Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo)

The quality and complexity of the animation has improved steadily with each of Hayao Miyazaki’s feature films.  Princess Mononoke’s (1997) epic canvasses seemed to represent a perfection of Studio Ghibli’s aesthetic, if not hand-drawn animation in general, until Spirited Away (2001) took their distinctive brand of surrealism to even more ornately detailed heights.  Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) seamlessly blended computer-generated images with Miyazaki’s trademark hand-drawn style, resulting in what was arguably the most visually sophisticated animated film of all time. 

Given this consistent increase in graphic ambition, it is somewhat surprising that Miyazaki has chosen a fairly straightforward, classically hand-drawn look for his tenth feature film, Ponyo (2008).  The animation techniques used here seem scarcely more advanced than those seen in the director’s first feature, Castle of Cagliostro (1979), and there is no indication that Studio Ghibli set out to top the spellbindingly grand vision of their previous adventures.  And yet, Ponyo feels in many ways more lively and enjoyable than Howl’s Moving Castle, and is ultimately one of Miyazaki’s most sublimely pleasurable films to date.  Where the dark epic Howl occasionally felt disconcertingly like a greatest hits collection of Miyazaki’s favorite tropes, Ponyo gives the impression that working on a relatively low-key children’s film revitalized the master animator’s creative energies by allowing him to bring the pleasant eccentricities of his aesthetic to the forefront.

Just as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) brought Miyazaki’s style to the surface following the bloated epics Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), Ponyo succeeds by clearing away the thick, ultimately unmanageable plot of Howl and telling an elegantly simple yet highly quirky story.  Adapted loosely and freely from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” the plot follows the relationship between a five-year-old human boy named Sosuke and a goldfish he dubs “Ponyo.”  Curious about Sosuke as soon as he adopts her as a pet, and smitten with the boy after he shares some of his ham sandwich with her, Ponyo quickly develops an insatiable desire to become a human.  Ponyo is able to achieve her goal with surprising ease, thanks to her hereditary skill with magic, but her transformation threatens to undermine the balance between the earth and the ocean, causing a huge tsunami.

The basic outline of Ponyo’s story makes it sound like a fairly straightforward fairy tale, but the simplicity of the plot (at least relative to many of Miyazaki’s other films) allows plenty of room for the kind of lovably odd details that set Studio Ghibli’s films apart from those of any other animation studios.  Most of the things one would expect to happen in a children’s film with a similar storyline do not even seem to have occurred to Miyazaki.  As is the case with most of the director’s films from Totoro onward, there are no real villains in Ponyo; the titular character’s father, who spends most of the film desperately struggling to prevent his daughter becoming a human, initially seems like an antagonist but is eventually revealed to simply be a concerned parent.  (He also happens to have the film’s most eccentric and memorable character design, with unkempt strands of red hair spilling over his striped suit).  There aren’t any dreary scenes of adult characters accusing their children of making up stories; Sosuke’s mom is surprised by Ponyo’s transformation into a human, but she quickly accepts the situation.  Nor are there any rational explanations as to why a tsunami causes the ocean to become suspended in midair, perilously close to the moon, or why a nursing home’s submersion under water rejuvenates its elderly inhabitants rather than drowning them.  The casual surrealism of Ponyo’s narrative makes the film feel like it has a direct pipeline into the absurdist fantasies of young children, a tone that far too few films aimed at a young audience manage to achieve.

That tone is aided immensely by the relatively simple animation style that Miyazaki uses in Ponyo.  It’s hard to imagine what a more advanced hand-drawn film than Howl’s Moving Castle would look like, but history suggests that Studio Ghibli could top its overwhelmingly sharp detail if they wanted to.  The animation style of Ponyo is reminiscent of drawings that a skilled and imaginative child artist might make, which is a perfect look for a film about very young children.  And while the style isn’t as obviously sophisticated as that of most of Miyazaki’s action epics, the skill of the animators is apparent in every frame.  The film opens with an absolutely dazzling wordless sequence that introduces the viewer to the underwater world where Ponyo lives, with an incredible array of crabs, various colors of fish, and jellyfish glide gracefully around the goldfish’s father as he drops inexplicable potions into the water.  A later scene involving the aforementioned tsunami is one of Miyazaki’s most impressive setpieces, with an oblivious Ponyo gliding on top of huge, fish-shaped waves as she chases after the car of Sosuke’s mother.  The animation in this film is scaled down to an appropriate level for the film’s kid-friendly story, but it’s still incredible.

Ponyo is a triumph of craft over technology, and its imagination and wit outpace that of virtually all of the computer-animated films being made today.  The story takes off on many odd, inexplicable tangents, and completely avoids the obvious moralizing and inane pop-culture referencing that one expects from modern family films.  It’s possible to argue that the stakes feel a bit low – when Sosuke’s mother disappears into a heavy rainstorm, there’s little question of whether the boy and Ponyo will be able to find her alive – but the calm, carefree pace is another aspect of the film that seems perfectly scaled to the film’s child’s-eye view.  Simply put, Ponyo is the best of Miyazaki’s light children’s films (the others being Totoro and 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service), as well as being among his most charming films overall.

Having seen all ten of Hayao Miyazaki’s films to date, I can say with confidence that he is one of the very best working filmmakers.  While a couple of Miyazaki’s early adventure films found his distinctive brand of surrealism constrained by generic fantasy tropes, and some of his latter films continue to have structural problems, the great animator has yet to make an outright dud.  Everything he’s directed from his stylistic breakthrough My Neighbor Totoro onward is essential viewing for any cinephile, particularly those interested in animation.  (Though it isn’t a particularly mature or representative work, I would also say that Castle of Cagliostro is a must-see).   Miyazaki’s vision is equal to that of master cinema fantasists such as Georges Melies, F.W. Murnau, and Jean Cocteau, yet he doesn’t seem to have taken any obvious influence from any other filmmaker.  With many of the high-water marks of Miyazaki’s oeuvre being produced in the second half of his career to date, there seems to be no ceiling on the quality of the master animator’s output.  Where I once avoided Hayao Miyazaki’s films for fear that they would be too impenetrable, I now eagerly anticipate his next wonderfully baffling production.

Castle of Cagliostro (1979) = B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) = C+
Castle in the Sky (1986) = B-
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) = B+
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) = B
Porco Rosso (1992) = B+
Princess Mononoke (1997) = B+
Spirited Away (2001) = A
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) = B
Ponyo (2008) = B+

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