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Hundreds of jellyfish pulsate across the screen, glowing blue, with tinges of red. Deeper we dive, past fish of all hues and species, to an underwater bubble and a strangely dashing young man, fussing around, feeding the ocean, his flowing red locks only slightly less theatrical than his bright blue-and-white striped jacket. And what's this? A fish And 1, more, all identical, but a tenth her size.
The fish-girl seems to be trying to escape; is her captor evil, or just slightly unhinged? No time to wonder: there goes fish-girl, hiding within the tentacles of an accommodating jellyfish and soaring away from the seabed bubble on her way to the surface Ring any bells? The film, Ponyo, will be released in the UK next week, though Miyazaki's take is very different to its inspiration: a charming fable still, but one that has the director's perennial themes of identity and environmentalism, bound up in a story of naturalistic fantasy.
The name of the fish-girl as well as the film, Ponyo is the 15th feature from Ghibli,' and the 10th directed by Miyazaki. You may have heard of Ghibli, maybe even seen one or two of its films, but you could be forgiven for being a little bewildered by Miyazaki's extraordinary work.
If so, here are a few notes to help you get to grips with one of the geniuses of world animation. But while Ghibli's releases invariably top the charts in Japan, the studio and Miyazaki remain relatively niche elsewhere. But why? It's not for want of critical acclaim, distribution Ghibli has had a deal with Disney since or lack of star power — its voice-translation casts are chock-full of Hollywood talent Ponyo alone boasts Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin and Tina Fey.
One answer is that adults in Japan are much more attuned to animation than Westerners. This is a country where commuting businessmen are just as likely to be reading cartoons as their children. So it is that spirits, ancient gods and magical creatures, such as Ponyo, populate Miyazaki's movies, and are treated as de facto characters. Western filmgoers might be left scratching their heads, but for Japanese audiences, no explanation is needed for the head-spinning, clicking tree spirits in Princess Mononoke or the raccoons that transform into humans in Pom Poko.