The Great Wave

By: Matthew Battles
March 16, 2011

Watching video imagery of last week’s tsunami wreak catastrophe upon the coastal cities of Miyagi prefecture, I found my imagination invaded by recollected Japanese images of flood: not archival footage of earlier “real” tsunamis, but the menacing magical tide at work in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (released as Ponyo by Disney in 2009 in the US with the voices of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, and a host of Cyruses and Jonas Bros).

Exploring the Little Mermaid motif, the movie mixes Miyazaki’s sumptuous, uncanny vision with a few more dippersful of Disneyfied quatsch than we’re accustomed to getting in this filmmaker’s feral works. Its setting is a harbor town that intimately, breathtakingly incorporates the sea into itself (supposedly based on the port city of Tomonoura in Hiroshima prefecture, it’s achingly reminiscent of quake-affected seaside cities like Sendai), and whose inhabitants are largely unaware of the struggles going on beneath the waves lapping at its streets and dooryards. They’re two cities, really, interpenetrating and cohabiting without knowing one another. And when the citizens of one city come to know those of the other, the primordial powers-that-be threaten to intervene with spectacular force.

In rescuing the stricken little “goldfish”— a mer-child, upon whom he bestows the name Ponyo —Sōsuke attracts the jealousy of the very ocean itself. Marine kinesthetics are soothingly animated by Miyazaki — the surface sheen, the slimed and mottled rocks, the meditative tide — and yet his placid waters hide an abyssal menace. And evidence of the cause of the sea’s simmering resentment already lies strewn about in the cans buried in the muck, the detergent bottle washed ashore, the busy seagoing traffic we’re forever glimpsing on the horizon and amidst the jetties and causeways of Sōsuke’s city.

And when the sea finally rises, it’s with the bottled-up fury of ten thousand poisonings and depredations. In the midst of the maelstrom, poised and playful amidst unimaginable catastrophe, runs Ponyo — the bright roving point, the impossible synthesis, the subject and the soul.

The scale of the destruction that ensues is shocking. Sōsuke’s town is inundated that night, while his father and the local fishing fleet are held captive by a vast rogue wave. When I watched the film in the theater with my daughter two summers back, I was troubled by the premise that the supernatural spirit ruling the ocean would predicate the prospect of oceanic apocalypse upon a single small boy’s love for Ponyo — a premise to which Miyazaki gives an extra twist, having Sōsuke declare his love not only for his uncanny friend from the sea, but for “all the little Ponyos”— as if our fate should turn on a child’s whim, as if that child’s unconditional amity could seal the bond of all mankind.

Of course, our stories persist in dreaming such requitals. Over and over in our tales, apocalyptic gods grow jealous, the unmastered forces of nature balance themselves on the edges of our fears and favors.

The reality is somewhat less personable.

But neither are these images the reality, even as they’re captured at the very brink of last week’s implacable access of destruction. With horror as much as with wonder, we’re set down on a shore far removed from irreducible catastrophe. Somewhere in the unillumined heart of the disaster, in the maelstrom beyond story and spectacle, many thousands of bright, impossible syntheses were struck down and extinguished. Between the tale and the documentary footage there can only be parallax, and the work of reconciling ourselves to the incommensurable.