Miyazaki's writing is absolutely fascinating to me, not just because he's brilliant but because he couldn't be any more the antithesis of the kind of writer I am. I'm a structure freak, and I'm big on construction and rhythm. So when I watch movies or TV shows or read stories, I usually see the writer's process at work. I see what the story is doing, where it's going, and what tricks the writer is using to get it there. I learn stuff, too -- "Oh, neat! I can use that!" I absolutely cannot do that with Miyazaki. Watching PONYO, I had no idea where it was going or what he was going to do next.
Writing about children is a difficult thing, and writers who try it fall into one of two groups. Some writers don't remember what it's like to be a child. Others remember all too well. Miyazaki's in a third category all by himself: it's not just that Miyazaki remembers; he's capable of *thinking* like a child. That's a vanishingly rare talent, because thinking like a child is very hard for a grown-up to do. But Miyazaki can do it, and so PONYO unfolds like a story a child would tell. The child lingers on things that the adult wouldn't, and skips over things that the adult would expect to be drawn out. Two examples: when Ponyo is asked what her mother is like, she says that her mother is big, and beautiful, and can be scary. So you think that when Ponyo's mother shows up, she'll be scary at first. Nope. She's big and beautiful, but she's not scary even once. Example two: Ponyo's father mentions that the hero has to undergo a test. This gets a big build-up, so you're expecting some kind of a trial -- but all the trials take place before the hero even knows there is a trial, and when we see the big important scene that's been built up it literally consists of a simple, matter-of-fact, astoundingly brief exchange of dialogue.
Another example of Miyazaki understanding children: he knows what they find scary. Grown-ups with kids will know: it is often surprising what scares kids. So Miyazaki is careful. There is a scene where the hero's mother goes missing: she has driven off in a flood to help people in another part of their island, and when the storm calms Ponyo and the hero set off in a boat to find her. They find her car, and it is empty. But here is the clincher: it is high and dry. The inside is undisturbed. Everything is just fine; she is missing, so it is mysterious and a little scary, but Miyazaki is very very very careful to make sure the car is high and dry, and not even a little in the water.
Feminists on my flist will be interested to know that PONYO fails the reverse Bechdel test. By which I mean: there is no scene where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman. Sosuke, our hero, talks about his mom with his dad; he discusses his mom with a man at a later point in the story, Sosuke and Ponyo's father talk about Ponyo, and even on Sonyo's father's fishing boat the men discuss Ponyo's mother. I've been thinking a little bit about the Bechdel test lately, in terms of its mechanics, and so this was an interesting thing to see. Sosuke's mother ("Lisa," in the dub), in particular, is a great character; Miyazaki is great at using grown-ups in kids' movies, and Lisa really gets to show a broad range of emotion and characterization: she's tempestuous, touching, eccentric, and loving,
There are filmmakers who embody various aspects of the art: emotion, action, the broad canvas of the screen. Miyazaki's gift as an artist is spectacular and unusual: he's not about laying pipe, or set-up and pay-off; nor, though his movies are visually stunning, is he about visual flash.
Hayao Miyazaki is an artist of pure imagination.
Go see PONYO. You'll love it.