As a parent, I get subjected to my fair share of kids’ movies. Luckily, my kids have always enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki films (man, did I get weird looks when I left a copy of Spirited Away as the film they could watch on on overnight babysitting excursion). Miyazaki does some amazing work, so it’s a pleasure for me to watch as well as the children. So when Ponyo came out, I was thrilled to death because it managed to combine Miyazaki with one of my favorite childhood stories: The Little Mermaid. Given, this one doesn’t have the original ending (which, by the way, was the first version I read as a little kid – gorgeous illustrated book with a seafoam depiction has remained with me). I love this rendition of the tale – it’s flat-out charming. As more time and viewings elapsed, I found myself laughing more and more at the way that parenthood is presented in this film. Or rather, how it’s presented when a parent is actually around.
You see, the parents in Ponyo suck.
This isn’t a new theme for Miyazaki, who often centers his stories around young, independent girls questing on their own. The downside of this is that we get children that are left to figure out concepts beyond their social-emotional mindset without guidance. What we do get to see of their parents isn’t exactly positive. In Spirited Away, we have a set of parents lacking common sense whose actions manage to land their daughter in a contract of servitude. Castle in the Sky presents a mother with adult sons entirely too dependent upon her and are socially stunted as a result. Howl’s Moving Castle features a mother that sells out her daughter as part of a duplicitous governmental plan to obtain an unwilling wizard for a war effort. I could keep going, but we’ll stop there. Point is, parents are dangerous when they actually take a minute to be in the picture.
In Ponyo, though, we get to see a lot more of the parents, though they operate in a fashion that does not connect them totally to their children. Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto, is first met while hard at work creating life in the ocean; his children, meanwhile, are inside of a submarine, by themselves with not much else to do but swim around in their protective bubble. Apparently, it’s a huge shock when Ponyo gets bored and runs off, as Fujimoto’s main line in the film is, “Respect your father!” Ponyo’s mother, Granmamare (which, I have to interrupt to add this – was it just me, or was Cate Blanchett whipping out her best Galadriel voice?), is not present in her children’s lives; she must be summoned, with Fujimoto remarking, “It’s been a long time” when she finally shows up. What’s Granmamere’s reponse? “Look at my ocean!” There’s no immediate asking of her children’s well-being or expression of happiness to see her partner. When Fujimoto explains the situation with their child using magic to turn human and place the planet out of balance, she reponds, “Ponyo? What a lovely name.” Fujimoto seems to grasp that the situation is grave, conceding that Ponyo is “too powerful” yet is too young to understand that her love for Sōsuke could end their world. I suppose we should give thanks for this small blessing, because Granmamare offers this solution: “Why don’t get let Ponyo become human for good? We must test the boy.” Think about that: Granmamare’s unhesitant solution is to let her child undergo a test that could result in her child’s death. There’s a time and a place to let your kid make her own choices, but really, this felt entirely too young. Granmamare is willing to let her daughter be turned into seafoam if it fails. It’s not like Ponyo has lived a full life – she’s a little kid. This is a bit too far into calm territory. There’s a line between letting your kid make decisions on her own and just not giving a shit. Granmamare, who is not very present to begin with, falls firmly into the latter category.
Sōsuke doesn’t fare much better; in fact, his parental experience parallels Ponyo’s in many ways, yet deviates from Ponyo’s experience in terms of unrealistic responsibilities and expectations imposed on him by the adults. His dad, Kōichi, is largely absent from his life in the same vein that Ponyo’s mother is absent; at one point, Lisa uses the term “abandon” to describe his actions of constantly working. His mother, Lisa, is best described as unobservant – she lets her five-year-old son play unsupervised by a cliff on the ocean, and focuses more on her job as a caretaker at a senior living facility than getting her son to school. Throw in that she places her son in danger to drive home in a wicked flood (and that she can’t seem to drive to save her life), and Lisa’s downright reckless. On top of this dynamic, Kōichi attempts to draft Sōsuke into telling Lisa about his extra run at work, to which Sōsuke replies, “No, you should tell her.” Sōsuke then has to pep talk his mother when she’s upset that her husband is not coming home. Later on, Lisa decides to check up on the seniors after the flood… and leaves her five-year-old as the man of the house while she goes off on her adventure. When the scared child tells his mother, “We can wake up Ponyo and take her with us. I want to go with you,” Lisa replies, “Our house is a beacon in the storm. Our light can be seen by the town and the ships and every place else that’s dark…. So I’m going to leave you here in charge. You’ll do the right thing… You have to be the man of the house tonight.You’re only five but you’re very smart. Sometimes we take a leap. Be brave.” That’s a lot to thrust onto a kid that’s barely learned to read.
The end result is that while Ponyo and Sōsuke come out stronger, they really don’t get much adult auidance, which decreases their ability to be children as opposed to small adults. Ponyo is told that she has to abandon magic for Sōsuke, while Sōsuke is asked if he could love Ponyo even if she wasn’t magic. Those are tall orders for kids that are fucking five; when I was five, I would have agreed to a lifetime of bologna and Sprite for lunch if you had asked me. That these massive, life-altering decisions are asked of these two very young children seems unfair, and it’s even worse that the parents are so blase about it. Come on, I know adults that are stuck in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development (let alone those that have made it to the critical thinking threshold that many don’t reach) that don’t quite grasp some of the concepts these two are dealing with, yet here we are. At the end of the film, we’re left with a little girl that does not know how to get along without magic – which she’s used throughout the entire film – and a little boy who is basically engaged and running the show solo at home. Why the hell aren’t these kids out having fun? Shouldn’t they be allowed to be, oh, I don’t know, children? In fact, Fujimoto goes so far as to shake Sōsuke’s hand and tells him to take care of his daughter. Let me reiterate: these kids are five. They need a little more help growing up. You can’t just give them twenty bucks and a picnic basket and wish them luck for the rest of their lives. We may as well slap these two with a mortgage and a 401k while we’re at it.
Lisa tells Granmamare upon departure, “I’ll take care of her.” While this line is moving to me as a mother (because really, who wants to think that someone else is going to be raising your children and that you’ll never see them again?), it also makes me chuckle. Lisa wouldn’t even take care of her own kid – what makes Granmamare think that she would actually take care of hers? And while we’re at it, that adds a whole new level of squick to the story – those two are going to grow up together… in the same house… same age… kind of like siblings. If you can push all of that out of your head, you’ll have a great time. However, once you see it… the movie takes on a life of its own.