After nearly a year of being in love with Totoro (who she now calls “Toh-roh”), my daughter switched to Kiki’s Delivery Service. I don’t like that movie as much, so we watched it less and always in Japanese. Fortunately, she’s moved on to Ponyo. I admit that Ponyo had to grow on me. At this point, I’ve seen it about a hundred times and I think it’s brilliant.*
*(Some of my favorite moments as an adult watcher: a moment where Sosuke’s mom sings that she’s feeling better and she’s singing the first line of the Totoro theme song; the scene where Ponyo drinks tea with honey for the first time and then has ramen, thus giving me a lever to turn my kid onto eating noodles (I even bought her a special noodle bowl); and all of the scenes involving ocean magic, which have beautiful colors and visuals.)
I think that Miyazaki is brilliant, full stop; here’s a comic illustrating one of the reasons I trust him with the psyche of my toddler. Ponyo is a typical Miyazaki story, with heros who make mistakes and characters who exist in grey areas. These provide excellent teachable moments for my child.
For example, I appreciate the complexity of Ponyo’s dad. He’s characterized in a throwaway line as an “evil wizard,” but really he’s just got different priorities than humans do. He wants to return the ocean to its primordial state, thus wiping out the humans that he finds disgusting. He’s right to believe that humans are gross: he sees our pollution and environmental destruction first-hand. He’s an advocate for the ocean. The magic he’s shown performing there, and his underwater stewardship, is admirable. He wants to make the ocean healthy and beautiful again, and I can support that.
My daughter identifies him as a daddy (commenting that he has long hair just like her dad, lol), and has accepted my explanation that he wants to keep Ponyo with him as a fish because he loves her. It’s a nice illustration of the challenges of parenthood: we want to keep our kids innocent and safe with us, even though they often decide they want to leave the ocean to become humans. Parents have to let go, and it’s good for us to have the conversation early about how that can be complicated and cause strong feelings on both sides. (The English dub falls down on the job in this respect, which means that we never watch it in English: the voice-over includes a line not present in the Japanese where Ponyo says to Sosuke, “I hate my dad!” Typical American over-simplification.) Ponyo’s dad comes around, and even accepts that humans can be okay.
My daughter calles Ponyo’s mom “Ocean Mama!” and will return her attention to the screen whenever She appears. The character of the ocean goddess has opened up some conversations about how beautiful the ocean is, how life originated in its waters, how the womb is like an ocean, and some musings on the nature of mothers and the universe. The character of an all-mother ocean creatrix is a great one to have in my kid’s psyche.
There’s a lot to learn from Ponyo’s arc, also. Like Mei in Totoro, Ponyo has the morals and impulses of a small child (she’s supposed to be 5). She decides she wants to be human and nearly destroys the world by following her desire, throwing magic around haphazardly with little attention to the results. This has led to some good talks about choices, asking permission, appropriate adventures, and not ever running away without talking to a parent.
My daughter shares adorable thoughts that have been inspired by the movie, such as flopping down with exhaustion and saying, “I tired. I did too much magic.” She carries a bucket around with a pretend Ponyo fish in it. She likes to pretend that she’s floating in bubbles. She says that she’s a sister. She plays boats and Ocean Mama in the bathtub. More importantly, I think she’s hearing the deeper messages, cautionary and empowering both, that run through the movie. It’s the kind of fiction I want her to internalize.