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  A REPORT & REVIEW OF MIYAZAKI HAYAO AND PONYO AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL

This year the 65th edition of the ever lovely Venice Film Festival brought two full-length animated features screening in competition for a Golden Lion. One of them, Oshii Mamoru’s The Sky Crawlers, handling the sky, and the other one, the latest work of the legendary director Miyazaki Hayao, handling the sea. Of course GhibliWorld.com was present to join that party.

After 2004’s Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (ハウルの動く城, Howl’s Moving Castle), master filmmaker Miyazaki Hayao, who became world famous with his Academy Award winning Spirited Away, regretted people said it was hard to understand. His belief was to make movies for children and despite of that, he made Howl’s Moving Castle. For a long he had worried till he decided to make a new movie. Now Miyazaki is finally back with latest film called Gake no ue no Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea).



So what do you do when you are at such an age and have such an impressive list of works behind you? You forget about high expectations, take a risk and “just” do something quite daring. Having exchanged two and a half years for 101 minutes, Miyazaki threw away the "Miyazaki brand". Japan’s greatest animation director found out that way had the same destination as digitalization and decided it was time for something else.

“I don't think high quantities and density of information have any relation with the appeal of animation. I tried 3D and don't hate it, though I found hand drawing is able to tell more than that. So I decided to go on by hand and pencil. The Ghibli Museum shorts we made in the past helped us with that. Even if we move the pictures boldly, not only the audience, but even ourselves are able to accept it. For example, when a window blows open, it is OK if we shake the street with the window. That is animation. Things drawn by human hand are easily accepted. We shouldn't pursue the way that we had built up, but throw away it and return to the root again.”



And in that way Miyazaki re-defined his idea of what an animated feature is. Rather than just changing his technique for Ponyo, he went back to his origins; being the desire to move EVERYTHING.

Like My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo fully focuses on a kid audience. “I intended to make a film that 5 year old children can understand. They don’t watch it by logic but by feeling.” And that is something that “Miya-san” really seems to understand.

Needless to say, visually things are more than just ok. There is an obvious change though. This time Miyazaki’s character designs are clean and simple and shadows seem to have disappeared. Furthermore, viewers will notice is that art director Takeshige Yoji and Oga Kazuo have brought us new kind of background art. As requested by the director, even these are simple and clean, combining water colors with pastels. In advance one might wonder “Will that work?”, but his movie is able to get through by watching the pictures only without the dialogue and tells its story by the animation itself. Quite an achievement.



Personally, there is one “but” though. Since Spirited Away Miyazaki and Chief Color Design Yasuda have started to use more and more contrasting colors and pinks. Though this is a matter of taste, Ponyo might have a bit too much of those, preferring the color use of his older works.

Concerning the actual content of the movie, the story is very simple; mixing his inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid (which he moved to the Japan of today and cut off its Catholic color) with that of Japan’s traditional folktale Urashima Taro. Experienced viewers will not need to be told that, as always, Miyazaki has given a highly personal and unique touch to those. Not only making all of it richer and more complex, but changing it as well. Putting the original aside, he added his usual methodology of not knowing where the destination is; just starting and seeing where the story will land. This is something which always causes him to lose the story development at first. But after rewriting all of his memos, considering again where he came from, where he should go to and a period of long, long worrying, the lid opens in the deep. The result is a film which highly differs from what Hollywood produces: spontaneous and surprising.



The ever promising Studio Ghibli Totoro logo fills the screen. Fading away an amazing 5 minute opening starts. At night we see a full moon above the sea and instead of going up, “the camera” slowly pans down…

It is the start of an underwater scene that possibly contains the most elaborate and refined cuts ever. Though Miyazaki is well-known for his marvelous aviation scenes, this time he put his world upside down and brought a film that consists 80% out of sea. Going deeper and deeper below sea level a world Miyazaki has filled with an abundance of (solely hand drawn!) creatures and plants that will take your breath away. With a perfect aesthetic balance between the most spectacular crowds of creatures and the finest animated micro-details moving along with the movements of the sea, it reminds the viewer of the tall grass catching wind at the beginning of Kiki’s Delivery Service, while on the other hand bringing a new Miyazaki world one has never seen. The animation is so realistic and complex, it is as if Miyazaki's soul is telling his audience "I will show you my power!!"



As a peaceful symphonic tune by Hisaishi Joe plays along, the first of the film’s few characters is introduced: Fujimoto (Tokoro Joji), who’s name Miyazaki took from Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He is Ponyo's father and drives a strange submersible vessel called Ubazame-go (note: Ubazame means basking shark). Though it’s obviously not an airplane, it does have wings… And Fujimoto, he is not just any parent. With a haircut that reminds you of Howl who became a rock star, Fujimoto is a kind of magical king of the sea. Once human, he became an inhabitant of the sea.

Further moving a long with the movements of the sea, Ponyo’s main character is introduced. Needless to say, it is Ponyo (Nara Yuria), a cute, young, little girl goldfish who will gradually become an up-angled eyes and tough character. Seeing her, you will know she is going to break hearts. An incredible new character who Miyazaki modeled on the 3 year old daughter of the film’s supervising animator Katsuya Kondo.



On a jellyfish gently floating up towards the sea surface, Ponyo is brought to the world of the 5-year old boy Sosuke (Doi Hiroki). Miyazaki based him on his son Goro (director of Studio Ghibli’s Gedo Senki) from when he was still young. This is quite interesting, because Sosuske’s father Koichi (Nagashima Kazushige) is a captain of a domestic cargo ship named "Koganei-maru", referring to the city where Studio Ghibli is based at (Koganei, Tokyo). One might consider it as a hidden apology of Miyazaki towards his own family for never being home.

Either way, a story of friendship and adventure begins. While swimming in a sea filled with garbage (a subtle hint of Miyazaki hoping children will “become to care about nature”), Ponyo puts her head into a jam jar. She can't put it off, is washed ashore and is found by Sosuke. Helping her, they quickly fall in love with each other, leading to a sacred trial of love. "I'll guard you", is Sosuke’s vow. But Ponyo is taken back to the sea by her selfish and overprotective father Fujimoto. Though he could have just taken her himself, Miyazaki does something else and uses the sea on a highly creative and magical way.



Yearning to become human to follow her love, Ponyo asks her small sisters for help to steal her father's magic. Releasing the dangerous power of the water of life, the sea bulges up, a storm rages and Ponyo’s sisters transform into huge fishes. As a huge tsunami they rush towards the cliff Sosuke lives at. Ponyo, who has become human, runs and chases after the ships on sea and heads to land again with help from her sisters. With her real name being Brünnhilde, a name derived from the eldest of the nine flying girls referring of Wagner’s Die Walküre, she rides the waves on a Hisaishi version of Wagner’s famous piece Ride of the Valkyries. The scene’s animation and creativity are jaw-dropping, though its soundtrack perhaps stays a bit too close to Wagner’s original.

Waking up in a watery world, the two children board a magical boat to hunt for Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Yamaguchi Tomoko, Shunji Iwai’s Swallowtail Butterfly) who drove her small “k-car” to help the ladies from the Senior Day Care Center where she works. Notable about that is that she didn’t just drive it. Miyazaki, known to be a car lover, made her drive it like a racecar driver, reminiscent of his first film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.



Many will wonder how good of a film Ponyo is. Is it able to meet all these high expectations? It is not a perfect film, but still a very… very good one. Like all of Miyazaki’s films; Ponyo is of a magnificent scale, wrapped up with gentle love, full of dreams and hope, changing even the happiness of its viewers. And that counts for all of them, not only the children, but even the adults that which it. The thing is, Ponyo is able to show the maestro’s real face. It does not solely come from his imagination, but from his real life as well. It enables you to watch the vibrations of Miyazaki's mind, never compromising his heart when making a film. And when you are such a genius film maker, it results in a great movie. Sadly, the ending misses “something” which is hard to define. Perhaps, it is the emotion from Howl’s Moving Castle’s final scenes that were able to grab you. Either way, Miyazaki has proven yet again that contemporary 2D animation does NOT need the aid of computers. And with or without the ending, it has all cleared up this festival: animation lover or not, this is a film that needs to be seen.