Ponyo and the Art of the Unsaid

23 08 2009

Warning: Spoilers ahead

I don’t particularly care for profanity from stand-up comics or explicit sexuality in movies. It’s not that I have any moral objections to four-letter words or people doing the nasty (particularly the latter), it’s more that I believe that great art comes as much from what is not shown as what is. The tighter the boundaries a piece of art must push against, the greater the breakthrough when something really works within a particular set of conventions. I think great art is found in the negative space where the audience is forced to dig in and work. It’s not for nothing that the term Anvilicious was coined to mock the heavy-handed “This is the message, people!” moments that pass for social commentary in movies and TV shows. I thought about this a lot today while watching the new Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo with the kids.

Ponyo of course, is the latest animated film from the genius behind Spirited Away (among others). It’s the light-hearted tale of a magical goldfish named Ponyo that falls in love with a five-year boy named Sosuke and wants to become human. There’s more to it, of course. There are a number of plots running though the piece including bits about Sosuke’s mother’s job at an old-age home, worries about his father who’s the captain of a ship that may be lost at sea and the cosmic rift that Ponyo has unwittingly opened that threatens to destroy the Earth. Of course the real reason to see it is absolutely spectacular imagery that Miyazaki created using the kind-of old-school animation techniques that would have been recognizable by Walt Disney himself.

What’s really amazing about Ponyo however, is how much of what the movie’s actually about is left unsaid. There’s only a single truly anvilicious moment in the film when Ponyo’s father (a formerly human sorcerer who now lives in the sea and struggles to maintain the “balance of nature”) mentiones that he really doesn’t like humans because of the way they mess up the ocean floor and get in the way of his work — and I’m not sure whether that’s actually the product of Myazaki or the translated English screenplay produced by E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison. Make no mistake about it though, environmental degradation and humanity’s responsibility for it are a big part of Ponyo’s story, but one has to dig deeply into what’s not said to find it.

The beginning of the film, for example, shows the viewer some absolutely spectacular imagery of the living seas — jellyfish, fish, diatoms and all kind of beautiful undersea lifeforms wheeling about in a spectacular dance. It’s a stunning “Circle of Life” moment. Ponyo then escapes from her controlling father and heads for the surface world. What follows is an absolutely brutal yet lovely sequence of Ponyo’s Dad struggling through the trash-strewn harbor waters around Sosuke’s home searching for Ponyo and Ponyo’s near death from a dredger and a discarded fruit jar. This is followed by what on the surface is a lighthearted comedic moment that’s actually bitterly ironic where Sosuke’s mother takes Ponyo’s father to task because she believe the spray pumper he uses to keep himself wet on land is some sort of weed-killer and “we don’t use weed-killer around here.”

It’s this kind of subtlety that’s at work throughout the entire film. Miyazaki never comes out and says that humans are evil for messing up the environment or that there’s a Captain Planet-like conspiracy to befoul our home. Indeed, this is a film notable for the fact that there are no villains. Everyone in the movie is doing what they do out of the best possible motives. The real villain of the movie is parochial self-interest — being so narrowly focused on one’s immediate concerns that one doesn’t take the time to revel in the world around oneself and appreciate the magic and wonders that lie right in front of our noses. At one point, Sosuke’s mother Lisa casually tosses off the practiced line “Life is full of wonders” — casually dismissing the miraculous appearence of a little girl who came to them running on a wave. Indeed, Ponyo herself is the greatest perpetrator of this — being so focused on her affection for Sosuke and her desire to become human that she nearly destroys the world.

This sort of parochialism is shown again and again throughout the film. After a storm has ravaged Sosuke’s tiny fishing community, Sosuke and Ponyo go on a quest in a tiny boat to find Sosuke’s mother. As they travel, the audience is treated to incredible undersea vistas showing the now-drowned landscape with Devonian fish swimming along underwater freeways and through submerged forests. Much of this is shown from the height of the children;s waists, looking down as their feet pass over these marvels while they look ahead, completely unaware. Yet when a fleet of brightly colored flag-bearing rescue boats evacuating villagers comes by, Sosuke says “It’s like a parade!” completely unaware of the potential human tragedy that these boats represent. When the residents of the nursing home where Lisa works are miraculously healed and saved from drowning by a jellyfish-like air bubble provided by Ponyo’s dad, their main concern is eavesdropping on Lisa’s conversation.

Indeed, it doesn’t seem to me that Miyazaki believes that humanity is evil for what it does to the Earth. The vibe I got from the film was more one of sadness that responsible stewardship of the planet seems to require two characteristics that are awfully hard to reconcile with each other. The first is the child-like capacity to accept, appreciate and utilize all the wondrous and magical things that the universe provides. The second is the adult-like capacity to be a responsible caretaker with the hard-headed practicality to get things done. Ponyo herself is forced to give up magic to become truly human and Sosuke is asked to make the grown-up choice to take responsibility for her and Ponyo does indeed, get her happy ending. The central conundrum of the movie, however, is left unresolved. Is it possible to have both sides in the same person? Ponyo’s father would seem to be a likely candidate, but his gaunt, haggard appearance and acknowledgment that he’s long since left his own humanity behind don’t bode well for those trying to split that balance.

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Cultural Imperialism is a crock

15 08 2009

Just came back from taking the kids to see an exhibit on anime cels at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Yes, the Oscar people). It was really enjoyable and a little eye-opening. The exhibit was fairly small and mostly covered the most popular anime that’s made the crossover to Western audiences — Pokemon, Vampire Hunter D, Gatchaman, Robotech, the work of Studio Ghibli. Still, what I found really fascinatring is how familiar with all of this stuff my four-year old son was. I realized that looking around the exhibit, that this wasn’t terribly different from what he sees when he watches Saturday morning cartoons. Like it or not, much of American kid’s TV and kid’s culture in general has become an outpost for Japanese culture.

That got me thinking about the people who scream about “cultural imperialism” when a McDonald’s opens in Paris. Why are these people never equally concerned when a big chunk of America’s youth culture is dominated by the output of a single foreign nation? Why when the threat of violence shuts down one of the pillars of Western culture (as it did during the Muhammed cartoon controversy) do we hear that we need to be “sensitive” rather than calling it what it is — cultural imperialism? Forcing one culture to bend to another and compromise some of its most cherished principles at the point of a sword seems to me to be the very definition of the term. Everything else is just “life” and “marketing.” And no, I do not consider “marketing” to be evil.

I believe in diversity and multiculturalism. More than that, though, I also believe in the somewhat outmoded idea of the “melting pot.” The classic Schoolhouse Rock video naturally whitewashes much of the unsavory history of this country of course — particularly our treatment of Native Americans — but I believe that there’s a truth at the core of this video about the healthy transfer of ideas and goods between cultures and how they impact and alter one another. Indeed, I believe that the genius of America is the idea that we are not “ein volk.” You don’t have to have blood ties to the land to be a true American. You don’t have to have a particular skin color or religious belief to be one. To be an American is at it’s core, is to be a subscriber to an ideal. True, the genuine nation of America often falls far short of the ideal, but that doesn’t mean the ideal isn’t important as something to shoot for.

The idea that a culture must somehow be kept “pure” strikes me as remarkably racist and bigoted. A “pure” culture, one that never changes, is never tainted by “outsiders” is a dead culture. More than that, it treats denizens of those other cultures like stupid children as if they aren’t fully responsible beings making their own choices. They perversely buy into the idea of American cultural superiority by treating American culture like a virulent plague that will just wipe out every indigenous culture it comes across. It often seems like those who cry loudest about “Diversity” mean it in the sense that hothouse flowers are diverse. They’ve got all kinds of pretty colors, but if they cross-pollinate with one another, then they become hopelessly mongrelized. At the risk of losing this argument before it begins, it’s the kind of fascist thinking that frankly scares me and it’s not the kind of thing I’ll allow my half-Jew/half-Mexican all-American-except-that-they-really-like-Transformers-anime-kids to be victim to.

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