Every year around Christmastime, my parents would drive my brother and me to the oceanfront for the annual “Holiday Lights at the Beach” show. By that point every year, Virginia Beach had settled into its snowless coastal chill, as hundreds of cars lined up one after another through over thirty blocks of boardwalk bedecked in nautical and yuletide-themed moving lights: Santa on a jet-ski, enormous LED fish mouthing “Jingle Bells,” a giant glowing Christmas-red crab bidding us welcome by a borderline-sacrilegious version of a nativity scene. It was, in a word, truly “lit.” But then, at some point in my early teens, something started to change: the maritime moving pictures began to disappear, and all I could pay attention to was the plastic structural framing of the lights themselves. The magician’s tricks had been exposed, and the curse of adolescent ennui had descended.
If only for this reason, I thank heaven for the incandescent genius of Hayao Miyazaki, whose artistic vision and directorial powers in animation know how to reclaim that often-buried treasure lost to contemporary living: pure, rebellious joy. Ponyo, Miyazaki’s modern-day fairytale, illustrates his gift for upending so-called sentimentality, a feat all the more anarchic in an age that practically worships “grit” and aestheticizes sadness. The story is simple, a familiar spin on “The Little Mermaid”: Sōsuke, a young boy, discovers and rescues Ponyo, a goldfish-girl who washes ashore. After the two befriend each other, Ponyo decides to use her magic powers to transform into a human child, in order to leave her home in the ocean to join the boy she loves. There’s much more to the adventure, but Miyazaki pulls us in with the essentials.
The movie is as visually lush as it is brilliantly written—a moveable feast for the eyes and ears—accented by a marvelous score by Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki’s long-standing friend and artistic partner in animated films. The question of audience never seems to be much of an obstacle to Ponyo’s delivery: it is as much a movie for adults as it is for the children driving the narrative. In an interview with Collider, Miyazaki explains his preference for simplicity: “I like to make the kinds of films where children can understand in five minutes what the movie is about.” Sure enough, Miyazaki’s thematic streamlining beautifully showcases his understanding of what makes a story worth an emotional investment, even as he maintains his signature nuance and sophistication.
As an animated work, Ponyo boasts an impressive visual landscape, with 2-D animation that still retains ornate texture and depth. As a story, it recognizes the power that the fantastic can wield in its best form, where suspension of disbelief feels natural instead of necessary. It is difficult to speak of “sincerity” in writing—the term seems to undercut itself, or worse, appear trite. And yet, Ponyo’s simple themes of friendship and unconditional love deftly avoid affectation throughout the film’s forthright imaginative excursions. If this is not outright magic, then it is something very close to it.
And for this, I feel a tide of gratitude. Applauding Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanted fish-child allows a small but meaningful gift: to recall my own childhood coastlands, where even LED sea creatures built around a boardwalk could somehow reveal something numinous. Of course, Ponyo will mean something different to every person she visits—it would seem that Miyazaki has, in his brilliance, seen to that. Still, it seems only right to thank his goldfish girl for helping me remember how to see pictures through the lights, instead of just the lights themselves.
And so, Ponyo—I thank you. I owe you this, and more.