Reviews of “The Little Mermaid” (1837) and related work

“The Little Mermaid” (1837Text)

Hans Christian Andersen (writer).

Read in 2020.

fiction text

The Little Mermaid (1989Moving picture, 83 minutes)

Review refers to the Swedish dub.

adaptation animation Disney fiction moving picture

“On Ponyo” (2006Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

An advanced, but loosely worded, project plan for the 2008 film.

Admirably clear even in its interpretation of the film’s deeper meanings.

References here: Snezhnaya Koroleva (The Snow Queen): A Film That Made Me Think Animation Was Worthy Work” (2007), Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

adaptation Japanese production non-fiction text

‣‣ “Memo on Music for Joe Hisaishi” (2007Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Turning Point.

More analysis to bring out the central themes of the film for the composer of the score, and the same sort of image-album poems Miyazaki wrote for Hisaishi’s benefit making Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Miyazaki off-handedly claims that Fujimoto was the “sole Asian crewmember on Captain Nemo’s Nautilus” in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870); an unexpected bit of fanfic.

References here: Turning Point: 1997–2008 (2008/2014).

Japanese production non-fiction poetry spin-off text

‣‣ Ponyo (2008Moving picture, 101 minutes)

Suzuki Toshio (producer), Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

While an alchemist who has given up hope seeks to rejuvenate the oceans, one of his children with the goddess of the sea decides to have an adventure and goes floating off between two jellyfishes.

Ghibli’s purest children’s film. It’s a wild fantasy, more so than Andersen’s fairy tale, preserving the whimsical beauty of Andersen’s environments with very little plot. Instead of being the youngest of half a dozen sisters at fifteen, the little mermaid appears to be the oldest of hundreds at five. Her mother is alive but corresponds to the sea witch, her father is a human alchemist rather than a merfolk king, her voice is not threatened etc. As adaptations go, it’s much less faithful than Disney, but its source is still clear: Without the context of the fairy tale, the threat of turning to foam would appear even more nonsensical, especially as it is applied to a much younger child, not in the context of pubertal romantic anxiety.

Miyazaki hinted at an early plan for something like Ponyo in “I Want to Fill the Space Between Myself and the Audience” (1998), and in “Forty-four Questions” (1998), he said his dream was to “create animated works that would make the audience feel that a small-eyed main character is truly adorable”. Though the 2006 plan calls for cute round eyes, Ponyo’s eyes are, at times, small and even fish-like; mission accomplished. The kindergarten next door to a retirement home is awesome, but still less creative than his proposal in “To Energize People, Towns and the Land” (1998).

The scope recalls Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), including a threat of apocalypticism brought on by environmental degradation, softened by the possibility of de-extinction, and involving unaligned “divine” intervention, the witch/goddess corresponding to the earlier kyoshinhei. Ponyo is set at a very different angle, appropriate for small children. There is no malice, no evil, and the ending is happy and naïve about personal development. As usual with Miyazaki, the apocalypse is portrayed largely as a good thing: it has hardly any negative results beyond inconveniencing a coastal town which, in accordance with the project plan, is sparsely populated, not overcrowded. Instead of realism, there are many wonderful scenes of children at play, with brilliantly vivid animation. Ponyo overpowers her surroundings with Totoro-like enlightened mindlessness: let the adults worry about the end of the world!

The possibility of horrifying consequences is shifted to an abstract plane, leaving only a few scenes of adventure and melancholy. Behind it all is Miyazaki’s use of fantasy for vicarious punitive justice. In “It’s a a Tough Era” (2002), Chikushi Tetsuya connected Miyazaki’s ideas of karmic/cosmic retribution for the sins of humankind—including those of the victims of 9/11—to the folktale motif of metamorphosis as punishment. In Ponyo, the punishment for human transgression is ultimately soft. Miyazaki’s usual animus is out of view for a child.

In Andersen’s story, shipwrecks bring precious goods to the bottom, not filth. The film’s seeming innocence about other environmental problems prompts the question why Miyazaki added such a conflict at all. Perhaps it merely modernizes the threat of the mermaid killing the prince. More likely it’s the same soft conservationism as in “Mon Mon” (2006), trying to convey a love of real nature and a fear of its degradation, without being so rude as to make any of it emotionally cutting.

It is likewise unclear why Sōsuke, standing in for the prince, refers to his parents by their names. The project plan implies that Ponyo’s physical transformations away from Fujimoto and the enchanted sea are governed by conflicting genetic expressions, but this is neither stated in the film, nor consistent with the action. Seeing this film in Japanese with my fellow adult fans, I felt no need of a more cohesive plot. When I saw the Swedish dub with my nieces, the youngest—then just turned six—was delighted and confused.

References here: The title of Princess Mononoke, Ghibli movie titles.

animation fiction Ghibli implementation Japanese production moving picture