Ponyo (DVD)–Anime Review

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4.5 Stars

I wrote a capsule movie review of Ponyo back when it was released in American movie theaters. Now that I have had a chance to examine the DVD version I am going to write an updated review.

A movie review necessarily gives my first impression after viewing it once. Having a DVD allows me to examine the work in detail, which often changes my impression of it–sometime for the better and sometimes for the worse.

  • Original Title
    Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on Top of the Cliff) [1]
  • Genres
    Fantasy, Adventure
  • Languages
    English, Japanese with subtitles, French
  • Contents
    103 minutes plus bonus material in a 2-DVD set.
  • Director
    Hayao Miyazaki
  • Screenplay
    Hayao Miyazaki
  • Art Director
    Noboru Yoshida
  • Animation Director
    Katsuya Kondo
  • Music
    Joe Hisaishi
  • Executive Producer
    Koji Hoshino
  • Producer
    Toshio Suzuki
  • Animation Studio
    Studio Ghibli
  • Released
  • North American Publisher
    Walt Disney Home Entertainment

When I first saw the movie, I was struck by the simplicity of the artwork, especially the backgrounds, which resemble a children’s book and are a far cry from the almost baroque complexity of Spirited Away. After rewatching the movie on DVD I decided that the simplicity is deceptive; the animation is actually extremely sophisticated. Studio Ghibli is the king of the animation hill at the moment; no other studio in the world can match them (though Disney in their heyday could have given them a run for their money.)

The movie was shown in theaters with an English dub. The DVD lets us compare the English dub with the original Japanese soundtrack. The English dub holds up surprisingly well. The Disney releases of Miyazaki’s films are a solid refutation of the thesis that every anime dub must be excruciatingly bad. On the contrary, an English dub can be quite good if it is done by good actors and, more importantly, by a competent director who understands and respects the material.

However on balance I have to say that the Japanese soundtrack is better. The most important difference is in the character of 5-year-old Sousuke, who has more lines than anyone else in the movie and is crucial to the story. Hayao Miyazaki seems to have gone to great deal of trouble to find an 9-year-old boy (Hiroki Doi) who was capable of playing the part convincingly. Disney cast the youngest member of the Jonas Brothers, presumably because he was already under contract. The difference is very noticeable.

There is one surprising thing about the Japanese soundtrack that is not at all apparent in the English dub: everyone calls everyone else by their first names, which is quite contrary to the normal Japanese practice. It is more like the way they think Westerners talk to each other. In every other respect the story seems to be set in modern Japan, but this gives it a kind of unreal fairy-tale quality.

The front of the DVD case states prominently: “Inspired by the Classic Hans Christian Anderson Story THE LITTLE MERMAID.” I can guess at the marketing rationale that led Disney to include this line, but I think it is unfortunate. The resemblance between the two stories is so slight as to be unnoticeable.

The second DVD in the set contains the usual assortment of storyboards, promotional materials and interviews with the production staff.

Parental Advisory

Like My Neighbor Totoro, this is one of those rare animes that is truly suitable for all ages.

It is actually quite difficult to make a movie that can hold the interest of adults without upsetting small children. (Even some of the classic Disney movies can be quite disturbing to 5-year-olds.) Hayao Miyazaki clearly has the knack, when he chooses to use it. (Some of his other movies are definitely not intended for small children.)

Premise and Characters

In a small house on a cliff overlooking the Inland Sea lives a little boy named Sousuke.

Risa [2], his mother, is strong-willed, busy, capable, and drives like a maniac.
Kouichi, his father, is the captain of a small freighter, which keeps him away from home for long periods.
Deep beneath the surface of the ocean the sea wizard Fujimoto has spent many years collecting vials of life force, which he hopes to use to trigger another Cambrian Explosion and repopulate the seas.
Fujimoto has many daughters who look like fish with human faces. The eldest one is curious about the world above the surface.
She hitches a ride on a large jellyfish to ride up to the surface…
…but she ends up trapped in a net filled with trash.
Sousuke finds her and rescues her.
He puts her in a bucket, feeds her ham and gives her the name Ponyo.
Sousuke shows Ponyo to Toki, Noriko and Yoshie at the senior center where his mother works. Noriko and Yoshie are delighted, but Toki recoils in horror, warning that a fish with a human face will bring about a tsunami.
Fujimoto uses his powers to recover Ponyo and return her to their home under the sea. To his horror she insists that she loves Sousuke and wants to become human and live with him.
Ponyo steals some of her father’s magic and uses it to transform herself into a human girl and return to Sousuke.
This upsets the order of nature with cataclysmic results.
Sousuke and Ponyo set out on a journey in a world changed almost beyond recognition.
The only one who may know how to restore the balance of the world is Ponyo’s Mother, a gigantic sea-goddess [3].


Wikipedia entry (spoilers).

ANN Encyclopedia entry.

Entry on Nausicaa.net (pretty sparse at the moment, hopefully more will be added.)


[1] Some sites give the title as “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.” This was apparently Disney’s original working title, but they ended up releasing it with the less poetic title “Ponyo.”

[2] The subtitles call her “Lisa”, which is OK since the popular Japanese name “Risa” is just the English name written in hiragana. However I will stick with my usual practice of writing anime characters’ names in proper romaji, which does a better job of indicating how they are pronounced.

[3] Her name is given as “Guranmanmare” in some documents, but as far as I can tell this is not used in the movie. Kouichi identifies her as Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.

2 thoughts on “Ponyo (DVD)–Anime Review

  1. Matthew

    I received my UK special edition Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack yesterday. I’ve watched it twice, once in the native Japanese with subtitles, and once in English. I was very surprised at the difference in dialogue between the two. For example, as you point out, in Japanese, Sosuke does indeed call her Lisa – yet in the English dub, he refers to her as “Mom” for the entire movie. Also, the English subs, that are supposed to be used with the Japanese track, when used with the English track instead, have HUGE differences….and for this I see no reason at all. I can’t see what Disney were playing at. The bastardisation of the wonderful song into a horrible kiddie techno/pop/rap during the end titles was unforgivable. As, too, is the fact that English language translations *always* upon *always” have American actors. About time they give English, Australian or New Zealand actors a chance.

  2. Jonathan Tappan Post author

    I presume that Disney uses American voice actors because they are an American studio and either have the American actors under contract, or have existing relationships with their agents. Sure, there might be an Australian who would be better for some particular role, but they aren’t prepared to invest in a world-wide talent search. We should probably be grateful that we get well-known established actors of any sort.

    It is actually a GOOD thing if the subtitles don’t match the dialog in the English dub. A proper dubbing job start with a subtitle script that is a faithful translation of the original Japanese script. This must be converted to a dubbing script with the correct number of syllables to match the characters’ mouth movements, and rephrasing of lines that don’t sound natural in spoken English. Often the dub also contains ad-libs by the voice actors, which probably deviate even further from the original.

    So if you see a “dubtitled” release where the subtitles exactly match the English dub, you can be sure it is a shoddy product from a producer who doesn’t care about giving subtitle viewers an accurate translation (and is probably confused about the difference between subtitles and closed-captioning.)

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