Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, Gake no ue no Ponyo) is not a date movie, but it has a lot to say about relationships.
Ponyo is about love. It’s not necessarily about the love of a man and a woman, which we tend to obsess over in Western media, but it’s about a childlike, innocent love. “Ponyo loves Sasuke,” which the title character says over and over, is in many ways the catchphrase of the movie, and it is in Sasuke’s love for Ponyo that we see the sublimation of the samurai ethic of bushido into a modern ideal of relationships.
To be with Ponyo, and to set things right, Sasuke is required to make a choice. This isn’t just to set things right between the two of them, but rather to set the very world right, as the magical forces which Ponyo released out of love for him threaten to destroy everything. Sasuke chooses to love Ponyo – not only as a fish, or as a girl, but as something wondrous, something bigger than either. He is told that parts of her will change, and parts of her will remain the same, but he must always love her. He accepts this as a warrior would – unhesitatingly and without complaint. This is the height of the samurai ideal: to do one’s duty unhesitatingly and without complaint no matter how painful the execution of that duty is.
Isn’t that what a relationship is? Think back to before maudlin, modern romances, and back to the very core of the matter. Even in a relationship between two family members, nothing changes the fact that they are family, so they generally resign themselves to loving and supporting each other as much as possible. This kind of unconditional acceptance and support is the ideal standard for love. Ponyo and Sasuke are setting the bar high for the next generation of lovers, and while the target audience might not even understand the message now, they will have had a glimpse of what true love looks like for when they are ready. (They will also have had a glimpse at what it looks like when love is inconvenient, as Sasuke’s mother starts drinking immediately after his father calls to say he won’t be home from work again.)
But what of purity? Water is to the Japanese a pure and primal element – many Shinto rituals of purification involve water, perhaps most familiarly the practice of cleansing oneself in a waterfall, which features in many anime (Sumomo Momomo, Samurai Champloo, Ikkitousen, History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, and Full Metal Panic, to name a few.) Additionally, in a more modern twist, some spas (onsen) are said to be able to help “remove toxins” and cleanse the complexion. Whether based in science or religion, purity is closely associated with water.
In Ponyo as in many other works, Miyazaki fully utilizes the purity of water. It is present at first in contrast – the garbage and dirt stirred up by human activity provide a suitable backdrop for numerous complaints about “filthy humans.” Then it is present as fact – the water passing over the land cleanses it, makes the elderly able to walk again, brings people together, and heals the relationship between husband and wife.
Ultimately, Ponyo is quintessentially Japanese: accept what is there. Work in harmony with it. We may not actually see a vision of Kwannon, mysterious and radiant, or talk with a nine-foot-tall supernatural avatar, but are these things really necessary? What is necessary is that we prepare our hearts to give that love, to respect and respond to that purity. Ponyo shows a fascinating way in which that can be true.