(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki. Keep up with the rest of May’s Filmmaker of the Month coverage here.)
When reading film critic ranks of Studio Ghibli movies, 2008’s Ponyo tends to be somewhere in the lower middle. That’s not necessarily a reflection of its quality – ranking Studio Ghibli movies is like trying to rank the players in the 1955 Dodgers lineup. They’re all good, it’s just a question of some being slightly better than others.
Hayao Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid, Ponyo lacks the dark fairy tale aspects of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, which may explain why it’s among his lesser regarded films. Don’t sleep on it, however, particularly in times when real life seems extremely uncertain and very terrifying. The presence of sea goddesses and menacing high tides are second to what it’s really about, and that’s the joy of seeing the world through a child’s eyes, when even the most mundane things possess a certain kind of magic.
Ponyo, a goldfish who escapes her overprotective father and becomes a little girl, is taken in by Sosuke, a boy about her age, and his mother, Lisa, on their own while Sosuke’s father is at sea. She greets everything she encounters on land, even a lantern or a cup of warm milk with honey, with wide-eyed wonder, and occasionally an amazed, delighted gasp. It’s impossible to not be charmed by the scene when Lisa prepares bowls of ramen for Ponyo and Sosuke. She surprises them with slices of ham on top, which both children react to as if there were hundred dollar bills floating in their soup.
Ponyo is so overwhelmed that she foregoes chopsticks and just grabs a piece right out of the bowl. Her reaction to the most ordinary, B-level meat, yelling out “HAAAAAAM!”, is both deeply cute, and bittersweet, because at some point in everyone’s lives, it suddenly becomes unseemly to treat such ordinary things as if there’s a wondrous mystery to them.
The film may hit a particularly sentimental nerve with viewers who had chaotic childhoods, and often craved the peace of “normal.” I was born to young, emotionally immature parents who never really got it together, even when they could no longer use their youth as an excuse. Shuttled back and forth between various grandparents’ houses, I found solace in books and too much television. My maternal grandmother saw to it that her house was a place of stability for me, and that meant keeping the refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods. When I was there, she would fix my favorite lunch, the most unglamorous of lunches: bologna and Kraft cheese slices on white bread, with mayonnaise and a single lettuce leaf, cut into two triangles. I invariably ate it with 4-C instant iced tea served in a cup with Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on it.
There were a number of non-negotiable “rules” I had in place for these sandwiches (though I was never rude about it, she was my grandmother, for God’s sake): always Oscar Mayer bologna, never Miracle Whip, and above all else, they had to be cut into two triangles. A whole, uncut sandwich wouldn’t do, and two rectangles was completely unacceptable. I wish I remembered what was so important about that particular geometry—my guess is it was a test to make sure my grandmother remembered how I liked it. She did, every time.
Ponyo gets it. There are other, different worlds than this, but they don’t have what we have. They don’t have ham floating in a bowl of ramen, waiting to be grabbed by eager little hands.
If I had to estimate, I’d say I probably ate hundreds of those sandwiches, never varying the filling or how they were served. Then my parents split up, my mother moved into my grandparents’ house, and suddenly I didn’t want them anymore. I suspect that my mother permanently interfering in what had been my safe space took away some of their power. Grandma began stocking other favorite foods instead, and eventually the Dopey cup disappeared when the house was sold. Many years later, I tried to recreate the sandwich myself and found that it was just a sandwich, and not even a particularly good one. Plain, Wonder-style white bread tends to have the consistency of library paste, and let’s not even get started on Kraft cheese slices.
My heart broke a little.
The easy explanation was that I had made it myself, and it was missing that extra ingredient that all grandmothers put into their food, even just a dumb cold cut sandwich. But I think it was more that I wasn’t a child anymore. I missed how great those sandwiches seemed to be, even if turned out that I just had the palate of someone who ate a lot of hastily heated cans of Spaghetti-O’s for dinner. I missed how much joy and comfort a couple of slices of bologna and cheese used to give me. None of us, we’ll never get those moments back. That’s just how life works.
Ponyo gets it. There are other, different worlds than this, but they don’t have what we have. They don’t have ham floating in a bowl of ramen, waiting to be grabbed by eager little hands. In the end, Ponyo is set free by her father and allowed to live as a human with Lisa and Sosuke. We’re joyful in knowing that she will be able to live as she wants, but, more than anything else, we wish could see her discover all the other small magic there is in the world. Candles on a birthday cake, fireworks, popcorn, cherry blossom petals carried on the breeze. There’s so much waiting for her out there, and we want it to last forever, even though we know it won’t.