(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Quick, before it leaves theaters, go see Ponyo, the latest film from Japanese visionary Hayao Miyazaki. As I’ve written before, Miyazaki’s movies fall into two categories: family features and challenging epics. Ponyo is definitely on the family side of the equation. But I went without kids and loved it as a grown-up, so don’t be deterred. There’s plenty here to enjoy.
Well, OK, maybe not everyone should rush out to see it. If you’re the kind of person who would go to to a movie about the fantastic adventures of a five-year-old whose chance encounter with a magical fish-girl threatens to upset the balance of the magic and human worlds, possibly destroying both, and spend the whole time saying to yourself things like, “Hey, no five-year-old could push something that size on his own! And how come he has the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old?” maybe Ponyo is not for you.
But everyone else should go.
If you plan to see it, stop here. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the movie reveals itself slowly (as many Miyazaki movies do) and you’ll probably enjoy it more if you don’t know much about it going in.
If, however, you need to be convinced, read on.
Ponyo is the daughter of a sea-wizard and lives with him at the bottom of the ocean. Her father hates the human world and forbids her to see it, which naturally makes her eager to go. But she gets into trouble (of course) and is rescued by a five-year-old boy named Sosuke, who protects her and takes care of her until her father comes to take her back to the sea.
Ponyo, starved for love in the house of her hard-hearted father and awed by the self-giving kindness of Sosuke, decides she’d rather be human. She gets into her father’s magical works and manages to open a rift in the barrier between the magical and human ecosystems, allowing her to change herself to assume a human form – but also causing a catastrophic disruption of the human ecosystem that leaves an entire town underwater and threatens to do worse.
After her transformation, Ponyo has a foot in both worlds – though she appears human, she can still work magic. Much of the movie’s charm comes from the shared delight of mutual discovery between Ponyo and Sosuke. Sosuke marvels as Ponyo turns a toy boat into a real boat and fixes broken household appliances with a glance; Ponyo is equally blown away by the delights of flashlights, ham sandwiches, and warm towels straight out of the dryer.
But back in the sea, her sea-wizard father and her mother (whose identity I’ll keep under wraps) determine that the only way to close the rift she’s opened and save the human world from destruction is for Ponyo to become entirely one thing or the other. She must either return to the sea, or else complete the transformation, giving up her magic and becoming fully human.
Of course they know Ponyo will be miserable if she returns to the sea, but to become fully human she must be drawn across the divide by a human love – by Sosuke. However, in the process of drawing Ponyo over that love will be tested. Does Sosuke really take care of Ponyo because he cares about her well-being? Or is he just interested in her because she’s magical and fascinating? If Sosuke fails the test, Ponyo’s desire to become human will destroy her.
Ponyo’s mother has faith in the genuineness of human love and thinks it’s better for Ponyo to risk death than to abandon her desires, so she arranges for the transfer. But her father hates humans and fears Sosuke’s love will fail the test. He may or may not be laying plans to interfere.
But all this plot is really irrelevant to the joy of the film. What Miyazaki is giving us here – besides gorgeous visuals and a delightful story in its own right – is a vision of how the world of humanity relates to the world of nature. “Magic” in this movie is symbolic of the spiritual significance most of us attribute (on some level) to nature.
Don’t get me wrong! The bad, human-hating kind of environmentalism is condemned pretty clearly. (This is a big step for Miyazaki, who has not been so enlightened about this in the past.) Ponyo’s sea-wizard father not only hates humans, but actually dreams of one day wiping them out – because he hates their impact on the environment. Those who see the ecosystem as something with its own inherent integrity apart from humanity, such that any impact of humanity’s existence on the natural world is bad simply as such, are implicitly wishing for humanity’s annihiliation.
In fact, we learn at one point that the sea-wizard father was born human and has somehow himself crossed the very same border Ponyo wants to cross, only in the other direction. The desire of some humans to get into nature – which drives so much of what now passes for environmentalism – is really a desire to get out of humanity. As the wizard says, they need to abandon humanity to serve the earth.
What do you know about humans? They treat your home the same way they treat their fithly black souls! I was human myself once. I had to leave all that behind to serve the earth.
But what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if we could “become one with nature” not by dragging humanity down, but by pulling nature up?
That’s the thought I couldn’t stop having as I watched the extended scene in which the rift opens between the human and magical worlds. The way Miyazaki does it, it’s breathtaking. Everyday things in our everyday world suddenly become magical. Not magical like wands and rings and such D&D fantasies – magic as a tool for humans to use – but magical with its own life and its own distinct nature. The road Ponyo’s mother drives down to get to work every day, with the forest on one side and the sea on the other, suddenly becomes bursting with little gods and goddesses all around them.
That’s what Ponyo’s desire to become human represents – against her father’s cold, self-loathing desire to have nature instead of humanity, her desire for love drives nature to come up alongside humanity, with its own personality, wanting to love us the way we love it. And on those terms we really can become one with nature.
Tree-huggers have got the wrong idea, because there’s nothing in a tree that can recieve a hug. There’s nobody else there, so you’re basically hugging yourself. But what if the trees hugged back?
We do – most of us, anyway – love nature and feel that somehow our relationship with it is disrupted and needs to be repaired or reestablished. There are, of course, some people for whom a forest is nothing but a source of lumber and a dog is nothing but an annoyance. But they’re pretty rare. Just to take one example, how many millions of people keep pets? How many millions more would like to keep them if not for the hassle, cost, allergies, etc.? And why do we want pets? There’s no explanation other than a desire to have some part of nature that is personal enough to have a relationship with. We want to love nature, so we seek out something in nature that can love us back.
And love, the movie very wisely percieves, is the unique quality of humanity which nature utterly lacks. Sheer force is something nature has in plenty, as we see when the flood destroys the town. Beauty nature has in spades. Even intellect is present in nature to some extent, as many animals are capable of some degree of calculation. We can, of course, out-calculate them. But what really makes humanity stand out next to mere nature – the smallest taste of which is enough to drive Ponyo to turn the whole world upside-down rather than go without it – is love.
And let’s be clear that by “love” I’m not talking about mere gushy emotion or seniment. I mean a genuine desire for the good of others. In nature, mothers care for their young, and in one sense that’s love. But they only care for their young, not for others generally, and they do it in obedience to the maternal instinct. Doing good to another not because of any relationship we have with that other or to satisfy some instinct or desire of our own, but simply because we will the good of others – that’s something you’ll never find in nature.
Or should I say, something you’ll never find in nature except where humanity has affected it. Try getting a wild dog to love you. But tame the dog and it will love you as well as any person – because in the taming, the influence of human love pulls it upward into a real (though of course limited) state of personhood.
Naturally, humans being only human, we are never perfectly selfless and all our behavior is mixed with some level of wrongful selfishness. That’s what gives the cynics, like the sea-wizard, their excuse for disbelieving in the reality of love. And of course in some particular cases the cynics turn out to be right – many behaviors that look like love from the outside really aren’t. That is Sosuke’s test – does he really want Ponyo to have what’s good for Ponyo simply because it’s good for Ponyo and he desires Ponyo’s good as such?
It’s not a perfect movie. Just like in Miyazaki’s last work, Howl’s Moving Castle, the ending of Ponyo is rushed and forced. Miyazaki has bittten off so much he can’t quite resolve it all in the time he has available. And, I regret to say, over the years I think he has become increasingly hesitant to let anybody’s story end sadly – not just the heroes but anybody at all. In his greatest work, Princess Mononoke, good triumphs in the end and utter destruction is averted, but many good things are lost and the hero and heroine must give up something they dearly love in order to save their respective peoples. Even in his earlier family movies, there was loss and regret. But more recently Miyazaki has tried to arrange for everybody to end up well, and that gives his endings a false note.
But, like I said, plot is not the reason to go see Ponyo, and thus I think the problems with the ending detract little from the movie. Even if you get nothing but the fun story and the amazing visuals, it’ll be well worth the price of admission. And I think there’s a lot more than that to be had.