Since 2017, Ghibli Fest has been rereleasing Studio Ghibli favorites for limited theatrical runs. May’s offering was Ponyo, which is loosely based on Han Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
Ponyo is special to me because it was the first Ghibli film I saw in the theater, but it was also a sore spot due to the circumstances that lead to that moment.
In my early 20s, I had some sort of argument with my mother, Kim, that lead to me throwing some things and she had me thrown in jail. While I fail to recall what the original argument was about, I do remember the events that occurred afterwards. After a few hours in jail, I was told I was free to go, but there was a temporary no-contact in place with Kim (I found out years later this wasn’t something they automatically do, but something she had requested). I was unable to go home as I lived with the person that I couldn’t have contact with so I walked a few blocks to the house my friend and his mom, Jess, lived at. It was October, lightly snowing, and my thin metal band t-shirt didn’t protect me from the freezing cold. I was hanging out with my friend when Jess says there’s a phone call for me—it’s Kim. She broke the No Contact she put in place herself just long enough to tell me I was not allowed to live at home anymore. I hung up on her. I had a rough night, I walked through the freezing cold, and I found out I was essentially homeless. I just sat in the dark bedroom all day channel surfing the cable in a daze.
Thankfully, my other friends had recently gotten their own place and they let me crash at their place. I didn’t have any ID on me at the time because Kim had things like my birth certificate and I had no proof of an address because I technically didn’t live anywhere. Without proof of my identity, I wasn’t able to become an actual tenant at my friend’s apartment and not being a tenant could get them into trouble. To skirt around this, I would stay for two weeks at a time, go stay a weekend or so at Jess’, and then go back to the apartment for two more weeks.
I did this for nine months before I got into a huge fight with my friends. By that time Kim and I had reconciled so I angrily stormed off to her place, which was a two hour walk. Shortly after I arrived, my friends called to inform Kim that I wasn’t allowed to stay with them anymore. It ended up leading to a mental breakdown and yet another short stint in a mental unit of a hospital. A few days after I had left the hospital, Kim drove me to my friend’s place to gather my things and I found everything dumped on their front doorstep.
I was hurt, but it hurt even worse when they acted like they didn’t kick me out and they somehow couldn’t possibly understand why I was so incredibly upset. Regardless, they tried smoothing things over with peace offerings of presents, but I felt too betrayed and angry to accept any of it. This only made them angrier as they felt they were kind enough extending these olive branches despite the fact they felt they hadn’t done anything wrong. How dare I refuse them!
One such olive branch was going to seethe new Studio Ghibli film, Ponyo, in a movie theater. At the time, it was rather unusual for anime films to have widespread theatrical releases in the US, if they even had one. My estranged friends had managed to find a theater in the next state over that was playing it and a mutual acquaintance of ours was willing to drive them there (the one friend that could drive was uncomfortable driving that far). They messaged me asking if I wanted to come along and I coldly responded, “I’d rather wait to see it on DVD than to see it in the theater with you.” Like any emotional early 20-somethings, they got pissed and trashed talked me on social media (which would have been DeviantArt or MySpace in 2009) and to anyone that would listen about what a complete, ungrateful bitch I was.
I became an even bigger bitch when I found a theater within our state that was playing it and, after explaining my side of the story, convinced the mutual acquaintance to cancel on them to take me. They were furious! It was most definitely petty and childish, but I certainly didn’t give a shit. “Fuck them!” I thought.
Seeing a Studio Ghibli film in the theater was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. I cried to Ponyo’s breathtaking hand-drawn animation and storytelling. It made petty, childish revenge taste that much sweeter. It got even sweeter when a theater half an hour away was showing the film and the projector broke during the previews when my asshole ex-friends went to go see it on the last day the theater was playing it. They viewed it as horrible luck. I saw it as glorious karma.
Ponyo was a piece in a continuous cycle of fury and backstabbing that lasted for a few months before we somehow managed to patch our friendship. To this day, I still don’t understand how the Hell we mended bridges, but I now know that they wouldn’t have been burned to begin with if it weren’t for Kim.
A few weeks after I had moved out of Kim’s place for good, I visited those friends, who were now living on the other side of the state. I don’t remember how that dark period three years prior was brought up when I was talking to the husband half of my friend couple, but I’ll never forget what I was told when I noted they had kicked me out.
“…we never kicked you out.”
“Mom told me that I wasn’t allowed to stay with you guys anymore!”
“She told us that you were going to stay with her from now on!”
Once we had exchanged our sides of the story, we realized to our horror that Kim had manipulated both parties and it nearly cost us our friendship.
My friends hadn’t called to kick me out—they called because they were worried sick about me and hoped I had walked to her place. She told them I would be moving back in with her, but she just told me that I wasn’t allowed to stay over there anymore. In addition to not having a conversation with me about moving back in with her, she also failed to inform me she had told them to leave my belongings on their doorstep before they left for the weekend to see their relatives. From their perspective, I had willingly left on my own accord and they understandably had no fucking clue as to why I was angry with them. To me, they had kicked me out following an argument, threw my things out the door, and then pretended like nothing happened. The reality was we were deceived by an abusive parent who manipulated the situation to exert more control over her daughter.
The deception was bad enough on its own because of all the confusion it caused that set off a chain of events that nearly destroyed an almost decade long friendship, but what kind of monster watches their daughter be hurt and angry for months about a betrayal that never actually happened?
I have some sort of vague recollection of her suggesting that I make up with them, but the fuzziness of it makes me question if my brain is making up a false memory. Though it wouldn’t surprise me that she would make such a suggestion to cover up what she had done. If we made amends, we would go back to normal, never speak of it again, and Kim gets away with taking advantage of a situation to manipulate her daughter. The more we stayed angry with each other, the more likely one of us would have blown up at the other for what they supposedly did and it would have risked Kim’s actions coming out into the open if we realized something wasn’t adding up, which is precisely what ended up happening except years later and not during a moment of frustrated rage.
When my husband asked if I wanted to go see Ponyo in the theater, I immediately said “Yes!” Like calling her Kim instead of Mother, it was another way to switch the narrative and figuratively take back control from her.
The movie was as beautiful and breathtaking as it was the first time I saw it. Only this time I was seeing it because I genuinely enjoy the film and Studio Ghibli rather than out of pure spite and vengeance for a perceived wrongdoing. It’s been a few months since the theater showing and I no longer see Ponyo as a bad memory of the past.