Ponyo is the story of a fish who is swept ashore and rescued by a human boy, Sōsuke. She refuses to return to the sea and wants to be human, which throws the whole balance of nature off kilter. The only way she can survive is to have a true kiss with Sōsuke and then become fully human, or else become sea foam.
In many ways, the story is a retelling of The Little Mermaid, but from a radically different perspective. It has the same basic outline as the original but the emphasis is completely different, with a shift in focus to the young children and environmental issues. Although Miyazaki acknowledges the Hans Christian Andersen story as a primary inspiration, he explains it was not the only source for the story. The film also has a debt to a long forgotten children’s story, as he says in an interview:
I was thinking of perhaps using that as the original story to work from, and that was a frog in there. But as I worked on the story, it became something completely different from that original children’s book
By combining different stories, Ponyo becomes an entirely new work than The Little Mermaid, despite sharing some of the same DNA. This is the power of adaptation. Stories mutate and change in unexpected ways. They get combined with other stories. From the collision of different elements, entirely new stories are created.
Everything is a Remix is the clearest explanation of this I have seen. It shows the basic elements of creativity as copying, transforming and combining.
Ponyo is so creative and so inventive because it uses these elements of creativity to make something new and specific to Japanese culture. It transforms the original story and combines it with new elements, like the frog story and the power of the sea in Japanese art. Some of the shots of the waves bring to mind the woodcut prints of Hokusai for example, but by reframing them within the new story, they are mutated into something new. In country battered by tsumanis, the sea becomes a terrible force to be feared, teeming with unknown life. Nature is beautiful, but also deadly.
The film leaves behind the dubious morals of the original story. The mermaid is not shunned or rejected by the prince by the end. It has a completely different emphasis to the Disney film as well. In the same interview as before, Miyazaki says:
“I watched the video of Little Mermaid many years ago when I was first given it, but I haven’t watched it recently,” Miyazaki said. “On purpose I did not watch it in my making this film.”
It seems to me that he stopped watching the film to resist making an exact copy. Instead, creativity comes from allowing the subconscious to merge the original story with different elements together over a long time. What happens in Ponyo is that he tells the same story, but vaguely remembered after a number of years. His subconscious has changed and altered the emphasis and the end result feels utterly new and unique.