Ponyo. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Toho. 2008.

‘What? She is captured by a boy? This is very bad. Is it already dead?’ yells Ponyo’s father Fujimoto when realising his precious daughter is being kept as a pet fish. The line raises an interesting question, does cinema represent animal domestication as kidnapping or an addition of family member? Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy film Ponyo retells the modern childhood tale The Little Mermaid. The protagonist, Ponyo, is a goldfish princess with magical power who desires to escape the strict surveillance of her powerful sorcerer father and explore the world. Ponyo stays in three different habitats in the opening sequence, each with its distinctive nature. This article will explore Miyazaki’s representation and attitude to animal-domestication of different ways.

At the beginning, Ponyo chooses a friendly jellyfish from deep sea as her first residence. A wide panning shot is used to show the majestic ocean as an establishing shot, it is one of the few shots that contains all natural mise-en-scene in the film. At the same time, a soft and slow non-diegetic opera music of a female mezzo-soprano voice is heard, which effectively connotes to the voice of the Mother Nature. The all-natural habitat serves as a big contrast to the one that Ponyo will later face, from the colour scheme, the texture of the mise-en-scene to the peaceful music, the distinctness of the scene successfully created an otherness in the film. The almost excessive cleanness and comfort of the frame also amplifies the upcoming revolt in comparison. The scene fades out and slowly the music is silenced, the audience is prepared for a shift of mood.

Ponyo on jellyfish and in glass jar

(Fig. 1. A jellyfish protects and transports Ponyo) (Fig. 2. A glass jar entraps Ponyo)

Amidst the huge amount of trash under the trawler, Ponyo gets trapped in a glass jar within seconds. It is a significant moment as this is the first encounter between Ponyo and a man-made object, which has now forced onto her and becomes her new habitat. The glass jar embodies the human’s violent restraint of animals under coercive domestication. We can note the position of Ponyo, shot length and the appearance of the glass jar in this frame all resemble the previous frame with the transparent jellyfish. (Fig. 1. and Fig. 2.) The similar frame compositions bring irony to the completely opposite situations and environments. Although Ponyo is pictured consistently, the colour palette of the background behind her is a lot muddier and grimmer, indicating Ponyo’s hopelessness in the plight. Using visual repetition, Miyazaki makes ecocriticism by efficiently drawing to the natural and artificial nature of the settlements. Supposedly the well-designed glass jar is a sturdy and protective container in the human world, the sequence however shows us that the artificial and industrial practices can prove stifling and murderous to the nature, and that the natural state is soft and most protective to animals. 

Ponyo in a bucket

 (Fig. 3 Ponyo in the green bucket.) (Fig. 4 Soskei puts Ponyo in the Bucket under a tap)   

Ponyo is eventually saved and freed from the glass jar by Soskei, who settles her with tap water in the third container in the sequence– the green bucket. (Fig. 3. Fig. 4.) Soskei makes a clear act of domesticating Ponyo with his personal object instead of putting her back in the sea. By doing so, he intends to offer her a home and therefore domesticates her. Despite the fact that the arrangement is completely artificial and isolated from her homeland, she swims at ease in the bucket and delightful music begins in the background. The frame captures her most cheerful expression with an extreme close up in Soskei’s subjective angle, shooting directly at her face. The green colour gives an amiable feeling to the scene as it universally symbolises life, nature and safety. Miyazaki strangely presents the green bucket as the most ideal habitation Ponyo can have, whereas in fact the living space is extremely limited comparing to the ocean, the freshwater also makes an unideal living condition. Ponyo, however, desires to live in the little bucket and never go back to the sea to her dear sisters. She also immediately forgets the horror caused by human trawlers moments ago.

The condition attributing to the two distinctly different animal-domestication scenes is that Ponyo has given a voice and treated much more like a human in the bucket. She interacts with Soskei both verbally and physically, the camerawork also allows her to be expressive of her emotions. During the first domestication in the glass jar, she has no voice because she literally cannot make a sound in the air tight container. Miyazaki’s representation of Ponyo suggests that if given a voice, animals are human-loving creatures and the domestication can be much desired and welcomed, and thus this form of domestication is seen as an addition of family members instead of a kidnapping crime.