SUBJECTS — Literature/World; World/Japan;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring.

AGE: 5+; MPAA Rating — G;

Animation; 100 minutes; 2008; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


This warm-hearted fairy tale entertains ages 5 to 95 taking elements from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” to present an allegory reminding us that the balance of nature can be maintained only if mankind cares for the environment and takes responsibility to protect it. Ponyo is a very special goldfish, the daughter of the sea goddess Granmamare and Fujimoto, a Wizard who has rejected the human race as hopeless polluters. Fujimoto has gone to live under the ocean and is responsible for keeping the sea in balance. He becomes distressed when Ponyo, who has inherited many of her parents’ magical powers, falls in love with a five-year-old boy, Sôsuke (the “u” is silent, there are only two syllables and the emphasis is on the first syllable).

To be with her beloved, Ponyo wants to become human. This defection by a child of the sea goddess upsets the balance of nature which is only restored when Sôsuke commits to love and take care of Ponyo. The villain, if there is one, is mankind’s relentless proclivity to pollute. All of the characters show kindness and regard for others across the generations and many are memorable such as Sôsuke’s mother and Ponyo’s father.

This film was written, drawn and directed by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.


Selected Awards:

2013 Annie Awards: Best Animated Effects in an Animated Production; Storyboarding in an Animated Feature Production; 2013 Annie Awards Nominations: Best Animated Feature; Character Animation in a Feature Production; Character Animation in a Feature Production; Editorial in an Animated Feature Production; Music in an Animated Feature Production; Production Design in an Animated Feature Production; Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production (Jude Law As “Pitch”); 2013 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Picture; 2013 Visual Effects Society Nominations: Outstanding Animation in an Animated Feature Motion Picture Outstanding Created Environment in an Animated Feature Motion Picture; Outstanding FX and Simulation Animation in an Animated Feature Motion Picture;


Featured Actors:

Chris Pine as Jack Frost (voice) Alec Baldwin … North (voice) Jude Law Jude Law … Pitch (voice) Isla Fisher Isla Fisher … Tooth (voice) Hugh Jackman Hugh Jackman … Bunny (voice) Dakota Goyo Dakota Goyo … Jamie Bennett (voice)


Ponyo is an example of allegory, demonstrates that some stories do not have clearly definable antagonists and protagonists, shows excellent development of the character of at least three of the major characters, and contains several social-emotional lessons. It is beneficial for students to watch films by Miyazaki, a masterful animator, and storyteller.

Students will learn about allegory, the importance of taking responsibility for protecting the environment, ways in which storytellers can modify the usual roles of antagonist and protagonist, and how, even in animated films, characters can be well-developed. Students will be motivated to complete research and writing assignments based on this movie.




Ask what the moviemakers are trying to tell us when the movement of little Ponyo to become a human being could cause an imbalance in the natural order. In discussing this you can tell children that the moviemakers were trying to tell us that as we use the sea and accept its bounty we have to care for it and be responsible for it or else we’ll destroy it.


Hans Christian Anderson’s 1836 short story “The Little Mermaid” has been the source of several films, including Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Splash, starring Tom Hanks and Darryl Hanna in l988. The difference between the original version of the story and the subsequent film versions lies in the pain and to a certain degree, the failure, experienced by the mermaid in the Anderson tale. In Ponyo and the Disney film, the mermaid is able to become human and in Splash the human is able to begin an undersea life. But in Anderson’s story, the mermaid fails to win the love that will guarantee her a human life and earn her a soul. She has had her tongue cut out and cannot speak; her fishtail has given way to legs which cause piercing pain with every step she takes. She watches helplessly as the Prince she loves marries another and she is thus doomed to die. The undersea witch gives her the chance to reclaim her life: she must take a knife and stab the Prince in the heart. But she cannot participate in this evil and she thus becomes one of the beings who can earn a soul by flying to distressed countries “cooling the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence.” Anderson’s tale is more complex than the films it inspired, but the theme pertaining to love remains clear

Miyazaki has made it clear that he found Anderson’s tale inspirational but has taken it into a new direction by making the story an allegory applicable to modern-day concerns. Miyazaki’s debt to Anderson is apparent not just in the concept of transformative love but in the vivid use of color that dominates the short story and forms the central artistic element of art in Ponyo. Anderson’s story describes a blue and purple undersea world filled with magical flowers and fishes. As his Little Mermaid prefers the color red, Ponyo herself prefers red to the more varied and sometimes subtle colors around her. Anderson uses the term “transparent beautiful beings” late in his story and this descriptive phrase can seen in visuals throughout Miyazaki’s film. Ponyo seems to ride away to human experience inside one of these jellyfish images and the dome in which the problems are all resolved at the film’s end reflects this vision of ethereal beauty.

Ponyo, which Miyazaki wrote, drew and directed, marks a return to hand-drawn art in his films. He used no computer animation in its creation and each frame is a work of art in itself.



Before showing the film give the class a definition of allegory.

An allegory is an artistic device in which the characters and events of the story represent something more than what is directly stated. The literal content of an allegorical work is less important than its symbolic meaning. Allegory is employed in literature, visual arts, drama, and dance.

Tell students that there are elements of allegory in this movie and ask them to look for the allegory as they watch the film.


1. Ponyo’s mother is the goddess of the sea called Granmamare. She is beautiful and calms the oceans. Her mercy extends to humans and she is able to help restore the balance of nature through Sôsuke’s test. What does her name mean? What test must Sôsuke pass? What happens when he passes the test?

Suggested Response:

Ponyo’s mother is the great (“gran”) mother (“ma”) of the sea (“mare”). The test Sôsuke must pass is to prove that he will love Ponyo and take on the responsibility to care for her whether she is fish or human. Sôsuke shows his love for Ponyo when he releases her into the water as it appears she is dying. He later declares to her mother and Granmamare that he really loves Ponyo and knows it is a big responsibility. When Sôsuke passes the test the balance of nature is restored.


2. What is the allegory in this story? Which characters stand for other things and what is the message the moviemakers want the audience to receive?

Suggested Response:

Sôsuke stands for mankind (Fujimoto tells him that, “You are the only one who can save the planet” and he receives bounty from the sea (Ponyo). Ponyo represents the creatures in the sea. The message is that mankind will disrupt the balance of nature by using the sea and taking the bounty of the sea unless we love and care for it.


3. Is there an antagonist in this movie? If you think there is, who or what is it? Is there a single protagonist in this movie or a group? Identify the protagonist(s).

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. The discussion should include the following concepts. One interpretation is that the antagonist is the human tendency to pollute the oceans. This is what disturbs the balance of nature before Sôsuke commits to love and take care of Ponyo. Another but weaker argument could be made that the risk that Sôsuke would not love and take responsibility to care for Ponyo is the antagonist. As for the protagonist(s), it could be said that Ponyo is the protagonist; after all, she takes the risks and her desire to be human is the force for change. A stronger argument can be made that Ponyo’s demand to be a human is part of the background of the story and that the protagonists are Fujimoto, Granmamare, Ponyo and Sôsuke, all of whom cooperate to unite the two children in love and to restore the balance of nature. Another strong argument can be made that in Ponyo as in other love stories, the protagonists are the two lovers who are trying to get together despite the difficulties of their situation and all the forces arrayed against them.


4. In this animated film, there are five major characters: Ponyo, Sôsuke, Fujimoto, Lisa and Granmamare. Describe one of these characters and his or her major characteristics.

Suggested Response:

The following descriptions are the minimum that should be mentioned in a discussion of these characters. Students will come up with additional ideas. Ponyo is willful, perseveres, acts without thinking about the long term consequences, has magical powers as a princess of the sea but loses them when she becomes human, and she is loving. Sôsuke takes responsibility for others; he tells his father, “I’m taking care of everyone dad.” Sôsuke wants to be a grown-up. He says several times that he has a job to do and he takes care of his mother and Ponyo. (Sôsuke’s father is absent much of the time; many children in that situation or in single parent families respond by becoming more responsible than one would normally expect them to be at their ages.) Fujimoto cares about the ocean and all that lives within it, especially his family. He is a powerful wizard. He is a little strange and he has given up on mankind. Lisa is loving, impetuous, and cares for everyone around her. Like her son, she takes responsibility for others. Granmamare is merciful, loving and wise. She is a goddess with many powers.

Additional Discussion Questions.

5. In all of the animated versions of Anderson’s little mermaid story, there is great sacrifice required of the girl who wants to become human. What must Ponyo relinquish in order to become human and what does it mean in terms of the allegory told by this story? Why must she relinquish this?

Suggested Response:

Ponyo must give up her life below the seas and her magical powers. She had used magic several times in the film: healing Sôsuke’s wound; making the generator at Sôsuke’s housework during the blackout; enlarging Sôsuke’s toy boat so they could use it to find his mother, and healing a baby with her touch. This magic is expressive of the power of nature and letting it go means that Ponyo will have to live with the powers of mortals rather than the gods. She will have to take reality as it is. She trades godliness for human love.


6. What idea occurs as Ponyo is caught in the net dragging the ocean floor in her effort to escape the sea?

Suggested Response:

The trash and desperate fishes caught in the net hint at the director’s statement about how humans are destroying the sea. Ponyo escapes only through luck, showing the fragility of sea life with the intrusion of human mechanisms.


7. What is the most unrealistic part of the movie and why is it a necessary part of the story?

Suggested Response:

Reasonable minds will differ. However, any good discussion of this question should include a contention that the romantic love between the two children and the life-long commitment made by Sôsuke, at age 5 is not realistic. This is required, however, by the allegory. and the predominance of the allegorical story over what one might realistically expect is one of the main reasons that this story is allegorical. Remember, that the content of an allegorical work is less important than its symbolic meaning.


8. What is the point of having the old ladies at the senior center in the story?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. A good discussion will include the following concepts. They provide depth to the story. The old ladies bring out Sôsuke’s good nature, sense of responsibility, and they add humor; they contrast to the age of the main characters and provide a sense of unity to the society shown in the film.


9. What truth can be found in the words of Sôsuke’s mother when she tries to console him when Ponyo is taken back into the sea?

Suggested Response:

Lisa says that the ocean is Ponyo’s home and that she was not meant to live in a bucket. These words hint at the idea that in order to be with Sôsuke, Ponyo must transform into a human. Students should be encouraged to think about animals who are placed in unnatural settings, such as dolphins who are captured and then forced to perform at dolphinariums such as Sea World; elephants or other animals who were born to roam over large areas but who are confined to small cages in zoos, etc., and how this may not be good for the animals.


10. What point is being made when Sôsuke and his mother talk about broken promises?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. A good discussion should include the following ideas. Sôsuke’s father did not intend to hurt his mother and his son by breaking his promise to be home that night. He felt that he had to work. Sôsuke did not intend to hurt Ponyo when he first promised to take care of her when she was a goldfish and when he then lost her to the rowdy seas. Promises that are broken through no fault of the ones who make the promises are not betrayals.


11. Miyazake makes several points about human relationship with nature when Ponyo’s father tries to convince Ponyo to revert back to a fish. What do you recall him saying in these scenes and what are the effects of his words on Ponyo and viewers of the film?

Suggested Response:

Ponyo’s father says that he was once human. He refers to humans as treating the sea like their “empty black souls”; that “the era of those abominable humans” must end, and that he had to leave behind his life as a human in order “to serve the earth.” He says that humans have spoiled the sea and he looks forward to “the age of the Ocean . . . [a]n explosion of life to match the Cambrian age. An end to the era of those abominable humans.” He tells Ponyo that she cannot be human and keep her magic and that she must not upset the balance of nature by changing into human. His harsh words are intended to counter the concept of humano-centrism that is expressed in Ponyo’s desire to join Ponyo in his human life. Viewers may consider the idea that human life is not the highest expression of good.


12. The visuals in Ponyo are dramatic, including the appearance of Ponyo’s father who has a shock of red hair and wears a vividly striped jacket. How does this image of Fujimoto serve to reveal character?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. He seems to be quite eccentric and uncertain about how to deal with his rebellious daughter. He is easily flustered. Sôsuke’s mother calls him a “freak show” when she sees him come near her home as he searches for Ponyo. He is neither mean nor authoritarian; he is just a bit odd.


13. Boats and ships are seen continually through the film. When Sôsuke first finds Ponyo he is carrying a little toy boat. What is the purpose of the repeated use of boats and ships?

Suggested Response:

The images of boats and ships tie elements of the film together. In the background, they show the continual use of the sea by humans and Sôsuke’s father works on a ship. Ponyos’s father gets about in a four-flippered submarine. Sôsuke’s toy boat, magically altered by Ponyo helps in the effort to find Sôsuke’s mother. Several rescue ships are seen after the flood and in one Pony uses her magic to help heal an ailing child. Boats and ships bring characters together as they bring out character.


14. How is Sôsuke’s mother characterized?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. A good discussion will include the following concepts. Lisa, Sôsuke’s mother is young and gives her son a great deal of independence. She is a wild driver. She calls Ponyo’s father a “Freak Show” and then tells Sôsuke not to call people such names or to judge people by their looks. She works at a senior center and cares about her patients. Her character is best revealed when she says, as she and her son are preparing for dinner after the disappointment felt when her husband will not be home at night, the dinner “will start with dessert and go backwards.” She clearly fits the character of a mother who would have a compassionate and free-spirited child such as Sôsuke and her situation of being left alone for long periods of time while her husband is off working makes it more likely that her son will step up and be a responsible child. (See Social Emotional Learning Question #1)


15. There are several examples of foreshadowing in the first fifteen minutes of the film. What are they? Suggested

Suggested Response:

Here are a few examples: Ponyo really likes ham – Lisa: When told that Ponyo, while still a goldfish, likes to eat ham, Lisa remarks, “e; So she thinks she’s human,”e; One of the old ladies says, “Get me out of this wheelchair!” Another old lady says, “Don’t you realize it will cause a Tsunami.”


See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



1. Does Ponyo know what she’s getting into by leaving her home in the sea, losing her magical powers, and becoming a human being?

Suggested Response:

Ponyo has no idea what she’s getting into or giving up. Her character is thinly drawn, unlike the characters of Sôsuke, Lisa and her father. This is a weakness of the film.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


1. Why do children in some single parent families or in families in which one parent is an alcoholic or drug addict often act more responsibly than other children their age?

Suggested Response:

One of the most important things for any child is for the family structure to be stable. When there is instability or a deficit in the family structure many children will try to step up and fulfill the role of the absent parent. Some single parents can supply both the parental roles of father and mother, but this is a very hard task, especially since many single family parents must work. Thus, often, in these situations, children willingly step into the role of being a responsible member of the family at a very early age. For these children, taking on responsibility is a task that is necessary to right the balance of nature.



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


2. What is the relationship between caring for another person and being responsible in your dealings with them?

Suggested Response:

One of the aspects of caring is acting responsibly with respect to the person you love. Certainly, if you don’t act responsibly in your relations with another person, you are not acting in a caring manner.


See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Film.


Each of the discussion questions can serve as the topic for an essay. Discussion question # 4, if posed as a writing assignment should require the student to describe all five major characters.


1. Write an essay describing the environmental themes in Ponyo and at least one other Miyazaki film, for example, Princess Mononoke.


2. Watch Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid and write a thorough comparison of this highly successful film to Miyazaki’s Ponyo. What differences emerge in the comparisons of people, places, and the sacrifices that girls make to find love. Pay special attention to Ursula and suggest which character in Ponyo even comes close to the Disney sea witch. Note which characters, such as Granmamare, are lacking in the Disney film and suggest why this may be so.


3. Write a review of Ponyo. Make sure that you cite evidence to support your views.

Additional Assignments.

1. Read Hans Christian Anderson’s story, “The Little Mermaid,” and write as essay in which you show the harsh circumstances the protagonist faces in her effort to be with the man she loves. Be sure to address the concepts involved and try to explain what themes emerge from the mermaid’s failure to succeed in her quest. Address the reasons you think Anderson allows his character to lose her battle to come human. [Teachers who want to make sure that students read the fairy tale can have them fill out TWM’s Worksheet for “The Little Mermaid“.]


2. Anderson’s story uses a good deal of description and detail to impress upon the reader the beauty of the sea life as well as the glamour of the world above the sea. Compare the descriptions in this story to the images shown in Ponyo. Mention color and plants and visual images of people and places.


4. Do a storyboard based upon the ideas in Anderson’s short story. You can find examples of storyboards done by Miyasaki for Ponyo on line and see how he has done his work. You will learn that he creates his drawings as the story develop whereas you are expected to do the drawings for Anderson’s story, which was written over a century and a half ago. Present the storyboard to the class and explain why you may have left out images or included others.


5. Write an opinion piece about the basic sexism some have found in both Anderson’s, Disney’s and Miyasaki’s tales. Address the fact that it is never the male who is expected to give up his soul, his voice or his magic for the company of the opposite sex. You may want to pay close attention to Ursula’s song, “Body Language,” in the Disney film.


6. View Splash and write about the different take you see on the “Little Mermaid” story. Note the shift in gender expectations and outcomes. Prepare a presentation to the class on the discoveries you have made.


See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.



Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.



Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.


Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.


Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


Hans Christian Anderson’s story of “The Little Mermaid”.



The websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine.

This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden.

This Guide was published on May 15, 2013.

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