Serious question: have you ever seen this color palette outside of this movie?
It isn’t used in another Ghibli film--each of those has a distinct palette matching its atmosphere. In the realm of obscenely saccharine feel-good anime we find the likes of Ookii 1-nensei to Chiisana 2-nensei, the short films of studio Colorido such as Poulette no Isu, and hell the Pikachu short films are similar in tone--but none of these, nor anything else I can think of, has the same color palette as Ponyo. Even the film’s artbook looks different, as it presents the images in another medium. I can’t even think of another anime character with the specific hue of Ponyo’s orange hair.
I don’t know enough about color theory to explain why Ghibli chose these colors; but I can tell you that every single image of this film fills me with unbridled happiness. Every time I see the giant jellyfish cluster in its opening minutes, something wells up inside of me; I get entranced, ready to melt and let the rest of the movie wash over me. In a world full of media that uses color in awesome and unique ways--much of it captivating me specifically to an extent I can’t even understand--Ponyo somehow stands out as the one that does so the most. Granted, I think if there was a film with this level of godly animation and directing which used the color palette of Licca-chan Fushigi na Mahou no Ring, then I might love that film just as much or more--but we’re talking about a palette hand-picked by anime’s most legendary and acclaimed director, and animated by the most talented animation house on the planet.
I really can’t understate how incredible this is; if there’s one thing that I hope my channel has made clear, it is the importance of aesthetic not only in service of narrative, but as narrative in itself. Aesthetic communicates so intangibly that I fear in trying to apply words to it, I will only grasp at the tangible details while missing the underlying truths. I can say that the film entrances me with childlike wonder--that these colors put me into a blissful, carefree state of mind. Maybe that’s all the thought that went into them--or maybe there’s more to it on a scientific or theoretical level; I simply don’t have the tools to completely understand. All I can do is marvel at how strongly they make me feel, and to have some confidence that they were chosen with great purpose by these people who understand color so well.
I’ve singled out the color design because I know that it can be overlooked, which the animation absolutely cannot. You don’t need to know the first thing about animation to recognize that this film is a technical marvel. Miyazaki’s goal was to show off the capability of 2D animation, and the sequence of Ponyo running and flipping over the giant fishes is one of the most intense forearm flexes I’ve ever seen. There is no other way to say it but that this film visually puts basically everything to shame.
When I tell people that Ponyo is not only my favorite Ghibli film, but also my favorite anime film in general, I typically am met with confusion and derision. People tell me that the film is lacking in plot; I would argue that the film has exactly as much plot, and is almost a mirror image of Miyazaki’s 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro, which has a more celebrated reputation--but that’s hardly surprising. Even though the majority of Miyazaki’s ouvre are family films which can easily be enjoyed by children, and then later understood more deeply as adults, Ponyo most audaciously screams that it is a children’s movie in its ultra-bright colors, moments of manic energy, and the five year-old protagonists. Ponyo herself looks and acts more differently from all of Miyazaki’s other leading ladies than any of the others, but that’s for another video.
Most similar to Totoro is that this film doesn’t just feature child characters, but is also about childhood, and from a child perspective. The film makes me feel like a kid again; a kid whose mom seems impossibly badass with her driving feats, to the point that I’m still left in wonder about it as an adult; a kid whose dad’s job must be the most noble and important in the world, so I forgive him for not coming home when he said he would; though today I also connect with Sousuke’s mother, who is wrecked and furious about this absence. The frustrated disappointment with which she tells her husband to bug off, even though what she’s mad about is that he isn’t coming home to her, is adorably painful.
When the sea overruns the earth, and prehistoric fish are resurrected, I am in awe. When Ponyo blows up a toy boat and Sousuke captains it, I am excited. When they use this boat to explore the newly destroyed city, I am ecstatic that I get to go on this adventure--and the film paces this sequence so appropriately. As someone who’s spent a lot of time wandering around in the wake of major storms just to see how the damage has changed the layout of my neighborhood, this feels intensely real to me, as though I’m exploring it myself--helped by the fully realized setting, and how extensively it is shown from an early point in the film. I’ve talked before about how Miyazaki maps a setting, and here he does so wonderfully.
My Neighbor Totoro was a film about children coping with a bad situation, and so the undercurrent of the film is a pang of melancholy--a feeling that all this fun being had is an escape or diversion from the painful thing that’s happening under the surface. Ponyo, meanwhile, is a film about joy; pure, unadulterated, insane, destructive, childish joy. This is a film in which a little girl literally almost destroys the world so that she can be with the boy she loves, who she’s only barely met--and at no point is this portrayed as a negative or sad ocurrance. In fact, in the end, her choice is practically celebrated! Everyone else is swept up in the wild ride that they’ve been put through by this love; and at the end of the day they all understand, because there’s a part of them that would probably do the same.
Allow me to repeat that: this is a film which portrays a near-apocalyptic event in which the ocean rises up to swallow much of the land, AND THIS IS NOT PORTRAYED AS A PARTICULARLY BAD OR SCARY THING. The saddest scene in the film is earlier than that, when Ponyo is taken back to her home by her father, after just a few hours of being taken care of by Sousuke as a fish; and the rest of the film is about nothing but the pure excitement that two kids who really like each other feel just from hanging out--on the backdrop of utter chaos that somehow seems almost natural to the people experiencing it.
When I was a little kid, my favorite cartoon was Winnie the Pooh. My mom told me later in life that I never liked all of the other Disney movies, because I was always afraid of the bad guys. I remember as a kid that in Aladdin, when hero reached his lowest point, I lost interest in the film completely. To this day, I find myself rolling my eyes at the sad parts of family movies. In Zootopia, a film that I otherwise enjoyed a lot, I found the conflict between the lead characters at the end to be forced, as though it only existed because it’s a rule in screenwriting that the heroes have to hit their lowest point and have some conflict in order to build to a climax. It’s my least favorite part in the Emperor’s New Groove, even though it lasts all of five minutes and is just there for the sake of itself, and I hated the Hallelujah scene from Shrek even as a kid. None of these scenes ever felt necessary to me--which is why I loved Winnie the Pooh so much as a kid--it was a show with no villain, and no real sad parts.
There is a scene in Ponyo whose necessity I find questionable: towards the end of their journey, Ponyo runs out of energy and Sousuke finds himself suddenly afraid. He is then confronted by both Ponyo’s father, and a crotchety old woman, and there’s a scene of him running down a dock as a bunch of the father’s fish chase after him. It’s painfully obvious to me that this scene only exists so that there can be something at least a bit exciting and climactic at the end of the movie before it is resolved through simple conversation. While I think that this scene is unfortunate, I am still very happy about the fact that Sousuke and Ponyo don’t have to fight through any hackneyed interpersonal conflict; because that would defeat the entire point of the movie--that these two share a pure, innocent, childish and intense love which brings to them nothing but joy and purpose.
I am glad that Ponyo and Sousuke are almost primally simplistic characters in a way that only children can believably be. I am glad that there is hardly any significant conflict in this film, and especially that there isn’t any in the relationship of the main characters. I am glad, because if there is one emotion which I most wish to connect with--which I most desire to feel and to see represented--which I most hope to experience in my everyday life--it is joy.
The love which Ponyo and Sousuke feel for each other is the kind of love that I feel and associate with; a kind that is totalizing and without complexity or conflict. This, to me, is what joy is all about--getting what you want at all costs, absolutely enjoying your time, and shrugging off the apocalypse going on all around you. I want the kind of joy that is BLINDING.
The strength of art is in its ability to communicate powerful emotions more intensely than words are capable of. Because painful emotions are harder to understand and talk about, I think the expression of these emotions is more often celebrated. A film that can connect you to something you might be incapable or embarrassed to talk about is often a great comfort in a world that doesn’t completely accept you. But I often worry about the way that films featuring more simplistic emotions are overlooked as fluffy or lacking in meaning. Are negative or complex emotions more worthy of celebration just because they are more difficult to describe? Is it wrong of me to just want to be filled with joy every once in a while, in this world that I can only trust to fall apart around me in reality?
Ponyo is not only a beautiful expression of joy, it is the most powerful one that I’ve seen. It doesn’t second-guess itself or concede its message in order to fit the framework of what a film is supposedly meant to be. While it hasn’t abandoned all pretense of structure, it nonetheless confidently takes its own path. At a point where most movies would become more tense and plot-centric--the aftermath of a destructive, potentially world-changing event--it instead lessens the tension as much as possible and indulges in a heart-warming adventure. It is in this part of the movie that Ponyo pulls out in front of every other cute, soothing and heart-warming feature that I can think of as a totalizing expression of pure joy.
If this video filled you with joy, then I encourage you to stick around on my channel, as I continue analyzing what makes each of my favorite anime guard their place in my list. For more context into my feelings on anime, check out this essentials playlist, and support me on patreon to better keep up with my constant content. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!