Home > Reviews > PONYO ON THE CLIFF (GAKE NO UE NO PONYO) – Joe Hisaishi


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The creative partnership between filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and composer Joe Hisaishi, despite existing strictly outside the Hollywood world, it nevertheless one of the most fruitful and fulfilling in all of film music. Since first scoring Miyazaki’s 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Hisaishi has scored all of their collaborations since then, including the likes of Laputa, Princess Mononoke, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Ponyo on the Cliff – or ‘Gake No Ue No Ponyo’ to give it its proper Japanese title – is their ninth film together. It tells the story of a young boy named Sosuke who, while out walking near his cliff top home, finds a mermaid stranded on the beach. The mermaid, who Sosuke names Ponyo, is actually a princess, the daughter of the mermaid king Fujimoto, and has run away from her undersea home after she declared her desire to be human. Sosuke and Ponyo become close friends, but soon find that Ponyo’s defection to the human world is throwing nature into an imbalance, and could cause devastating environmental effects on the planet. The film has already become the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2008, and is scheduled to be released in the United States in 2009. The voice cast for the English-language version will apparently include Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus and Cloris Leachman.

Hisaishi’s score, as has been the case throughout his career, is lush and expressive, making use of a full orchestra and choir, with special solos for violin and piano. The opening “Deep Sea Ranch” is a superbly textured, undulating piece full of wonderment and beauty, that eventually becomes a intricate, gently comedic exercise in pizzicato string writing, before eventually introducing the delightfully innocent theme for Ponyo herself on glockenspiel, and eventually by the entire orchestra.

The “Mother of the Sea” theme is an emotional piece for a solo female soprano singing in Japanese, accompanied by a sweeping orchestra; similarly, cues such as “Empty Bucket”, “Flash Signal” the gorgeous “Night of the Meteor”, and the rich choral version of “Mother’s Love” tug at the heartstrings with their emotionally unrestrained writing and tender, unambiguously poignant thematic content. The stirring “Granmanmale” and the second “Little Sisters” cue reprise the oceanic undulations from the opening title with a bold choral element, while “Underwater Town” reprises the ‘Mother of the Sea’ theme for a warm solo vocalist, before concluding the score in beautiful fashion in “Song of Praise for Mother and the Sea”, which has a touching violin solo and a more sweeping orchestral and choral arrangement.

The liveliness of cues like “Ura Town” and “I Become Human!”, with their urgently rhythmic woodwind writing and blustering piano lines, give the score a much-needed burst of energy to counterbalance the lilting romance pieces, while others like “Ponyo and Susuke”, “Ponyo of the Fish of the Wave” and “Toki” are dramatic, driving, light action piece in which insistent string and brass chords insinuate that not all is well in Ponyo’s world. The theme for Ponyo’s father in “Fujimoto” is a light, but pompous march for twittering woodwinds and bouncing brasses that cleverly captures his regal haughtiness, and the “Fleet March” is a jaunty militaristic piece that uses snare drums and trilling Yankee Doodle flutes, while the “Little Sisters” have an outstanding, energetic scherzo which flits around the entire orchestra with a great deal of zest and vigor.

Cues such as “Encounter”, “Kumiko”, and the slightly more bombastic “Hot-Bulb Engine Ship” restate Ponyo’s theme with whimsical fancy and innocent-sounding orchestrations – harps and chimes – while the pretty, music box-like “Ponyo’s Lullaby” reminds the listener that, for all its sweeping beauty, Ponyo is still a story for children. The free-spirited version of Ponyo’s theme in “Flight of Ponyo” is an album highlight, and sounds like the kind of music Ron Goodwin or William Walton might have written had he ever been asked to write an anime score. The solo piano versions of the theme, performed by Hisaishi himself in “Tears of Sosuke” and “Finale”, are equally excellent.

The whole score is really quite outstanding, and perfectly illustrates Hisaishi’s mastery of the orchestra. There are few composers who can illicit such wonderful performances, such nuanced textures, and such clever instrumental combinations as Hisaishi does here. I have often lamented the fact that Hisaishi has not yet been given his opportunity to crack the Hollywood system but, the more I think about it, the less I want him to become ‘mainstream’. When he is given this much freedom of expression by Studio Ghibli, why would he want to reign himself in by having to answer to target demographics, test audiences, and meddling producers? With a few exceptions (like Alexandre Desplat), too many excellent composers lose their unique voice when Hollywood comes calling, and if that were to happen to Hisaishi it would be a tragedy.

The accompanying ‘Image Album’, released separately on the same Tokuma Japan Communications label, features a couple of additional score tracks and several original songs from the film also written by Hisaishi which, surprisingly, are just as good as the score itself. I defy anyone not to have the insanely catchy “Ponyo on the Cliff” stuck in their head for days after hearing it, especially the cute child-like chorus sung by five-year-old actress Nozomi Ohashi. The variation of the longing “Mother of the Sea” theme from the score features a violin solo by Yasushi Toroshima that is spectacularly beautiful, while the conclusive “Rondo of the House of Sunflowers” features a sweet, intimate vocal performance by Hisaishi’s daughter, singer Mai Fujisawa, that melts the heart. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, I would unequivocally recommend picking up this companion piece, as it complements the score album superbly.

Scores like Ponyo on the Cliff restore your faith in film music, and remind you why you started listening to it in the first place. It also illustrates perfectly the fact that a great deal of the best modern film music is being written outside of Hollywood, in countries like Japan, and why film music aficionados need to broaden their horizons beyond the studio blockbusters to find the best of the best. Anyone who has not yet experienced Joe Hisaishi’s work would do well to seek this score out. It is, by quite a long margin, one of the best scores of 2008.

Rating: *****

Buy the Ponyo on the Cliff soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Score Album
  • Deep Sea Ranch (4:18)
  • Mother of the Sea (2:21)
  • Encounter (0:31)
  • Ura Town (2:36)
  • Kumiko (2:06)
  • Ponyo and Sosuke (2:17)
  • Empty Bucket (1:30)
  • Flash Signal (2:37)
  • I Become Human! (1:30)
  • Fujimoto (1:34)
  • Little Sisters (1:32)
  • Flight of Ponyo (1:43)
  • Sunflower House in the Storm (2:20)
  • Ponyo of the Fish of the Wave (3:36)
  • Ponyo and Sosuke 2 (2:01)
  • Lisa’s House (3:20)
  • New Family (1:09)
  • Ponyo’s Lullaby (1:29)
  • Lisa’s Determination (1:33)
  • Granmanmale (2:14)
  • Night of the Meteor (2:40)
  • Hot-Bulb Engine Ship (1:55)
  • To the Sea of Dipnorhynchus (1:41)
  • Fleet March (2:26)
  • Baby and Ponyo (0:33)
  • Fleet March 2 (1:14)
  • Voyage of Sosuke (2:08)
  • Tears of Sosuke (1:02)
  • Underwater Town (2:02)
  • Mother’s Love (0:49)
  • Tunnel (1:26)
  • Toki (0:48)
  • Little Sisters (1:40)
  • Song of Praise for Mother and the Sea (2:15)
  • Finale (0:44)
  • Ponyo by the Cliff by the Sea [Film Version] (written by Joe Hisaishi, Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuya Kondo, performed by Fujioka-Fujimaki and Nozomi Ohashi) (1:36)
  • Image Album
  • Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (written by Joe Hisaishi, Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuya Kondo, performed by Fujimaki-Fujioka and Nozomi Ohashi) (2:45)
  • The Coral Tower (3:36)
  • Ponyo Comes (3:36)
  • Mother of the Sea (4:34)
  • Little Sisters (written by Joe Hisaishi and Hayao Miyazaki, performed by Little Carol) (3:59)
  • Fujimoto’s Theme (written by Joe Hisaishi, Naoya Fujimaki and Takaki Fujioka, performed by Fujimaki-Fujioka) (3:28)
  • Flash Signal (4:28)
  • Ponyo’s Lullaby (written by Joe Hisaishi and Hayao Miyazaki, performed by Nozomi Ohashi) (1:47)
  • Real Feelings (written by Joe Hisaishi, Naoya Fujimaki and Takaki Fujioka, performed by Fujimaki-Fujioka) (3:10)
  • Rondo of the House of Sunflowers (written by by Joe Hisaishi and Hayao Miyazaki, performed by Mai Fujisawa) (4:09)

Running Time (Score Album): 67 minutes 29 seconds
Running Time (Image Album): 35 minutes 32 seconds

Tokuma Japan Communications TKA-73340 (2008) – Score Album
Tokuma Japan Communications TKA-73309 (2008) – Image Album

Music composed and conducted by Joe Hisaishi. Orchestrations by Joe Hisaishi . Featured musical soloists Yasushi Toroshima and Joe Hisaishi. Recorded and mixed by Masayoshi Okawa, Makoto Moramuto and Suminobu Hamada . Album produced by Joe Hisaishi.

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