Caging the Mermaids: Ponyo’s Older Sisters

Barring a change of schedule at Optimum Releasing or a festival screening somewhere, Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Ponyo, which opened in the USA last weekend, won’t be seen on UK screens until February 2010, with a DVD release early that summer.

I want to see the film for the first time on the big screen, so I plan to wait until I get back from Anime Weekend Atlanta before opening the DVD package. But from the extracts I’ve seen in trailers, the reviews and comments I’ve read and the PR being rolled out, I’ve begun to have some interesting, and disturbing, thoughts about its precursors and possible inspirations. I’m beginning to wonder whether Ponyo might represent a backward step in Hayao Miyazaki’s representations of self-defining young women.

Toshio Suzuki cited Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as an inspiration, but Miyazaki senior specifically excluded the Disney version as an immediate influence, saying in one interview that he hadn’t watched it for some years and deliberately didn’t watch it while thinking about and working on Ponyo.  A Japanese elementary school classic book, Iya Iya En, was another influence, as was a brief spell living in a clifftop house in the Setonai-kai area and the building of a staff nursery near Studio Ghibli.

Andersen’s original tale, written in 1837, is weighted with nineteenth-century Christian morality omitted from Ponyo. Like all great fairytales, it also has a deep vein of horrific, almost fetishistic cruelty, a reminder that nature is red in tooth and claw and lives within us all. In the Disney version most of this was removed, or carefully de-fanged and prettified. In Andersen’s story the entry of the innocent mer-child into adulthood begins with a painful ritual decoration, a deep-sea footbinding, forced on her by her female  blood-kin as a mark of her rank and status. Every impulse to self-determination or self-expression must be paid for in blood and loss, again enforced by other females. To acquire skills and abilities outside her natural environment, like walking on land, the little mermaid must give up her voice and suffer endless pain. If she is to return to her old life, she must kill the one she loves. Her family must also pay for her rebellion – her sisters buy the weapon she must use to kill her prince with their beautiful hair.

She refuses to kill and so she dies. Even in Andersen’s transcendent ‘happy ending’ this gentle, loving child of nature is not yet worthy of full human status. She has merely earned the right to spend the next three hundred years serving others to whom she is invisible. Their actions, not her own, will determine whether her servitude is shortened or lengthened. Only then will she acquire an immortal soul and be permitted to enter the human heaven.

Interestingly, the compulsion to surrender her magic as the price of love is also laid on the heroine of a movie which deeply affected the young Hayao Miyazaki – Hakujaden, or The Legend of the White Serpent,  released in the USA as Panda and the Magic Serpent. Toei’s 1958 movie was the first anime feature to be made in colour, and the first to be shown in America in 1961. An adaptation of a Chinese folktale of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) it tells the story of a goddess who takes the form of a white snake. The snake is found by a human child, but his parents force him to give up his pet. Years later, when he has grown into a handsome young man, the goddess acquires human form and finds him again. The pair fall in love, and their love survives many trials, but the snake goddess can only prove her love is genuine and be accepted as worthy of her prince by giving up her powers and becoming a human woman.

There are several points of similarity between this movie and the Andersen tale, starting with a romanticised childhood encounter. The snake is caught by a little boy at play, while the mer-child finds a statue of a beautiful boy and builds a garden around it years before she rescues her prince from shipwreck. Both princes go through physical trials from which the heroines save them, but despite their obvious devotion to their princes, both heroines must surrender their magic as the price of acceptance in the human community.

Andersen, a sickly child who spent much of his time at home, had memorised much of Shakespeare’s canon before entering his teens. He would amuse himself by re-enacting the Bard’s works from memory in his home-made puppet theatre. The Little Mermaid has strong echoes of Shakespeare’s magical mystery tour-de-force The Tempest, not merely in the eerie beauty of both undersea worlds but in their fetishistic equation of love and servitude.

Shakespeare, however, extends the concept of passion as slavery to include both genders. In The Tempest, the heroine Miranda falls in love with prince Ferdinand on sight and resolves to stay with him, whatever it costs, passionately declaring that even if he rejects her as his wife she will be his servant “whether you will or no”. Ferdinand is literally put into bondage by her father Prospero. Caliban, the dispossessed elemental from whom Prospero stole the island, was enslaved as soon as he expressed sexual interest in Miranda.

Fairytales originated in societies where life was often brief and painful, as a way of making sense of experience and normalising acceptance. They are heavy with the demands that patriarchal societies make of both men and women. Unfortunately, stripping away the fantasy, they can still be read as descriptive of  many womens’ lives. The pain of a girl’s first intercourse is a classic and usually transformative trope of fairytale, but there are many societies around the world where women are forced to pay for any experience with pain, where they are expected to keep silent and where their only hope of acceptance as ‘good’ is through endless service to others, who rate their love and worth against norms they neither create nor control. The magical creature must give up her power for all time and bind herself to a world of service and suffering as a precondition of love and acceptance, and these remain conditional.

Compare the stories discussed so far with earlier Hayao Miyazaki films, and a distinct approach to female self-determination and romantic equality emerges. In Castle in the Sky Sheeta is scared of her own shadow and only acquires strength and determination when she falls in love with Pazu. Rather than diminishing her magic, he helps her to use her power to save the world. Sheeta is not just a passive princess: she gives Pazu depths of understanding and compassion that he previously lacked. They rescue each other.

In Kiki’s Delivery Service Kiki determines her own fate and fights her own battles – her romance with Tombo doesn’t restrict her magical powers, although it distracts her early on. Kiki’s parents prove that a magical creature can have a happy human life and fit into the ordinary world without sacrificing her powers. Perhaps the most sublime expression of this idea comes at the end of Princess Mononoke, where young lovers San and Ashitaka accept their need to live in different worlds and agree to meet in between their separate spheres, creating a world of their own without abandoning their individual lives.

In Spirited Away we see a hybrid of the Little Mermaid story and the saving-each-other scenario of Castle In The Sky. Chihiro’s romance with Haku turns out to be a predestined love arising from a childhood meeting between a human and a magical saviour, although in this case Haku is the rescuing ‘mermaid’. Chihiro returns the favour by saving him from the consequences of his own desire for power and knowledge.

Her servitude and the loss of her name are not connected with romantic love, but rather with the process of growing into an adult relationship with one’s parents and the world. Success in her trials buys her back her name, along with an enhanced awareness of selfhood and the affection of those around her. Miyazaki makes the relationship between Chihiro and Haku like that of Ashitaka and San, a completed circle, with both on equal terms. Chihiro has paid the price for her magic and repaid her debt to the magical creature who saved her life. Now she can return richer and wiser to her world, while he returns unburdened to his.

By comparison, the conventional ending of Howl’s Moving Castle feels like a step backwards. Cautious heroine Sophie is attracted by Howl’s exotic charms, and pays the price for love by losing her youth. She finds that despite its physical restrictions, age brings its own freedoms. At the end of the story she has been given back her youth, but is put firmly in her place in a conventional nuclear family, defined by her role as wife, mother, nurturer.

As Jonathan Clements and I observe in The Anime Encyclopedia, the film was a love letter to Miyazaki’s wife Akemi Ota, who gave up her own career to raise his children and create a home in which the workaholic spent very little time. The final shot shows Sophie in the arms of her wizard, the centre of his world, accepting it as her own.

Ponyo has been given extra layers of significance by the assertion that boy hero Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro, whose directorial debut at Studio Ghibli was attended by widely hyped tales of a father-son feud. Is the heroine merely a cipher inserted for the hero to play off, a magical girl for him to tame and  bring into the human world? I don’t know yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

2 thoughts on “Caging the Mermaids: Ponyo’s Older Sisters

  1. am i right in thinking that optimum has delayed the region 2 release of “umi ga kikoeru” to coincide with the big-screen relase of “ponyo”?
    i wonder what they think the cross-over interest will be? “little susie loved those big fishies so much that i’m just sure she’ll want to own this honest exploration of teenage friendships, infatuation and power-plays…”
    ^^

    • I don’t think Umi ga Kikoeru will be an easy sell in Britain, and anything that might get the DVD reviewed more widely or better positioned in shops will help. If it piggybacks a much bigger title, magazines and retailers are more likely to allocate space to it – even if that’s only shelving a few copies alongside Ponyo or adding an “also available” in reviews and articles. At least, that way, Mum, Dad and older siblings will know it’s out there alongside the move they’re buying for their little ones.

      Hardcore otakudom doesn’t buy enough anime to make older, low-profile titles economically viable: Umi ga Kikoeru needs all the help it can get to persuade a few more people to pick it up.

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