Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated film, Ponyo, is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." But though Miyazaki keeps many of the plot elements and characters of the original fairytale, he reworks them to completely reverse Andersen's themes and turn a story of opposition and unrequited love into one of reconciliation and unconditional love.
"The Little Mermaid" (Wikipedia has a concise summary of the non-Disney version) is a tragedy of missed connections, misunderstandings, and irreconcilable differences. The mermaid, a creature of water, can never be loved by the prince, a creature of land. Land and sea, men and women, humans and mermaids, good and evil, and even good and naughty children are some of the many opposed elements which exist in that story and which, for better or worse, can never meet.
Ponyo sets up dualities only to prove that they're not opposed at all. Sea and land can merge until walking catfish climb trees and sharks swim along submerged streets. Boys and girls, children and senior citizens, and humans and goddesses can have a meeting of minds. Good and evil, not to mention good and bad parenting skills, can exist within the same person. In this altered landscape, it's not at all surprising that the love between a magical goldfish and a human boy isn't inherently doomed.
Ponyo begins with an escape. In an astonishing seascape of hyper-detailed underwater creatures cavorting among waves drawn with the simple lines a child might etch across a page, the once-human wizard Fujimoto tends to the welfare of the ocean and its inhabitants—
When five-year-old human Sosuke finds her, he breaks the jar to save her life. He cuts his finger on a shard of glass, and the goldfish licks the blood. It's love at first sight, but not romantic love; it's the very recognizable enchantment of a child with a cute animal. Sosuke is every kid who ever rescued a stray kitten or won a goldfish at a fair. And the fish he names Ponyo loves him back. (Ponyo means "chubby" and may also be a play on the somewhat similar-sounding kingyo, meaning "goldfish.")
Sosuke feeds Ponyo, cares for her, and does his best to protect her. But he's helpless against the power of her father, who draws her back to the ocean.
With her own magical power, strength of will, and that one taste of human blood, the rebellious Ponyo grows arms and legs, then declares her will to become human and stay with Sosuke. But in a striking scene which resonates with any parent who's ever longed to turn back time for their growing children, her father physically squashes her back into goldfish form and returns her to her tank.
All this sets up Miyazaki's reversals of Andersen's themes. In "The Little Mermaid," the mermaid is allowed to surface when she reaches adolescence. She sees the prince on a ship and falls in love with his beauty. She rescues him from a storm but leaves before he ever sees her. In her underwater home, she longs for the prince who doesn't even know her. Finally she visits a sea witch, who makes a potion, finished with a drop of the witch's own blood, that will turn the mermaid into a human.
Miyazaki's radical alterations to this part of the story, and the rest of it as well, stem from three basic changes: melding character roles, setting up oppositions only to eventually reconcile or merge them, and emphasizing character interaction and interdependence rather than physical and emotional distance.
The roles of prince and mermaid merge in Ponyo. Sosuke rescues Ponyo rather than the other way around. The mermaid kisses the unconscious prince; Ponyo licks Sosuke's blood and spits water on him. Like the mermaid, Sosuke falls in love with Ponyo while the object of his enchantment is still unconscious.
But it's not a simple gender-flipped role reversal. Ponyo loves Sosuke too, like the mermaid loved the prince, and longs for him when she returns to the ocean. In "The Little Mermaid," only the mermaid longs for and misses her love. This goes both ways in Miyazaki's film.
Ponyo loves Sosuke because she gets to know him, he's kind to her, and he already loves her. The mermaid loves the prince because he's beautiful. The prince never sees the mermaid's true form, but Sosuke first meets Ponyo as a fish and immediately recognizes her when she returns as a little girl.
The merged roles, the reciprocated affection and shared knowledge, and the transformation of Ponyo as a combined result of Ponyo's effort and Sosuke's blood (rather than a potion bought from a witch) all highlight the idea that love is about equality and mutuality, not, as in Andersen's story, one-sided sacrifice and impossibility.
The portrayal of Sosuke and Ponyo's parents also involves the switching around of character traits and an additional emphasis on the idea that no one is entirely good or entirely evil.
The characteristics of Andersen's evil sea witch are split between two characters in Ponyo. Her magical potions are the property of Ponyo's controlling father, Fujimoto, and her position as a powerful woman of the ocean is given to Ponyo's mother, the Sea Goddess.
The Sea Goddess, while "huge and scary" (as Ponyo says) and also an absentee mother, is basically benevolent. While Fujimoto over-controls his children and plots to destroy humanity to benefit the ocean, his faults spring from an excess of love, not from the cold callousness of the witch. Like a modern "helicopter parent," he'll go to any extreme to safeguard his children—
Sosuke's mother Lisa (Risa in Japanese) is a character who doesn't exist in "The Little Mermaid" but is important in Ponyo. Unlike Fujimoto, she allows Sosuke a great deal of independence. (In the Japanese version, Sosuke even calls his parents by their first names.) She trusts Sosuke's ability to care for a pet, she accepts his version of events when he insists that the little girl Ponyo used to be his goldfish, and she lets Ponyo help out around the house.
But like Fujimoto, she takes her relationship with her children to extremes. While Fujimoto keeps Ponyo and her sisters in a literal protective bubble, Lisa trusts Sosuke and Ponyo to take care of themselves when she leaves them alone during a storm in order to try to rescue the old women at the senior center.
The last scene shocked and infuriated several American parents I know, though it's clearly the result of a hard choice: If Lisa stays with Sosuke in their house, which is further above the water line than the senior center, she's abandoning the seniors to drown. If Lisa takes Sosuke with her, she's putting him at risk. If she leaves Sosuke, she won't be there if he needs her.
The outrage generated by her decision to do the latter may stem from the implicit assumption that a child is more precious than an old person, that a young boy is more precious than any number of old women, or that one's own child is more precious than unrelated people. (It's notable that the last assumption is what drives Fujimoto to try to kill all humans.)
Sosuke's father, the captain of a ship, is loving when present but frequently absent—
In his portrayal of all four parents, Miyazaki refuses to label any of them as evil or even bad parents, or any of them as perfect people and parents. As many of us in America expect mothers to be perfect and condemn them as evil if they aren't, some viewers hated Lisa as if she was Andersen's sea witch!
Nevertheless, Ponyo lacks Andersen's moralizing about good and evil children and women, though the moment in "The Little Mermaid" when the mermaid's sisters, motivated by love and concern, suggest that she murder her true love is a scene that wouldn't be out of place in a darker Miyazaki film like Princess Mononoke.
This portrayal of the fluid and two-sided nature of things isn't limited to the characters. While humans are menaced by nature in "The Little Mermaid," in Ponyo the danger goes both ways. Humans are threatened by floods, but the sea too is threatened by pollution. The goldfish Ponyo is almost killed by a piece of litter, just as the prince is almost drowned in a storm.
But while sea and land are always separated in "The Little Mermaid," echoing the impossibility of the love of a mermaid for a prince, they merge in Ponyo. When a tsunami floods the town, octopi sneak into Sosuke's house and extinct fish swim along the streets. Ponyo's once-human father Fujimoto, who can venture on land if he keeps himself moist, preserves the senior center in a bubble of magic water.
While the rising waters threaten humanity, the experience of being within Fujimoto's magic bubble revitalizes the seniors. Another seeming opposite is reconciled: the seniors rise from their wheelchairs and move with youthful vigor, but retain the gray hair and wrinkles of age.
After the tsunami, Ponyo meets someone as far from her developmental stage as the seniors are from Sosuke: a baby. She and the rather baleful infant stare at each other until Ponyo suddenly understands why it looks so dour—
At the end, the Sea Goddess asks Sosuke if he will love Ponyo no matter what form she's in. Sosuke's response to the Sea Goddess, whether or not one reads it as romantic, is a version of marriage vows. In the Japanese version, he says, "I love Ponyo whether she's a fish, a human, or something in between." In the English version, he says, "I love all the Ponyos." Either way, he's saying that he'll love Ponyo for better or for worse.
Given all these instances of the reconciliation of disparate people and modes of existence, it's unsurprising that the implication is that while Ponyo can become human to stay with Sosuke, she will still sometimes revert to being a fish or something in between—
In "The Little Mermaid," the prince fails the test that Sosuke passes with ease. He treats the mermaid like a child because she can't speak, never knows that she was the one who saved him, and finally marries another woman, whom he incorrectly believes saved his life. Though the mermaid loved him, he never returned her affections or understood her at all.
When she's about to become sea foam, her sisters offer her a magic knife to kill the prince and use his blood to turn herself back into a mermaid. The sisters love her, but they don't understand her either, or they would know she'd never murder her true love to save herself. Though she is finally saved and transformed into an aerial spirit, it is for the sake of her good deeds and endurance, not for love.
In Anderson's story, there is not a single instance of mutual love in which both parties understand each other and accept each other for what they are. In "The Little Mermaid," love is pressing your nose against the impermeable barrier that separates you forever.
Ponyo is a story about love as acceptance—
Though only the Sea Goddess ever explicitly asks about the limits of love, the entire film asks the same question implicitly.
Ponyo and Sosuke ask, "Will you still love me, whatever my form? Will you still love me when I can't live underwater, can't always protect you, and get upset and cry?"
Sosuke and Lisa ask, "Will you still love me when I insist that a girl is a fish? Will you still love me when I drive like a maniac, get mad at your dad, and leave you to go rescue someone else?"
Lisa and her husband ask, "Will you still love me when I'm angry at you? Will you still love me when I prioritize my job over you?"
Fujimoto and the Sea Goddess ask, "Will you still love me even though I'm a half-crazy, sometimes genocidal former human with the world's worst fashion sense? Will you still love me even though I'm a scary goddess who's never around?"
Ponyo and Fujimoto ask, "Will you still love me when I run away and choose a life you never wanted for me? Will you still love me even when I can't tell the difference between protecting and smothering you?"
In all those cases, Ponyo's answer is yes. Yes, I will love you exactly the way you are. Like the barriers between sea and land, the walls that separate human (and Sea Goddess, and magician, and goldfish) hearts look strong, but break down in a tsunami, a spurt of water, a drop of blood, or a sip of mother's milk.