(There are spoilers below.)
When I first watched Hayao Miyazaki's latest feature Ponyo, I thought it was another of Miyazaki's ecological fables. Based on Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, it wouldn't be surprising to once again see Miyazaki dealing with humans' relationship to the environment. However, a second viewing and much thought has led me to the conclusion that the ecological elements are something of a MacGuffin, Hitchcock's term for an excuse to set the characters in motion when the director's real interest is somewhere else.
Miyazaki's subject here is love, though not romantic love and certainly not sexual love. What the characters in this film are missing is devotional love. Just about every character in this film has been abandoned in one way or another.
The nursing home that Sosuke's mother Lisa works at is next door to a school (or is it a pre-school?). In each case, the old and the young have been isolated from the world of adults. The old women in the home are, I presume, widows, and their children are not taking care of them. The children in school are not being looked after by their parents. In each case, the group is being looked after by somebody collecting a paycheque, not family. Humanity's past and future are not integrated with the present.
Both Sosuke and Ponyo have two parents, but those parents are not together. Sosuke's father is captain of a ship and over the course of the entire film, he never gets off it. There is always a geographical gulf created by work between the father and his family, which leads to an emotional gulf between husband and wife. Ponyo's mother is a goddess who is not present in Ponyo's home and who only interacts with Ponyo once during the entire film. The parents that are present, Lisa and Fujimoto, Ponyo's father, are so wrapped up in work that they abandon or ignore their children in favour of their jobs. Ponyo and her sisters don't like Fujimoto and Sosuke sees him as a threat at the end of the film and flees from him.
It is significant that Sosuke is the only character to pass between the nursing home and the school and that he does it through a hole in the fence. He breaks through boundaries that adults have set up and his need to connect is the same need that connects him to Ponyo when he finds her. His renaming of her is transformative, much the way that Chihiro being renamed in Spirited Away is. Ponyo's need to connect is so strong that she transforms herself from a fish into a girl and in a bravura sequence runs along the tops of fish and waves to reunite with Sosuke. Her repeated transformations bring to mind Sophie's changing age in Howl's Moving Castle. In Miyazaki's world, characters change physically as they change emotionally.
It is Ponyo's actions that release the magic that results in the flood. This flood is the catalyst for everything that follows and the reintegration of what has been separated. Extinct fish once again swim in the ocean, uniting past and present. The old women are able to walk again and rejoin the adult world. The goddess and Fujimoto are brought together. Sosuke's father is able to bring his boat back home.
When Ponyo and Sosuke set off in Sosuke's toy boat, it is significant that they are the first in the film to encounter a complete family. It is the only time we see a man, woman and child together. Ponyo is fascinated with the baby and attempts to give it food. When the mother explains that the child is too young to eat it, but if the mother eats it she can produce milk for the child, Ponyo is happy to let the mother have the soup and then loads her up with sandwiches. The father returns the favour as best he can by giving Sosuke a candle. This is the moment in the film when the world begins to regenerate.
Sosuke's acceptance of Ponyo, regardless of whether she is a fish or a girl saves the world because it acknowledges no boundaries. The devotional love between them has no limit. The boundaries that people have erected -- between nature and humans; between the past, present, and future; between water and air -- are dissolved by Sosuke's declaration.
The plot elements of humans hurting the environment and the world being out of balance are there as outgrowths of the film's central problem: the gulf between people. Ponyo is an argument for us to reconnect with each other more strongly in order to bring the world back into balance.
(There are many brilliant visual things in this film, and I just want to point out two small ones that stood out for me. I greatly admire Miyazaki's detailed observation of human behavior. When Sosuke first sees Ponyo, he kicks off his shoes before wading into the water to pick her up. This still, lacking motion, doesn't do the moment justice, but what caught my attention was how Sosuke was totally focused on what he saw. Sosuke's concentration was portrayed beautifully by not moving his head as he kicked off his shoes.)
(Another thing that struck me was Lisa's pose, below. At this point in the film, her husband has called to say that he will not be coming home and then used light signals in an attempt to make up. Lisa's anger prevents her from accepting his apology. Her despair over the state of their relationship is beautifully captured by her pose on the bed.)