Ponyo is a touching story about a young boy and a fish, with many themes about fathers. It shows the importance of fathers to their children, as well as looking at over-protective fathers.
What I find most interesting about Ponyo is how it portrays child-parent relationships and the behavior of children. Ponyo seems to be reflecting a cultural mindset, which may give it more truth than might be apparent.
What got my attention most was the male lead, the five-year-old Sosuke. He is, without a doubt, the most level headed, collected and responsible five-year-old I have ever seen, and it is that responsibility I want to talk about.
I think this is best illustrated by comparing Sosuke to the main characters of another Ghibli movie, My Neighbor Totoro. In Totoro, the focus is on how the two sisters interact with the world of magical spirits, as well as their worrying for the health of their mother. It is largely about how they feel.
In Ponyo, we have a very different story, but with similar themes. It is also about the interaction with the world of nature and magic. However, the focus is far less on Sosuke’s interaction (i.e. play) with the magical world than it is about his dealing with what comes out of it, like Ponyo and all the problems she causes. It is much less about how he feels and more about what he does.
This difference can even be seen within the cast of Ponyo. Ponyo herself spends most of her time on land learning to interact with it, experiencing it with wonder, while Sosuke is there to keep an eye on her and lead the way. Once again, what matters is how she feels and what he does.
I think this reflects an interesting viewpoint on how little boys and little girls work and live. Sosuke is shown as stepping up, taking charge and being responsible for those he cares about and for his own actions. He worries about keeping his promises and takes responsibility for caring for Ponyo without a single thought to the contrary.
American media is so bloated with girl power and political correctness gone wrong that it is rare to see a boy as anything buy a punching bag (both verbal and physical), so it is interesting to see a different take on ‘what little boys are made of’, showing them as capable of understanding the consequences of their actions and taking responsibility.
More than that, however, I am always interested by takes on traditional gender roles, which is just what this is, and this film is made all the more intriguing by the fact that its creator, Hayao Miyazaki, is a self-proclaimed feminist, and so seeing an exploration of male responsibility and leadership from him makes it all the more telling.
I think American media has made many of us forget how little boys think, but this film gets back in touch with that, hopefully reminding us how not all traditional gender roles are totally learned, that some behavior is natural and that such natural tendencies should be nurtured and encouraged, in both boys and girls.
The eagerness with which young boys seem to assume roles of leadership and to take on duties of protecting others is well documented and Ponyo’s portrayal of such behavior rings with the note of truth. That is not to say that girls are naturally followers. Far from it (just ask my sisters). However, despite how the media ignores this, little boys do seem to naturally gravitate towards roles of leadership and protecting. Maybe not more than girls, but at the very least in their own unique way.
The Incredibles is a fun and frantic family adventure which focuses on the quest for self-worth of Mr. Incredible (see my post on it here), but it also has a subtle message about young boys, as shown in the character of Dash.
There are two children (of speaking age) in The Incredibles, Dash and Violet, each with their own sub-plot. Violet’s is about her own self-esteem and her courage to be more open and forward.
Dash’s, on the other hand, is more buried in the main plot but is also more complex. He is endowed with the power of super-speed, and with it apparently came super-competitiveness. However, his parents (or at least his mother, depending on Bob’s mood) will not let him go out for school sports because of his lack of control.
What this represents, or at least can represent, more than overly controlling parents is the trend in American education to suppress the natural behaviors of boys in favor of a more conformist and often feminine system of behavior.
American schools are full of examples of boys being forced into learning environments which are not suited to them, and this includes often blatant disdain for the naturally physical nature of male competitiveness. Sports are the last place of release for boys, but even this is obstructed in some cases, and the Incredibles shows an example of how a boy can be left with no outlet.
In the end, Dash is given the chance to go out for the track team and he does well and stays in control.
The resolution is subtle, I didn’t even notice it until recently, but it clearly states the idea that boys need to be allowed to compete and that they shouldn’t be held back. It recognizes the societal blocks placed against boys and shows that these blocks can and should be knocked down, allowing the young man to express himself as a young man, even when that means being different.
Really, the stories of Dash and Violet show an interesting reflection of our world. Violet is held back by herself, while Dash is held back by society.
Simple subplots, or truth in fiction?