Ponyo Review – Unhealthy Messages for Boys and Girls
I just saw the film Ponyo – the one everyone is raving about for its animation, strong environmental message and feminist undertones. The reviews are right on the first two points. The animation is beautiful and the message about taking care of our oceans comes across loud and clear. It’s the feminist aspect that I disagree with. Vehemently.
I am no expert on the work of Hayao Miyazaki. I have heard that he imbues his films with very positive messages for females, and I will be watching two of his other films (Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke) as soon as I can get my hands on them. Based on his reputation, I held out high hopes for Ponyo, but found myself very disappointed. Not only is this film NOT feminist, it also sends some pretty negative messages to boys.
A quick setup. Ponyo, a fish, desires to become human after an encounter with a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke. When she eventually sprouts legs and arms and ventures off on her journey to find Sosuke (whom she loves in an innocent, childlike way), she unwittingly unleashes a massive tsunami on the village where he lives, and knocks Earth’s natural balance out of whack. The only way to restore that balance is through a test of Sosuke’s love for Ponyo. If it is real, she can stay human and everyone will live happily ever after, with the possible exception of the many fish who will continue to be bottom-trawled to death, as one of the earlier scenes so ably demonstrates.
Let’s get the good parts out of the way. The little boy in the film – Sosuke – is a wonderful character. He is sweet and caring and wise beyond his years. His compassion and sensitivity make him an exceptional role model for little boys. Ponyo is also fairly well drawn, in all senses of the word. She is strong and determined and she is not sexualized, as so many young girls in children’s films are.
Now let’s look at the problems with this film, at least as far as gender is concerned. We have three troublesome and all too familiar tropes at work here – a boy being separated from his mother to prove his “manhood”, a girl needing rescue by a boy, and this seemingly independent little girl having her future determined by others. Oh, and one more thing, the adult women are conventionally thin and pretty.
First, the mother/son separation. In the middle of the tsunami caused by Ponyo’s transformation – a vicious and frightening storm – Sosuke’s mother (Lisa) decides to leave him alone with Ponyo so she can go help the residents at the seniors’ centre where she works. Yes – she actually leaves her 5-year-old alone in a hilltop, oceanside home to fend for himself during the storm of the century. As she is departing amidst his tears and protests, she delivers a classic speech about him being the man of the house; that even though he is young, he can take care of himself and the fish out of water, Ponyo.
Would she have left a daughter alone like that, with similar puffery about being a woman and being ready for such responsibility? Doubtful. So poor little Sosuke – like so many male characters in fairy tales, myths and legends – is forced into a painful separation from his mother before he is emotionally ready, all so he can become “a man”. No time for “girlie” things like fear or crying – he needs to take charge. (The issue of being too close to Mommy is a particularly sensitive one for boys in the demographic targeted by this film and this scene will offer little comfort to them.)
And then there is Lisa’s appearance. Like pretty much every adult female character in children’s animation, she is beautiful and ridiculously thin. But she is nothing compared to Ponyo’s mother. This omnipotent ocean goddess is stunning. As one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes notes, she looks like she was designed by Mattel.
My second and third points of criticism come toward the end of the film. Sosuke and Ponyo are on their way to search for Lisa – ignorant of the fact that she has made a deal with Ponyo’s parents to test Sosuke’s love. As they get closer, Ponyo starts to revert back into her fishy form and almost dies. Only Sosuke’s desperate dash for the water manages to save her. I guess this was part of the test, but why did the girl have to come so close to death? Could she not have stayed strong and helped Sosuke find his way to his mother?
After both children are reunited with their parents, Ocean Goddess decrees that Ponyo can stay human as long as Sosuke really loves her. (The scene struck me as very similar to an arranged marriage, but I digress.) So this rebellious little fish ultimately has no say in her future. If Sosuke loves her, it all works out. If he doesn’t love her, she will turn into seafoam. It all depends on him.
I will admit that some of these themes will be over the heads of the children in the audience. But by offering up many of the same gender stereotypes that North American films do, Ponyo reinforces some troubling ideas: boys need to be tough even when it hurts, girls cannot be heroes, and they certainly cannot determine their own future without the input of a man.
Sad, sad, sad.