My introduction to the work of Hayao Miyazaki was a crash course right around the time Miramax was getting ready to release "Princess Mononoke" here in the US.  One of the regular contributors to AICN, Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, was a raving Miyazaki lunatic, and he had spent months trying to talk Miramax into letting AICN have one of the one-on-one interview spots when Miyazaki came to LA.  He finally talked them into it... and then couldn't make it to LA for the interview.

He was gutted, and I still feel bad about it.  He really should have been the one to sit down and talk to this master animator.  He'd spent years thinking about what he would ask his idol if he met him and it just didn't work out.  So I was sent in his stead.  I was only able to see "Kiki's Delivery Service," "My Neighbor Totoro," and the Neil Gaiman-scripted dub of "Mononoke" before I spoke to him.

It was an amazing encounter that culminated in him drawing me my very own Totoro.

So, yeah, after that and then after catching up with the rest of his work and getting laid flat by how amazing it is, I've become a the same sort of raving fan, and I understand now why Paul took his work so seriously back in 1999.  Since then, he's added several more masterworks to his resume, and he's back with a new one later this summer, a film that played last night as the closing night event at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

[more after the jump]

One of the things that makes Miyazaki's films so special is the fact that in a pop culture that values BIGGER and LOUDER and FASTER and CRAZY and LOTS OF SOUND AND FURY, no matter what it signifies, Miyazaki seems to value the gentle.  The quiet.  The peaceful.  Arguably his greatest creation, Totoro is a giant wood spirit, a huge pillow of a creature with an appearance that is so appealing, so calming, that children innately trust it.  Toshi wanted nothing to do with "My Neighbor Totoro" the first time I suggested putting it on, as is the case whenever I suggest any new film for him, but from the moment he spotted the character on the screen in my office, he was hooked.  He didn't ask me the questions he normally asks when he watches something new, either.  He just accepted Totoro completely.  Immediately.  Just like the girls in the film do.  Kids look at Totoro, and they know exactly what he is.  Miyazaki's greatest gift is in his designs.  He doesn't draw what a character looks like outside.  He somehow manages to draw what they look like inside.  He illuminates with design.  His worlds wash over us fully formed, and "Ponyo," his newest jewel, is no exception.

One could argue that this is a riff on "The Little Mermaid."  Some of the tropes are there, definitely.  But "Ponyo" moves in its own mysterious ways as it tells the story of a small girl sea creature who falls in love with a boy who lives on the land, in a tiny house on a cliff with his mother and his father, who is frequently out at sea.  That's pretty much all the plot there is, and I love that there is nothing like a "bad guy" in the film.  Ponyo has a father, voiced in the American dub by Liam Neeson, who seems somewhat intense and sinister at first, but the longer he's onscreen, the more we realize that there's nothing evil about him.  And the big "confrontation" at the end of the film... isn't.  It's simply a choice that's offered, and then consequences from that choice.  Do you know how hard it is to find quality entertainment to share with your child that isn't based around standard notions of conflict?  Just being able to show him something that's exciting without ever having a fight scene in it is almost impossible.  And yet, Miyazaki makes it look easy.  There are harrowing, thrilling sequences here, and Toshi frequently got tense or anxious, completely involved in the film, but it's not because of some dumb fistfight or some tired showdown.  Instead, it's because he invested in the characters, and he was worried for them as they faced these perils.  But there's nothing in it where someone has to fight someone else to "win" the movie, and it saddens me that something so simple seems almost revolutionary.

Ponyo (voiced in the American dub by Noah Lindsey Cyrus) is a strange little thing, referred to several times in the film as a goldfish, but unlike any goldfish I've ever seen.  She's one of dozens of similar goldfish, the oldest of the bunch, all of them the children of Fujimoto (Neeson) and Granmamare (voiced here by Cate Blanchett).  He's a former human who turned his back on his kind in disgust, determined to serve and protect the seas instead, and she's a sea goddess.  Their children are magical things, with power they just barely understand, and as Ponyo begins to grow into that power, she finds herself able to make choices she's never been faced with before, choices about which world she wants to live in.  Choices that, frankly, scare her father terribly.

The little boy who lives in that house on on the cliff is Sosuke, voiced in the American version by Frankie "Bonus" Jonas.  His mother Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey) works with the elderly at a nearby home, and the two of them are frequently alone as Sosuke's father Koichi (voiced by Matt Damon) works on a freighter that travels frequently.  One of the reasons they live on the cliff is so that Sosuke and Lisa can send morse code signals by lamp to Koichi while he's at sea, and vice versa.  Sosuke is a smart, resourceful kid who stands apart from his classmates, odd and happily alone.  From the moment he finds Ponyo in a wading pool at the start of the film, he loves her.  It's a simple child's love, unwavering and unquestioning, and Ponyo returns it in kind.  That connection is what everything else in the film spins out from, and the question of whether or not that love can be allowed is what the film builds to.  Along the way, Ponyo and Sosuke share a sweet, strange adventure that contains some of the most lyrical images of the year.  The film subverted my expectations continuously during its running time, and I love that I never really got my bearings on what to expect next from it.  It's really only on reflection that the rhythms of the film made sense to me.  As I watched it, the fact that it just kept not doing what standard screenwriting formula would do was jarring.  I know... I'm a Hollywood zombie, programmed by the fact that so much of what I watch adheres so closely to a certain form.  That's what makes me value Miyazaki's work even more.  He tells stories in a way that feels almost subconscious... primal.  I feel his stories resonate with me for days after I watch one of his films precisely because they buck convention so emphatically.

I was actually able to take my parents and my son with me to see this one a few weeks ago, and that experience... seeing how the film played for my nearly-70-year-old-parents and my not-quite-4-year-old-son... seeing how they all took something from it, and listening to the conversations it inspired afterwards... I am more amazed than ever at the ability to tell a story that can so effortlessly communicate across age and gender and cultures.  When I asked Miyazaki ten years ago if he considered "Mononoke" a success (keep in mind, it had already out-earned "Titanic" in Japan at that point), he considered it for a moment before responding.

"I can't answer that yet.  I think we'll have to wait at least 10 years before I can know.  We need to wait until all those children who are just 10 now who are seeing the film grow up, until they're 20 years old.  We'll have to wait to see what impact it has on them, on their relationship with the world.  To me, you can't measure the success of a picture on how many tickets it sells.  You can only measure it in how many hearts it changes."

"Ponyo" is a singular experience, animation as pure emotion, a love story and an adventure and one of the real treats for 2009 so far.  And I'm sure that it, like his earlier work, will be a tremendous success by the exact standard that he hopes.

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