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The Movie and Music of Ponyo
Time to Get Pon-ed!


Director Hayao MizayakiHAYAO MIYAZAKI's PONYO (shortened from GAKE NO UE NO PONYO, lit. PONYO ON TOP OF THE CLIFF) is STUDIO GHIBLI's latest movie to hit stateside, and it's been doing very well, not to anyone's surprise. The film reached 9th place in the U.S. box office charts in its first week, with an estimated $3,506,000 in earnings, which makes it the 8th highest grossing theatrical anime release in the United States. The combination of being completely hand-drawn and being shown immediately after a string of trailers for DISNEY / PIXAR's upcoming 3D-CGI films, almost does itself a disservice, making it seem like a dated film, but MIYAZAKI wouldn't do it any other way. He even had the CG department at STUDIO GHIBLI dissolved before the production of PONYO began.

As usual with most of MIYAZAKI's films and other anime features that cross the Pacific, PONYO is unfortunately only available in theaters with an English language dub. A core concept of art appreciation that I usually insist on is that it's always best to listen to the original language dub for any type of visual media, be it live-action movies, TV series, animation, and even video games, simply because it's the format that best preserves the creators' original vision. Once foreign media becomes localized, a sense of exoticism and the nuances present in the creators' original language becomes lost.

Individual tastes aside, DISNEY brought along a high-profile cast for the English dub, which no doubt helped out in spreading its popularity for those who aren't familiar with anime. Among them are LIAM NEESON, voicing Ponyo's father, NOAH CYRUS (MILEY CYRUS' little sister) voicing Ponyo the goldfish herself, and FRANKIE JONAS (who's older brothers are the JONAS BROTHERS) voicing Sousuke, Ponyo's love interest who is a 5-year old boy. The dub was quite conservative for a modern film, although it was a bit over-the-top at times, particularly during the action sequences. While I definitely appreciated the fact that the English script included Japanese-language idioms (the “-san” suffix after names to indicate seniority, the word sensei, or “teacher”), the constant mispronunciation of “Pon-yo” as “Pan-yo” made me cringe.

How does MIYAZAKI's new masterpiece stand up against DISNEY's classic THE LITTLE MERMAID? They're both adapted from the same source material, CHRISTIAN ANDERSON's THE LITTLE MERMAID (1837). Yet, PONYO, which was created using completely traditional means, seems more up-to-date and culturally relevant than DISNEY's take, which had the help of computer animation and other means of creating special effects for its time. The former even touches prominent sociocultural issues ranging from nursing homes (called “senior centers” in the movie) to pollution, in a way that doesn't require preachy dialogue. While one might be able to find multiple similarities between the two films (or between PONYO and PIXAR's FINDING NEMO), having the setting in modern-day Japan and using cultural items (instant noodles, anyone?) is enough to make MIYAZAKI's vision unique. They both deviate from the plot of the original novel quite a bit, but after watching PONYO, it's apparent that it is a less Romanticized interpretation since the focus is more about Ponyo's curiosity and learning about the human world, rather than a love story.

As marvelous as it is, PONYO has some slight problems in its storytelling. The biggest issue I had was the main conflict in the story, which is that PONYO's absence from the ocean essentially brings the entire world “out of balance”, but the reason why is never explained. In similar fashion, we learn through the dialogue of Ponyo's parents that the “balance of nature” will be restored if Sousuke can prove that his love for Ponyo is pure, and although things work out to the victory of our protagonists, it's never explained how the purity of his heart was determined. Older viewers might have problems taking these plot-holes granted but overall the fact that the lead characters are a goldfish and a 5-year old boy excuses the need for logic and back-story, as young viewers in the same demographic as Sousuke will be engrossed in the gorgeous visuals, humor and fast-paced action sequences. In the end, things don't need to make much sense when you're 5-years old. While this movie is suitable for family viewing, it should be noted that there are some potentially frightening sequences in the film which might scare younger children. Nevertheless, MIYAZAKI somehow finds ways to inject subtle devices of comic relief in those scenes to lighten the mood. I found the juxtaposition of a happy Ponyo running on top of violent fish-like waves to be a very weird but cute element in film.
 

 

Composer Joe HisiashiMIYAZAKI's long-time, feature composer, JOE HISAISHI, brings us an enthralling score once again, but in a much more upbeat fashion compared to the last few GHIBLI films. As cliché as it might sound, the two go together so well that they might loosely be considered the STEVEN SPIELBERG and JOHN WILLIAMS of anime feature films.

We haven't heard a theme song this happy since MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. As this film was geared toward younger audiences, HISAISHI made the right choice by making the main theme jovial and playful. Keeping in mind that this is a film mostly dedicated to children, HISAISHI tries to set moods as cheerful as possible (since Ponyo always seems to be in a happy mood, especially when she's around Sousuke), but when scenes require suspense and fright, he doesn't hesitate to reflect it in the score, yet the action scenes never really draw too much attention to themselves.

Despite the movie being set in Japan, HISAISHI stays away from the pentatonic melodies and harmonies that we associate so much with Japan and the Far East, and his score sounds far more Westernized than his previous works such as PRINCESS MONONOKE and SPIRITED AWAY. The soundscape used throughout the movie is more of a combination of TOTORO and HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. The PONYO theme makes leitmotif-style reprises every time Ponyo appears in a new scene, changing slightly in character as she morphs between fish and human throughout the movie. HISAISHI makes much use of wordless choir, which is something he doesn't do quite often.

HISAISHI pays homage to a few Western art-music composers, and proves that he is great at absorbing their styles. Most of the stylistic features of the soundtrack are in the style of RICHARD WAGNER's music-dramas. There's a heavy direct influence from “Ride of the Valkyries” for the action sequences, such as the track “Flight of Ponyo”. HISAISHI also sprinkles traces of the same Impressionistic, DEBUSSY-style harmonies reminiscent of his work on SPIRITED AWAY and PRINCESS MONONOKE into some of the cues, such as “Fujimoto”, “Tunnel”, “Sousuke's Tears” and “Finale”. Several cues are fusions of both styles, such as “Granmanmale”, which starts off much like DEBUSSY's “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun” with a flute solo, and then transitions into a huge Wagnerian music-drama ensemble, complete with vocal chorus and full orchestra.

Otherwise, HISAISHI follows his usual orchestral conventions, using a lot of strings for melodic work and piano, which he always plays himself. While most of the music is in major, there are some dark moments, which the composer handles brilliantly with celesta and various percussion. The celesta is also used in a more innocent context, in tracks like “Ponyo's Lullaby”. Overall, even with his usual conventions, this score sounds much more Germanic than anything HISAISHI has ever done before, which is fitting for a story that was originally penned from a Danish author.

If you're going to watch the film in theaters, be sure to stay for the end credits, because instead of a black screen, there is a very beautifully animated montage in the background. The credits start with “WE MADE THIS MOVIE”, and has hand-drawn icons next to each of the staff member's names as the ending orchestral theme plays. What I found very noble was that there were no job titles to indicate what each staff member did, and that omission implied that each staff member's work was equally critical to the production of this feature, and no member was inherently less important than either MIYAZAKI or HISAISHI.

It would have been perfect except for a most unwelcome intrusion by DISNEY regarding a major edit to the soundtrack. Where the orchestral ending would normally transition to the original Japanese version of the Ending Theme Song, DISNEY replaced it with an English, pop-rock-techno version, courtesy of NOAH CYRUS and FRANKIE JONAS. As if making an English dub for the film wasn't intruding enough, the whole song, filled with synth programming, is completely out of character with the rest of the score and movie. It sounds like a bad “Radio Disney” remix, and I wish they hadn't bothered in the first place. I hope they leave the original version intact, at least for the Japanese language track on the DVD/ Blu-ray release, which has been estimated to be sometime in December. The original singer, 8-year old Nozomi Ōhashi, sings quite out-of -tune, but even so, I think it reflects PONYO's innocence and curiosity during her “maiden voyage” as a human.

No domestic release of the soundtrack has been confirmed yet, but the import version is available on Amazon.com, and 34 out of 36 tracks are available for streaming on Imeem.com.

If you can stand a mediocre English dub, PONYO is definitely worth catching in theaters. PIXAR's UP has a real contender for the next Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, but regardless of whether PONYO wins the award, it is a masterpiece in its own right. In the words of the online gaming community, PONYO is “pure pwnage”.

 

 

 

Vince Chang is currently a music major in California State University at Fullerton, a violinist, and is also Tracksounds' resident anime expert. (vcmusik AT tracksounds DOT com)

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Buy Ponyo (Soundtrack Import Edition) by Joe Hisaishi

 
 
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