“The Adventures of Little Jesus”

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated epic, Ponyo (aka “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”) hits the eye with what at first brush seems to be crude animation. Owing nothing to CGI, and coming after trailers for lush 3-D productions did the movie no favors. However, one quickly settles into the imaginative world we’ve come to expect from him. The voice talent assembled alone (Cate Blanchett, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Tina Fey)points to the draw of a Miyazaki production .

This tale of a magical undersea creature (Ponyo), caught up in our pollution, discovering humanity (in her case, a little boy named Susuke), and longing to be human smacks of an enchanted take on The Little Mermaid, replacing show tunes with a highly imaginative world. Like with many of his tales of childhood wonder, the adults are complicated, reckless and scary. Sosuke’s mom drives like she stole something and is quick to let her son stay by himself. Ponyo’s dad, in his smothering over-protection, comes off as threatening and creepy.

Miyazaki is a fan of the torn between two worlds theme (subtlely driven home with Ponyo’s mom asking Susuke “Could you love her if she moved between two worlds?”). Because of the allegory it is focused on exploring, the movie comes across like an animated version of Lady in the Water.

“If you could only remain innocent and pure forever.” –Ponyo’s dad

The story begins with Ponyo’s dad, formerly human, longing for a return to the Cambrian Age, what he considers our Golden Era, his idea of the Garden of Eden. He struggles with what many parents struggle with, wanting to protect their children from the world, keeping them in the palm of his hand or in a bubble. Yet dealing with them is akin to handling a wet bar of soap: you want to keep them in your hand, but the best way to do so is in a loose grip because the harder you hold onto them the more likely they will just squeeze out. It’s the tension that parents have to walk with their children. Letting our children escape our firm, controlled grips and allow them to go their own way. By holding on to them too tight, we don’t allow them to grow. You can’t teach your children from a place of fear because it only teaches them to be in a safe box, unprepared for the world. However, Ponyo’s story follows a much more messianic path.

“What do you know about humans?” –Ponyo’s dad

Going off on her own, Ponyo, a fish with a little face and red dress, discovers humanity, being rescued by 5-year-old Sosuke who lives on a cliff above the ocean and promises to protect her always. Though both human and magic, Ponyo wants to be fully human, though her first Pinocchio-esque efforts result in her sprouting chicken-like legs. Ultimately though, being fully human means to participate in the story, embracing all aspects of life, but living with the goal of loving everyone and everything with holiness and imagination. She “lowers” herself by coming into the mess humans have made of creation. She “opens a hole in the fabric of reality” by her very presence, bringing the magic with her and joining together two realities. Uniting and reconciling her transcendent realm and our world, she delights in her/our humanity with wonder of a child, learning what it means to be human.

“I found Sosuke.” –Ponyo

Ponyo rejoices in the idea of her relationship with Sosuke. Her and the host of her fellow sisters (like ministering angels) revel each time a person is found, either her finding them or them finding her. Her love not forced but delighted in. As Ponyo’s mom explains to Sosuke, “she needs you to accept and love her as she truly is.” And once he does, “life begins again” (Ponyo’s mom)

But it’s not an easy journey. Storms, tsunamis, may come. Rains come down, floods rise up, winds may blow in … sometimes God sends the storms. Sometimes storms are sent to re-direct, to chasten, disciple, and develop. Sometimes storms close one door while opening another. And it’s hard to hear God in the storm even though God is with us the whole time. He remembers us, even when we think—we’re convinced—that he’s forgotten us. (Like Jesus with his disciples, Ponyo manages to fall asleep during the storm). But the storms eventually recede.

In becoming human for humanity’s sake, Ponyo offers up an example of a new way of living. Through her , her sisters made into new creations, she brings regeneration and healing (to the seniors), and the balance of nature is restored.

“Life is mysterious and amazing. But we have work to do now.” –Sosuke’s mom

Becoming fully human should impact how we work, how we play, and how we relate to one another; finding our redemptive mission in continuing the work He began to reconcile all of creation to God. That relationship between us and God should translate into a sense of mission. Ponyo gives Sosuke a sense of mission to find and take care of others; worried about the “least of these,” widows, orphans, or in their case, the seniors. Sosuke’s mom offers this beautiful picture of what the church should be about: “Right now our house is a beacon in the storm.”

“Will you hold the light?” –Sosuke’s mom

Ponyo doesn’t quite have the sense of constant adventure of a Finding Nemo or a Spirited Away. And instead of his traditional exuberant flying scene, Miyazaki gives us plenty of surfing on water sequences. There is a manic, child-like energy to the movie. And at least pet stores don’t have to worry about stocking Ponyo fish.