If you thought that My Neighbour Totoro was the only Studio Ghibli film with a dark fan theory, then you were wrong. There’s also one for Ponyo.
That’s right, Ponyo. You know, Studio Ghibli’s kiddy film with a catchy theme song.
Warning: This article is filled with spoilers.
In Japan, the movie is yet another Studio Ghibli film that spawned what’s called toshi densetsu (都市伝説), which literally means “urban legend.” The spooky Ponyo interpretation isn’t new. When the movie was released in 2008, viewers noticed that the movie seemed rather odd.
The idea is that everyone dies in the tsunami that ravages the seaside town. The rest of the movie, such as when Ponyo goes to Sosuke’s house and eats instant ramen, is the afterlife. The next morning, for example, has to two children venturing out on a toy boat that Ponyo has magically made large enough for them to ride.
I recently re-watched the film, which I’ve never really liked. However, watching it with the DEATH SUBTEXT made it more interesting, and I’ve added some observations to the main arguments of others.
- The movie opens with Sosuke catching Ponyo. He thinks she’s dead, but after she licks blood from a cut on Sosuke’s finger, she comes to. From early on in the movie, death is prevalent.
- Ponyo’s real name is Brunhilde, who is sometimes depicted as a harbinger of death or even a death god.
- The song “Flight of Ponyo” appears to be influenced by “Ride of the Valkyries,” a song that’s associated with death and destruction.
- The tsunami, which Ponyo causes, is massive and appears to wipe out the entire town. It would seem unlikely that the characters, especially the elderly wheelchair-bound grannies would survive. The theory also assumes that Sosuke and his mother were also killed, possibly on their way home.
- There are explicit references to death in the wake of the tsunami. The tanker ship captain says, “That’s no harbor... Those are ship! It’s a ship graveyard.” The crew sees a mass of capsized ships.
[Image: Studio Ghibli]
- The entire town, save for Sosuke’s house, appears to be submerged.
- The next morning after the tsunami, the water is crystal clear. According to Urban Legend Magazine, the water should be cloudy and there would be more debris.
- Sosuke spots extinct sea characters in the water.
- Grannies who were previously in wheelchairs are suddenly able to walk. “That world is great!” says one. “And my knees don’t hurt,” says another.
- Website Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together made this observation:
In the wake of that tsunami, Ponyo and Sosuke may in fact bear witness the passing souls of the now-decimated community. As the two adventurers ride in a toy boat in search of Sosuke’s mother, they run into the whole town in small boats paddling toward the hotel on “the other side.” Was this not a reference to crossing the Sanzu River, the Buddhist equivalent to the River Styx?
- The number 3 appears throughout the film, either explicitly or characters do things three times. Three can refer to things like body, soul, and spirit or earth, water, and heaven or even birth, life and death. When written in Japanese, the Sanzu River is 三途の川 (Sanzu no Kawa). The character “san” (三) means “three.”
[Image: Studio Ghibli via Studio Ghibli Wikia]
- While on the boat, Sosuke and Ponyo come across a man and a woman with a baby on a boat. The boat is not modern, and the woman is wearing clothing that dates from either the Taisho Period (1912-1926) or the early Showa Period (the late 1920s to the early 1940s). The official Studio Ghibli character description of this character is an “old style woman.” The subtext, then, could be that she and her husband are phantoms who died earlier (maybe during the war?) and have been stuck on the Sanzu River.
- After their boat trip, Sosuke and Ponyo end up at a tunnel. The Japanese text at the bottom 止まれ (tomare) means “stop.” On the left is a statue of Jizo, which are common roadside sights in rural Japan, because the deity protects travelers. Jizo is also the protector of children who have died at young ages. After going through this tunnel, neither Sosuke nor Ponyo are shown in the film doubling back through it after they meet up with the grannies and his mum.
And you just thought it was a kiddy film? I know I did.
Look forward to tales of ghosts and glitches all week during Kotaku’s Spooky Week.