'Ponyo' and the Challenges of Multiculturalism

Josh Larsen

I couldn’t wait to take my kids to see “Ponyo,” the latest animated feature from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki (“Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Princess Mononoke”).

Pixar is all well and good – in fact, the studio’s chief, John Lasseter, is responsible for bringing “Ponyo” to these shores. Here, though, was a chance to expose my children, who have a steady diet of American popular culture, to something unfamiliar.

I did that, and then some. There is nothing bad in “Ponyo” – it’s rated G and content-wise was fine for my 7 and 3-year-olds. But the movie’s general worldview is distinctly non-Western and, consequently, non-Christian. My kids, whose understanding of the spiritual world has thus far mainly come from Bible stories and church classes, left “Ponyo” feeling more than a little confused.

What threw them for a loop? “Ponyo” is the story of a little fish that longs to be a human. So far, so “The Little Mermaid,” right? Not quite. This fish flees her father – a wizard-like being obsessed with maintaining the balance between humanity and nature – and washes up near a little boy named Sosuke. When Sosuke cuts his hand, Ponyo licks his blood and slowly begins to turn into a little girl. Her transformation throws the natural order of things out of whack, resulting in a terrifying tsunami. It isn’t until the arrival of Ponyo’s mother – a giant mermaid called Guranmamare, or “goddess of mercy” – that order is restored.

So you have a little pantheism, a little New Ageism and bits of Japanese religions such as Shintoism and Buddhism all thrown in together. My older daughter has a fairly good grasp of the concept of the Trinity, but this mélange seemed beyond her. “What is a goddess of mercy?” she asked. It was a difficult question to answer, beyond simply saying that it was all just a story.

Now, I’m hardly saying “Ponyo” did my kids any harm. I’ll likely take them to Miyazaki’s next film. After all, I don’t believe Christians should be ignorant of other belief systems – quite the opposite. Exploring other religions is crucial to becoming sure in your own faith.

But my “Ponyo” experience did make me wonder: When should these explorations start? Should a foundation of Christian faith be firmly laid before kids are exposed to other forms of belief? Or will exposing them early on make for kinder, more compassionate Christian adults? What are your thoughts?

Topics: Movies