Japanese movie poster
It says "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" in case you're thinking that there are way too many characters for the movie's two syllable title

Last night Jenny and I went to see Ponyo. Dunno know what’s up with the session times, but Dendy was the only cinema that was showing it outside of business hours. Lucky for us, it meant that we got the subtitled original Japanese version instead of the English dubbed Disney one.

I’m sure much is lost in translation, but Ponyo‘s writers didn’t overly concern themselves with fleshing out the plot, leaving a lot for the audience to guess at. This is my take on it: a man (wizard?) becomes disenchanted by the contempt with which humans treat nature and the environment, so he retreats into the sea where he meets Gran Mamae, a sea goddess. They fall in love and have a daughter named Brunhilde who’s supposed to be a goldfish, but looks like a fat tadpole wearing a red dress over white petticoats. There are thousands more of these creatures, presumably her siblings, but for some unknown reason Brunhilde is larger, more intelligent and has more magical capability than them.

Ponyo, and her brothers and sisters

This is where the movie starts, with Brunhilde sneaking out of home, falling asleep while drifting around relaxing, getting stuck in a glass bottle, and being discovered by a little boy called Sosuke, who gives her the name Ponyo.

Hayao Miyazaki is, above all else, an astute observer of human nature. Unlike most regular movies where the viewer is taken on an emotional journey through a structured narrative, Miyazaki films are a bit like laboratory experiments: characters are placed in unusual predicaments, and through it, we learn about our own humanity through observing them.

Ponyo and Sosuke take a peek beneath the surfaceAnd therein lies the beauty. Sure the plot doesn’t make sense and it can even be a bit preachy at times with the criticism of how people treat the environment, but the organic animation style oozes humanity in every frame. Miyazaki is not afraid to let those awkward moments between two characters linger, allowing us to watch their thoughts and emotions evolve on their faces rather than through the dialogue.

Still, there’s never a dull moment, with every scene containing a lot of movement to give the sense that the characters aren’t just sprites on a static background, but exist in a living, breathing environment. That’s another wonderful thing about Studio Ghibli movies – the background is often just as significant a character as the ones that actually have dialogue.

Ponyo is a great work of art by a master animator, but I don’t know about the rave reviews. To me, the triumph of this movie is how in watching it, we may see little glimpses of ourselves as if in a mirror. But a tightly written, compelling story it isn’t, especially considering that (warning, spoilers! ROT13‘d for your convenience) gur 3eq npg bs gur zbivr qvffbyirf vagb n pbzcyrgryl enaqbz ybir pbadhref nyy fpranevb. Gurl’er 5 lrnef byq… frevbhfyl?


  1. I love this movie! Maybe because Lingsi accidently bought juice concentrate and had a sugar-induced giggling fit throughout the whole thing (very contagious).

    But it’s so damn cute, I couldn’t bring myself to look at its faults, just gotta enjoy it for its simplicity.

  2. Even for Japanese, this film isn’t so interesting as Miyazaki’s other works such as Totoro or Laputa or Kiki… Miyazaki said he made it for small children. So it doesn’t need any logic, foreshadowing, moral lesson… My 3 years old grand daughter likes Ponyo very much. She watches the DVD again and again. Miyazaki’s intent might have been accomplished, though it leaves something to be expected for us old fans.

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