Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea- Miyazaki's Little Turtle-Mermaid

I've had this Ponyo post in the works for ages, hoping to verify which tales ACTUALLY inspired Miyazaki-san's story but can find nothing quoting him as confirming one main source of inspiration the other. Instead this post will refer to you what is being said by sites who are well versed in Miyazaki-san's work (as well as the man himself). After that, you get my opinion. :D

You can also read SurLaLune's post on the movie (which includes more of what it's about) HERE. Please note there are some interesting comments on that post worth reading by Miyazaki-san 'fans' too.

So, regarding the majority of reports/articles/etc floating around the (Western) internet and media, Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (崖の上のポニョ Gake no ue no Ponyo) is being called Hayao Miyazaki's* version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Others are saying Miyazaki didn't reference The Little Mermaid at all but instead (probably) used the popular traditional Japanese folktale Urashima Taro (a Japanese Rip Van Winkle variant that takes place under the sea with the turtle being the daughter of the Sea King who rewards a fisher boy for saving her. I think it falls into the category of 'fairy tale' but I'm not certain).

Instead of siding with one or the other it seems the most reputable sites (who generally have the 'inside track' on Miyazaki's work and Studio Ghibli's films) are saying Ponyo was loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid AND Urashima Taro. Wikipedia states Miyazaki-san as saying The Little Mermaid was his inspiration without a source that I can verify, but this interview HERE with Studio Ghibli's former President and Executive Producer Suzuki Toshio, sheds some interesting light on a popular Japanese collection of nursery tales, Iya Iya En, that also influenced the film's beginnings. (Miyazaki did, in fact, animate one of the Iya Iya En stories in a 16 minute film called Kujiratori (くじらとり, lit. "Whale Hunt") in 2001. It's only shown only in the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan.)
Miyazaki-san at ComiCon 2009

With this is mind it's easy to find parallels from both the mermaid and turtle stories in Ponyo but then again, if you thought Miyazaki was referencing another Japanese mermaid story, The Serpent and the Sea Queen**, you'd find a lot of parallels there too - especially with regard to the visuals (eg the masses of teeming fish/sea creatures, the undulating 'animated' sea [the waves have eyes], the giant goddess/mother, the island and more). Mind you, I haven't found any mention of this tale in connection with Miyazaki but, being one of the more popular tales and the fact that he's a well read man of both Eastern and Western stories, he's likely to be aware of it, even if only subconsciously.

Whatever the case truly is, in the tradition of fairy tales, it would appear Miyazaki-san has created a new tale using classic elements. It's also very likely this tale will have it's own unique influence in both Western and Eastern cultures (helped along by the marketing and distribution power of Disney), just as My Neighbor Totoro has to date.

But let's get to the film itself, with a couple of things you may not have read or heard in other reviews or articles.


Miyazaki did some experiments with currently trending CG animation before deciding to stick with the traditional hand drawn method, saying he felt he could get more expressiveness and subtlety. (You can see some images in this post of him working directly on the art for the film along with the storyboards - the latter being something which, I understand, is done almost exclusively by himself.)
Miyazaki-san working on some development art for Ponyo

While he obviously made an excellent choice in choosing hand drawn animation as the medium for the film, I have to say, he really put his animators through their paces. I found it difficult to see any animations cycles (re-used drawings) anywhere, even in the 'obvious' places. No shortcuts for these guys!

From Wikipedia, quoting other articles:
Miyazaki was intimately involved with the hand-drawn animation in Ponyo. He preferred to draw the sea and waves himself, and enjoyed experimenting with how to express this important part of the film.[LINK] This level of detailed drawing resulted in 170,000 separate images—a record for a Miyazaki film.
More development art from Ponyo and Miyazaki-san
A note regarding the above quote - I saw somewhere that approximately 80% of this film takes place underwater. Considering he already does the storyboards essentially solo - that makes for a very busy man!

You can find a lot more technical details HERE.

Regarding the name "Ponyo" here's what Miyazaki said at ComicCon this year:

The name, Ponyo, comes from sort of onomatopoetic…When you touch something, and it goes boing, poing, poinyo, poinyo…That kind of soft, squishy softness.

Cute huh?
Ponyo transforms to human with the help of her goldfish sisters

(here's the opinionated part)

I was fortunate enough to see Ponyo for the first time in Japanese, with NO subtitles and, if you haven't seen it already I strongly suggest this is THE way to watch the movie.

Why? The animation tells you all you need to know. This has been noted by a few critics and is a testament to the mastery of the animation - that the film can stand alone without needing any dialog at all.
But there's another reason to watch it in Japanese only: quite frankly, the English dialog - subtitles included - doesn't seem to line up with what's happening visually. I have the distinct impression the English audio (and subtitles) go 'beyond' translation and try to 'retell' the story for Western audiences and that this waters down the story substantially (though it does have a lovely poster for the US version!).
Please note, I have nothing to base this opinion on (of Ponyo being rewritten for an American audience) except my own viewing but when the English dialog is superimposed on the visuals there's a definite disconnect (despite the fact you don't need any help from dialog exposition to understand what's happening or how characters feel).

Ultimately I see the English version as having two problems:

1) the amazing voices of acting luminaries such as Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett, while gorgeous to listen to and beautifully acted, are SO recognizable it pulls you right out of the story.
2) the dialog just seems wrong - it's heavy handed, explaining things that are right there on screen (not typical of Miyazaki at all) or saying things that are at complete odds with what appears to be going on.

The English trailer makes it out to be a story of 'goldfish girl saves the world' but even if that's in any way part of the original intent, it's not the feel, nor the focus, of the movie at all. The story is about the magic of friendship and it's 'plenty powerful'.

Take a look at this French trailer (there's no dialog in this one) for a different taste of the movie - one that's much closer to my overall impression of the movie than most of the other trailers:

The essence of 'fairy tale' comes through beautifully in the visuals. I'll be getting the Japanese version for my son to watch as he grows.

NOTE: *Sometimes you will see Hayao Miyazaki written as Miyazaki Hayao - this reflects more the way his name is said in Japanese. The term Miyazaki-san is an honorific, essentially meaning 'Mr. Miyazaki', something which is said to show respect.
** If you click on the link to read The Serpent and the Sea Queen please note it has annoying music that plays automatically on loading so turn down your sound! It also has trails of fish that follow your mouse around (remember when they were popular?). The fish fit the website/story well but can still be annoying. Just a heads up. :)


  1. Great post! I am jealous that you were able to see the movie sans dubbing! I'm looking very forward to that experience myself!

  2. really great cartoon! masterpiece of japanesse movie factory!