“on Ponyo (2008) and making peace” (essay)
by Emma Chan
12th grader at Kent Place School, Summit
English teacher: Dr. Michael Schwartz
Honorable mention award: $50
Festival note: Emma Chan also won Honorable Mention in the 2019 Teen Writing Contest for her poem “Polynomial Test No. 2”
on Ponyo (2008) and making peace
On the day my grandmother tells us she is dying of cancer, her thin voice spindling through the static of my mother’s phone speakers, I am thinking of closed doors. I can see them in my mind’s eye: dust settling delicately on our garage door handle, previously polished by a thousand turns by a thousand leaving and returning hands. Nowadays, there is no leaving this place we call home, in a desperate bid not to leave the bodies we call home.
The wifi bars at the corner of my mother’s screen blink steadily lower, threatening to flicker out entirely. The international number calling us, belonging to a decrepit landline in some forgotten corner of my grandmother’s nursing home, flashes cheerfully across the darkened screen.
“Wei?” my mother cries hoarsely into the phone, and it sounds like a question, an answer, an echo. Our phone signal breaking the thin thread between mother and daughter, leaving both stranded far from home.
I don’t quite know why I consider being lost the antithesis of being home, but it seems to be the common theme of stories I’ve written, movies I’ve watched, books I’ve read, over the course of quarantine. I’ve become fascinated with this idea of being home: what it means. The way home takes a life of its own, morphs into something less protective and more stifling. I’ve gained a new perspective on how my relationship with home, a typically comforting and reassuring concept, has changed into something more complicated.
Recently, I’ve been rewatching one of my favorite animated films, Ponyo, over and over again. In the film, a shapeshifting fish girl who lives in the sea falls in love with the idea of living amongst humans, particularly with the family of a boy named Sosuke, and desperately tries to convince her father to allow her to leave her home. At its core, it’s a movie about finding a place where we belong. The main characters are constantly attempting to define and redefine what it means to call a place home, and realizing the value of the people around them who make home feel so welcoming. On one particular rewatch, I watched carefully as I tried to mimic the characters’ casual appreciation of their homes, and define home for myself.
I like to think that at home both we and the characters in Ponyo are surrounded by things they love. For young Sosuke, the main character, he falls in love with the thick, slippery glass of the sea’s surface, star-silvered in the night. Sosuke’s mother longs for the sound of a ship’s hull groaning against the shore, her husband’s boots squelching and slipping on the sea-sanded path, signaling a safe return from fishing. And the half-fish, half-human Ponyo discovers her ability to choose her home, to move freely in between two worlds, sea and sky, where she is loved.
For my mother and me, Ponyo’s freedom was something we could only dream of. As flights were cancelled and the country shut down, my mother felt the hope of seeing her mother for the last time dwindle, and then extinguish for good. In the midst of the pandemic, I had to say goodbye to my grandmother through a Wechat call in stilted, fumbling Chinese, feeling the fragility of our connection as my words cut in and out. I had never met her in person, never returned to my mother’s hometown in China, and I suspect I never will. As lockdown drags on, it feels easier and easier to fixate on what we’ve lost, whether it be loved ones or life experiences.
But quarantine has taught us that thinking about closed doors only makes us itch to open them. I never expected to be forced to stay at home for a year and a half, but the experience has made me appreciate my home in a new way. Whether it’s the way the early morning sunlight slashes through my backyard trees or the sound of a window opening to let in the crisp, cool summertime air, I’ve begun to take note of the little things that I love about being home. And it’s these minute observations that have made my house feel less like a prison and more like somewhere I can learn to be happy living in. I don’t live in a quaint cottage perched precariously on a cliff above the sea, like Sosuke’s family does, but I’m trying to see my surroundings anew and view my life with the same wonder as Sosuke views his.
In short, I’m taking to heart the lessons I learned from Ponyo so many years ago. Point in case: Sosuke’s mother was initially hesitant about making a home in the swell of a wave, the silk-soft crest where fire breathes into flight. But she believed in her family. Believed in the map of her husband’s hands, the wrinkles worn by storms and the splintered wood of a long-loved ship. Believed in the way her son’s eyes sparkled like the moon’s reflection in the star-silvered water as he played on the shore of their tiny island home.
And just like the family in Ponyo, we’re learning to be happy, at home. We’re making peace with how the walls press into our warmth, hugging us close. Our hands flickering, like candles, toward each other. Learning to never let go.
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