In the West the brand name of Studio Ghibli and in particular its most renowned and prolific filmmaker: Hayao Miyazaki has come to represent epic ecologically-themed action adventures like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which is only natural given he's been concentrating on these types of films for the best part of 20yrs now. In Japan though, if you were to play a word association game and mention the name Miyazaki most people would probably give you a different name in response: Totoro. Yup, My Neighbor Totoro - the story of two young girls who move to the countryside with their father and discover the secret world of the forest king Totoro and his magical friends, is regarded not just so much as one of the great classics of Japanese cinema but as an unyielding nostalgic symbol of childhood and the rural heart and traditions of an increasingly urbanised nation. It's a sentiment I myself share, in my book My Neighbor Totoro is arguably the greatest children's film ever made, an enchanting tale that encapsulates all the joy and naiveté of childhood imagination, a film that enables jaded adults to reminisce on a simpler time in life.
Perhaps what made My Neighbour Totoro so special was that, while it fits right at home in his ouvré with the same mix of fantasy tied into an ecologically conscience message as all his other Ghibli works, Miyazaki never really made another film quite like it - and that's unusual because although he's never been one for sequels, most of his films can be sort of paired up in the way they mirror each other either narratively or thematically - for instance: The Castle of Cagliostro and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso, and more recently Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Also, for twenty years Totoro remained his one feature aimed primarily for and centred around markedly pre-pubescent children, but in 2008 he finally made his spiritual successor to My Neighbor Totoro, and that is Ponyo
Hans Christian Andersen is given the Miyazaki treatment this time around as Ponyo tells the story of a magical sea creature who lives with a multitude of baby sisters in the submerged vessel of a Sea Wizard named Fujimoto. She longs to visit the human world, so one day makes a break for the coastline of a small Japanese port town, where she is taken in by a 5yr old boy named Sōsuke who gives her the name Ponyo and becomes the target of her affection. Their friendship is interrupted when Fujimoto snatches Ponyo back to her aquatic home, but her latent magical powers are growing too strong for the wizard to contain and she makes another bid for freedom - this time accidentally spilling a potent elixir that has the power to enchant the ocean and cause a massive imbalance in the world. Returning to Sōsuke in human form, Ponyo is finally able to experience the surface world firsthand and grow closer to the boy of her dreams and his mother Lisa, but it's not long before the enchanted ocean has swollen and engulfed the village, forcing Ponyo and Sōsuke to go on an adventure that will decide both her fate as a human and the balance of the world itself.
If you ever read our Best Films of the Noughties article at the start of the year then you may recall that I voted Ponyo as the greatest film of the current millennium, which is an opinion that has only been bolstered the more times I've managed to revisit the film. It's simply one of the most cheerful films I've ever had the pleasure to sit through; a truly magical and playful adventure - which I know can be said about all Miyazaki's films - but I find the great animator is always at his best when communicating directly to a young audience, for Miyazaki never condescends or underestimates the emotional awareness and intuition of pre-pubescents, weaving fairytales that remain transfixed in the perspective of his naive targets.
So Ponyo is The Little Mermaid told from the viewpoint of 5yr olds, an age at which Miyazaki has often stated he believes we are more aware and intuitive of the world around us than we are capable of expressing, which is why he always attributes children as having a higher - or as high - elemental intelligence than the adults, making them completely open and accepting of the world around them. It's an approach that is fundamentally at odds with contemporary family films in the West, where they give the children adult-like attributes (usually making them highly articulate) to appeal to the older viewers. Instead Miyazaki invites the adult viewer to approach the film exactly the same way as the target audience would, making the experience all the more enchanting to any adult who still has a little bit of the child inside them. In this way Ponyo has more in common with the films of Disney's Golden Age than anything the American studio has produced since, and whether you're taken in by it or not, I think you'll find it extremely tough-going to finish Ponyo in a worse mood than when you started it!
In many ways it is the quintessential Miyazaki film, containing many of the themes and motifs that has made him one of the most beloved animators the world over. We have a young girl escaping an oppressor and finding solace with a boy who is good-natured and very accepting of the world around him, an oppressor who seems antagonistic at first but is in fact somewhat sympathetic, a rites of passage for a protagonist where they have to overcome an internal dilemma, and fully realised and detailed ecology surrounding a community of people who are living in conjunction with the natural world but are then placed under threat by it - all coming together in that indomitable Miyazaki style without any urgency to conform to a conventional narrative.
If Ponyo was made in the west - and dare I say it: by Pixar - then it would be bogged down by the need to conjure up a sense of peril within periodic action set pieces designed to get the audience on the edge of their seats, but Miyazaki is happy enough just letting the narrative develop more leisurely while he focuses on creating a nostalgic and idealistically heightened reality where a village can sink into the sea and its inhabitants merely drift around politely waiting for all this nonsense to subside rather than stressing about the calamity that has befallen the world. To Miyazaki worrying about the mundane details of a situation and how real people would react to them merely bogs down the adventure itself.
Much like My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Ponyo isn't the flexing of Miyazaki's creative muscles to develop dreamlike fantasy settings, but in the way his characters observe the natural world around them. As with Mei in Totoro when first exposed to the alien world of the Japanese countryside, Ponyo is a fiery, unassuming bundle of energy who cannot contain her delight at the human customs and technology surrounding her. To Ponyo a simple cup of milk and honey is as magical as the elixir that transforms the ocean, which is why Miyazaki's films are just as much about discovering a new way to look and think about the simpler aspects of the world around us as they are about the world he is capable of creating.
And that world is pretty damn fantabulous in Ponyo, which represents something of a stylistic departure for the director where he has foregone the highly detailed and precise artwork that has become one of his trademarks for a look that is much more simplistic and expressionistic in nature, with wonky lines and crayon coloured backgrounds that elicit the feel of children's sketches. Background Painter Noboru Yoshida and Chief Animator Katsuya Kondo have done some awe-inspiring work on this film - especially considering it was completely hand-drawn - and have helped Miyazaki create one of his most visually arresting films. It's certainly his most colourful, thanks to a bright DayGlo scheme that perfectly encapsulates the joyful tone of the film.
Miyazaki and Kondo have created some astoundingly well animated sequences in Ponyo, most of which stem from the idea to convey water as a living entity of its own that can become thick and malleable - and hence be shape-shifted into all manner of different forms. This is the visual hook that really makes the action in Ponyo, not least by giving birth to a fantastic sequence when Ponyo makes her second escape from Fujimoto by breaking through his magical barriers and then running atop the waves of a high storm that's lashing Sōsuke's town. It's one of the most thrilling sequences of Miyazaki's career, not to mention one of the best sounding thanks to the Wagnerian approach of Joe Hisaishi's score.
Yet with all its majesty and simplicity, and despite receiving the most widespread U.S release of any Ghibli film by a long, long way; Ponyo received very little fanfare or publicity online, almost as if the usually vocal Ghibli fans where now alienated by the director's return to films made for grade-schoolers. It was even criminally ignored by the 82nd Academy Awards, with not a single nomination - not even for Best Animated Film! His first failure since the category was created; perhaps he should've thrown in a few chase sequences after all!
The International PrintThe version of Ponyo found on this release and indeed the US Blu-ray release are all using the international print used for the film's Western theatrical releases, which means that both the opening and closing credit sequences and the "light signals" scene are presented with English text rather than the original Japanese. There's also the addition of the English voice cast to the original Japanese credits, which results in the theme song playing over the credits ending a good few seconds before the credits sequence itself, so it then fades into silence. These are not major alterations, but I've seen many an Asian film purist scoff over Anglicised credits over the years to know it may be an issue for some.
PresentationPresented in 1.85:1 Ponyo looks every bit as stunning on Blu-ray as I'd hope it would. First and foremost is how well the bright colour scheme is rendered, there's a multitude of different colours and shades present in each frame of the film and they're all vivaciously brought to life by the transfer. The image is also pin-sharp, offering up an intricate level of clarity in the crayon-coloured backgrounds and revealing the texture of the simple artistic tools Noboru Yoshida employed. The print used is pristine, with maybe one or two scratches and nicks appearing throughout, and grain is contained to an extremely light layer that can barely be seen. Brightness and contrast seem perfectly balanced as well. The only thing that lets the transfer down slightly is that as ever with an Anime production banding is present in the deep blue ocean sequences and the AVC compression struggles slightly in places despite having a reasonable average bit rate of 27.50Mbps.
I was bitterly disappointed to hear that Disney had neglected to include a lossless Japanese surround track for their US Blu-ray release, as Ponyo's sound design is every bit as wonderful as every other aspect of the film; so it's with great pleasure that I can report that this release comes with Japanese DTS-HD MA 6.1 and DD2.0 tracks, as well as English LPCM 5.1 and DD2.0 tracks for fans of the English dub. Optional English subtitles are also included for the main feature, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
The first thing that struck me about the Japanese DTS-HD MA 6.1 track was how enveloping the sound is when Joe Hisaishi's score kicks in and we start on the ocean bed for Ponyo's first escape from Fujimoto's vessel. You are completely transported to the bottom of the ocean by the sound field and dynamics of the audio, with each element delicately defined and all speakers brimming with life. This standard is maintained for the rest of the film with clear audible dialogue and refined separation throughout. Bass levels are suitably deep and subtly graded when the action kicks in - particularly during the sequence where Ponyo runs atop the ocean waves, which is when Joe Hisaishi's score is at its most bombastic. It's not the loudest of audio tracks though, so you may have to turn the volume setting of your amp up a little bit.
The English LPCM 5.1 track is equally as good, so I was hard pressed to find any difference between the two tracks - even the dialogue is mixed pretty closely to the Japanese in volume and tone. If you're reliant on 2.0 audio then you'll be well served by the Japanese and English DD2.0 tracks. Obviously they don't sound as expansive or enveloping as their lossless surround counterparts, but both have good dynamics, solid bass and clear dialogue.
ExtrasThere's certainly no shortage of extra footage on this disc, with Optimum/Madman cherry picking many of the featurettes found in the US Disney release alongside some pilfering of the excellent Japanese interviews and Making-Of specials made to promote Ponyo's original 2008 theatrical release. So we're very much given the best of both worlds.
Please Note: All Disney produced featurettes come with burnt-in subs for the Japanese dialogue, the Japanese produced featurettes come with removable English subs.
The featurettes produced for Disney's US Blu-ray release are as follows:
Storyboards (102m:16s, 480p)
Hayao Miyazaki drew all the storyboards by hand himself so this is very much a feature any true Ghibli completist will want to check out, the storyboards themselves are shown in a Picture-in-Picture style 480p box while the main feature plays. If you're watching in Japanese with English subs then they appear over both the main feature and the storyboards box.
Meet Ponyo: Introduction by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (03m:20s, 1080p, English DD5.1)
The English dub's Executive Producers talk about their working relationship with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter, what Ponyo means to them, and how they developed and recorded the American dub.
A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter (03m.30s, 1080p, English/Japanese DD5.1)
A sit down at Studio Ghibli in Tokyo between Lasseter and Miyazaki with each speaking in their native tongues. It's tragic that this interview is just over three minutes long because who better to grill Miyazaki for a Western audience than long time friend and fellow great animator John Lasseter, but alas all we have to make do with is an insightful conversation that touches upon the original idea behind Ponyo and some of the brilliant animation effects.
Behind the Microphone: The Voices of Ponyo (06m:02s, 1080p, English DD5.1)
Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are back to talk more in-depth about recording the English dub and the actors they hired to play each of the primary roles as we see footage of said actors and hear their opinions on their respective roles with brief interview footage of each performer.
Creating Ponyo (03m:56s, 1080p, Japanese DD5.1)
Another far-too-brief Miyazaki interview, with him talking this time about creating Ponyo and how he came up with some of the film's more fantastical elements and the characterisation of Ponyo and Sōsuke.
Ponyo and Fujimoto (02m:58s, 1080p, Japanese DD5.1)
Miyazaki turns his attention to Ponyo and Fujimoto this time, focussing more on Fujimoto and revealing that the character was partly based on Chief Animator Katsuya Kondo. He also explains what he wanted to express about contemporary Japanese fatherhood with the character.
The Nursery (01m:57s, 1080p, Japanese DD5.1)
Chief Producer and President of Studio Ghibli: Toshio Suzuki tells the story of how Ponyo was originally conceived as a film set completely in a children's nursery, but before that came to fruition Miyazaki decided he wanted to build a nursery instead. We get to see the finished nursery here.
Scoring Miyazaki (07m:17s, 1080p, Japanese DD5.1)
Toshio Suzuki and legendary Miyazaki Film Composer: Joe Hisaishi discuss the Ponyo soundtrack, with Hisaishi starting off by explaining how he came up with the scores of Ghibli classics: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and my personal favourite of his: Laputa: Castle in the Sky. I'm gutted that again what we have here is simply too short to do the topic at hand justice.
It's also worth noting for HD fans that there is a lot of HD footage of Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa edited into this featurette, although I'd hope that the final Blu-rays of each prove to be higher quality than what we have here, with Kiki's Delivery Service looking particularly clipped.
The Producer’s Perspective: Telling the Story (02m:25s, 1080p, Japanese DD5.1)
Toshio Suzuki takes us through the Miyazaki Method from conception to the start of production, complete with cool footage of early production artwork for the likes of Ponyo, Kiki and Laputa. There's more HD footage of those films here as well.
The Locations in Ponyo (09m:43s 1080p, Japanese DD5.1)
This featurette is in fact an excerpt from the 2nd of the two Ghibli no Fuukei (The Scenery of Ghibli) documentaries made by NTV and aired on Japanese Satellite TV in 2006 and 2008, which both visit the real life locations that inspired Miyazaki's films. A narrator informs us that Miyazaki developed ideas for Ponyo whilst staying in a port town of the Seto Inland Sea, which Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli Employees first discovered in 2004 by going there for a retreat after Howl's Moving Castle was finished. We are taken through the town by the local representative who handled Miyazaki during his stay, so he has lots to reveal about what places Miyazaki found particular interest in and what his daily routines were. The town itself is idyllic, so if you're interested in traditional Japanese architecture then this will be a must watch. If you aren't familiar then it should prove insightful anyway.
Now for the featurettes that were produced to promote Ponyo's original Japanese theatrical release in 2008:
The Five Genuises Who Created Ponyo (48m:57s, 1080i, Japanese DD2.0)
This is a special episode of the popular Japanese news show: NEWS ZERO, that looked at the making of Ponyo by focussing on 5 key production staff, they are:
Katsuya Kondo - Supervising Animator
Noboru Yoshida - Art Director
Michiyo Yasuda - Colour Designer
Shuji Inoue - Recording & Sound Mix
Joe Hisaishi - Composer
Each section of the episode is given its own chapter stop on this Blu-ray, so you can jump to each one individually or play the entire episode in one go. Also playing at the end of each section of the key staff is an interview with Hayao Miyazaki conducted by newscaster Nobutaka Murao which touches upon the staff member in question.
This was clearly made for a child audience so it's extremely accessible and yet still a highly comprehensive look at how Studio Ghibli operates, acting almost like a How To guide to Ghibli animation as it takes us through the various tricks of the trade. It's by far the most illuminating featurette on the disc with regards to Ponyo's production and the interview excerpts with Miyazaki are also particularly revealing.
Hayao Miyazaki Interview (14m:51s, 1080i, Japanese DD2.0)
Ever the good natured, giggling interviewee, Miyazaki-san really dissects the characters of Ponyo and explains his thought process behind both these characters and various pivotal scenes in the film. An excellent interview that should satisfy any Miyazaki fan.
Toshio Suzuki Interview (29m:41s, 1080i, Japanese DD2.0)
Now this is the jewel in the crown of this Blu-ray, Toshio Tsuchiya interviewing Toshio Suzuki for Dai2 NTV in 2008 not long before production on Ponyo wrapped. It starts off with Suzuki telling a great story about how he suggested to Miyazaki that they close Studio Ghibli after Princess Mononoke completed, and the conversation just flows from there with one great anecdote after the next and Suzuki proving to be a witty and frank interviewee as he reveals more insight into Miyazaki than all the other featurettes combined.
Dubbing Session and Interview with the Japanese Cast (24:54, 1080i, Japanese DD5.1)
This featurette shows the recording sessions and individual interviews for each member of the primary cast - including Akiko Yano dubbing Ponyo's Sisters! It's great to hear from the entire cast and see Miyazaki actively directing each as they record their dubs, he also provides extra background information on each character not found in the film for the actors to get a handle on their roles. It's also great to see how the old animator lights up around child stars Yuria Nara and Hiroki Doi, proving he's every bit the affable jiji you'd hope he would be from watching his films.
Theme Song Music Video (03m:32s, 1080p, Japanese DD2.0)
As the title would suggest this is the very cheaply made music video for the film's theme song, which was recorded by the stars of the video: Folk group Fujioka Fujimaki (Takaaki Fujioka and Naoya Fujimaki) and child singer/actor Nozomi Ōhashi. The theme sees the two members of Fujioka Fujimaki as the put-upon butlers of a young oujō-sama played by Nozomi. Look out for a cameo by Toshio Suzuki as the girl's chauffeur.
Japanese Trailers and TV Spots (04m:18s, 1080p, Japanese DD2.0)
A selection of two film trailers, a single TV spot, and a trio of promotional tie-ins that ran on Japanese TV. You'll see more of Fujioka Fujimaki and Nozomi Ōhashi in here, and you can play each trailer/spot individually or all in one go. I should also mention that right at the start of the disc, before the menus load are 720p trailers for Tales From Earthsea, The Cat Returns, and Ocean Waves.