’s relationship with the strong-willed, capable Lisa or the serene and sagely Granmammare. Like the monster-gods of Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), the giant mermaid is given an awe-inspiring intro as she erupts from the sea in a shower of gold and rainbow hues to rescue a fleet of stranded ships.
Little Ponyo is a delightfully feisty heroine, constantly shapeshifting from a beaky goblin with chicken feet to an energetic five year old akin to My Neighbour Totoro’s Mei. Super-strong, able to make things grow, or start electric devices with her magic powers, she harks back to the Pippi Longstocking project Miyazaki was unable to make. She’s also responsible for the film’s most astounding set-piece when she bursts free from the crashing waves and runs across schools of giant fish in pursuit of Lisa’s car. A roster of eye-popping colours, vast sea creatures and strange contraptions (check out Fujimaru’s crazy half whale/half submarine undersea vehicle) make this an anime viewers really must catch on the big screen. As always, Joe Hisaishi’s evocative score is the perfect accompaniment to Miyazaki’s lush visuals, and interweaves opera, orchestral flourishes and a sing-along theme song by veteran Fujioka Fujimaki and eight year old Nozomi Ohashi that was a huge hit in Japan.