Studio Ghibli’s Most Dangerous Antagonist Redefined Movie Villains



  • Ponyo
    ‘s conflict resolution challenges the typical hero vs. villain climax.
  • Ponyo is an innocent antagonist, not a villain, with growth and good intentions.
  • The lack of tension between the protagonist and antagonist highlights the film’s themes beautifully.

Films from the legendary Studio Ghibli have a wide spectrum of tones, subject matter, characters and messages. One of the studio’s most intriguing points is the approach to conflicts. Certain stories have their conflicts from character actions, while others are not as easy to point out. While many franchises are remembered for the villains who challenge the heroes, one Studio Ghibli film takes a new approach to conflict and villainy.

From beginning to end, Ponyo is centered around the relationship between the 5-year-old characters Ponyo and Sousuke. The film’s tone is lighthearted and hopeful despite the dangers of the greatest obstacle for the heroes — the storm that Ponyo causes. This danger is treated less as life-threatening and more as an artistic wonder with Studio Ghibli’s masterful animation. Regardless, Ponyo is the cause of the conflict, and it can be argued that she is an enemy of peace for the entire world. The quick resolution of her troublemaking might appear to be poor writing, but Ponyo’s role goes beyond the typical archetypes of hero and villain. They highlight a critical part of storytelling that’s commonly overlooked.

Studio Ghibli Poster

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli, Inc. is a Japanese animation studio based in Koganei, Tokyo. It has a strong presence in the animation industry and has expanded its portfolio to include various media formats, such as short subjects, television commercials, and two television films. Their work has been well-received by audiences and recognized with numerous awards. Their mascot and most recognizable symbol, the character Totoro from the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro, is a giant spirit inspired by tanukis and cats .

Ponyo’s Campaign To Become Human

  • Ponyo‘s setting is based on a real port town in Japan.
  • Ponyo’s character is guided by curiosity and a fascination of humankind, but her desire to live among them leads to catasrophe.
  • The conflict resolution is based on what Ponyo and Sousuke want.


Hayao Miyazaki’s Most Overlooked Film Returns – But Why Is It So Forgotten?

Hayao Miyazaki is a legendary creator but one of his films is often overlooked. Why have audiences seemingly forgotten about Ponyo?

For those who can’t remember certain details from the film, Ponyo‘s story takes place in an old port town. According to the Japan Rail Pass, a Japanese travel resource for overseas visitors, the setting is based on the real port town of Tonomura in eastern Hiroshima. Sousuke meets Ponyo in her small goldfish form along the shore of his town. After helping her out of a jar left by littering civilians, he gives her the name Ponyo. Ponyo’s magic abilities are revealed when she heals a cut on Sousuke’s finger by licking it. As the children’s relationship grows, so too does Ponyo’s fascination with human life.

Carried around by Sousuke in a pail of water, Ponyo experiences the everyday life of a human being — meeting Sousuke’s friends and eating human food, most notably discovering her favorite, ham. Her love of humanity, and especially Sousuke, leads her to rebel against her human-hating father, Fujimoto, when he forces her back home. His lecture on the dark side of humanity falls on deaf ears, and she transforms herself into a human with the power of Sousuke’s blood. The imbalance of magic mixed with a human body causes tsunamis, the moon and stars begin to fall from the sky, and the fall of the moon causes a dangerous rise in ocean levels.

Sousuke, his parents, and all his friends in the port town have to survive this storm. In the meantime, the cause of this life-threatening chaos, Ponyo, is focused solely on finding Sousuke and spending time with him. The source of resolution comes from Ponyo’s parents, Fujimoto and a Goddess of the Ocean, Granmamare. While Ponyo’s father holds humanity in contempt for polluting the Ocean and is against Ponyo’s rebellion, her mother is far more understanding with a plan to test the children. Sousuke’s love for Ponyo has to be proven, and Ponyo needs to give up on magic and solely live a human life. After the two children traverse the flooded port town in search of Sousuke’s mother, they are faced with Granmamare’s test, and they pass.

Ponyo’s Conflict Resolution Is Critically Tied to Ponyo’s Role and the Film’s Major Themes

  • Ponyo‘s conflict resolution goes against the popular formula of the hero versus villain climax.
  • The typical hero vs. villain ending can be found in the Studio Ghibli films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
  • Ponyo‘s ending is not an example of poor writing.
  • Ponyo’s growth is tied to the major theme of the film.


Ponyo’s Mermaids Have Surprisingly Detailed Love Lives

Hayao Miyazaki’s development notes on Ponyo, one of his youngest-skewing films, reveal just how much thought he put into the mermaids’ love lives.

The film ends in the most wholesome way — with a happy ending between Sousuke and Ponyo, but this conflict resolution is not the expected norm for Western films. The typical formula entails a dynamic of the hero faced against a villain with a solid and dramatic resolution of the conflict. The hero is given a reward for their heroism, while the villain is punished for their wrongdoings. Other Studio Ghibli films have had thrilling final challenges that closed the major conflict of the plot. Princess Mononoke‘s battle over the Deer God leads to a peaceful ending for Ashitaka and San, but Lady Eboshi loses much of her power and control. In Spirited Away, Chihiro is challenged by Yubaba to find her parents, and Chihiro’s courage and love for her parents are rewarded while Yubaba loses her pride.

With Ponyo, the abrupt resolution over the title character’s collateral damage might feel anticlimactic — all it took was giving the children what they wanted, and the threat was immediately over. The film as a whole is beloved by critics and fans alike. The reason for that has to do with Ponyo’s motivation and role and how they support the major themes of the film. The movie might be centered around the relationship between two small children, but that core dynamic represents the film’s real purpose of highlighting the relationship between humanity and the Ocean.

Ponyo‘s message is inherently about mankind being more considerate and loving toward the Ocean and for the Ocean to do the same for mankind. There needs to be a balance of power and compassion for both, and while Sousuke is a balanced character from the beginning, Ponyo is the one who needs to learn this lesson. Her irresponsible actions nearly lead to the destruction of humanity, and her growth in maturity and compassion are the real climactic challenges that resolve the conflict. There’s no doubt that Ponyo is a harbinger of destruction in her campaign to become human, but the reason why the resolution to her flawed character is so anticlimactic is that she isn’t a villain.

A Difference Between Antagonist and Villain

  • There is a difference between antagonists and villains.
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an example of an antagonist that may be hard to identify.
  • Ponyo‘s conflict is easy to identify, but she is not a villain.


10 Best Studio Ghibli Villains

Studio Ghibli has produced several iconic characters, and many of them are villains.

Many of the most popular stories are remembered because of the tension between the protagonist — the leading character — and the antagonist, the source of the major conflict for the hero. The term villain is often used to identify characters who oppose the hero, but there’s more to these roles than meets the eye. The Speculative Fiction Author Hannah Yang describes the difference between an antagonist and a villain on the blog Pro Writing Aid. She writes, “Antagonists are plot devices that create obstructions and challenges for your protagonist, while villains are evil characters with malicious intent.”

The examples of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away force repercussions onto the villain characters Lady Eboshi and Yubaba. These two women might not be equally matched in their ill intentions, but they do share a desire to cause harm to the hero. As described by Yang, malicious intent is the ultimate marker of a true villain. Certain films and series don’t even have a villain character and are still successful in plot. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, for example, might feature characters who challenge Kaguya’s desire for freedom — namely, her many suitors — but none of them have any malicious intent toward her and are only following the customs of tradition. The main challenge and antagonist for Kaguya is the tradition forced onto her by society — those ideals of her being royalty and becoming a bride are the antagonistic source of conflict in the story.

Every story needs a conflict to challenge the protagonist, but not every conflict takes the shape of a harmful villain. This is when the term antagonist is used. At times, the main antagonist doesn’t have a concrete shape, like in the case of Princess Kaguya, but it can be a character who causes harm without meaning to. Ponyo is not a villain; she’s the major antagonist of the story who doesn’t mean to hurt anyone.

Ponyo Is an Innocent Girl With Too Much Power

Ponyo floating on the cliff by the sea with Sosuke and his boat in Ponyo.

  • Ponyo causes nearly irreparable damage with her immature and selfish actions.
  • Ponyo proves that she isn’t a villain through her growth and intentions.
  • A lack of tension between the protagonist and antagonist is a beautiful way to highlight the themes of the film.


This Studio Ghibli Character Trailblazed Anime’s Enduring Anti-Villain Trope

Studio Ghibli’s iconic antagonist is one of the best examples of a morally grey animated character that no other franchise has been able to copy.

To reiterate, Ponyo is the source of the conflict in her story. In one particular scene where she is chasing after Sousuke and his mother, she could have drowned them both in the tsunami waves that she was riding on. If it weren’t for Sousuke’s mother’s driving skills, Ponyo would learn the hard way that losing control of power leads to horrific consequences. Instead, she learns from her mistakes while she and Sousuke search for the boy’s mother. Floating along the flood of Ocean waters, Ponyo witnesses firsthand the damage she’s caused. She may have a fascination with humanity, but she lacks the care and compassion to balance her out.

In the scene when Sousuke comes across his neighbors just managing to survive, Ponyo takes the time to show compassion for a newborn baby suffering from a cold. In her own awkward way, Ponyo heals the baby by rushing toward it to kiss its face and take its illness away. She reveals further compassion when she encourages Sousuke not to lose hope in finding his mother. While these final heartwarming scenes along the water might appear to mismatch the thrilling pacing of the film’s first half, this is a key part of the film’s resolution and how Ponyo separates herself from a villain.

Ponyo’s role as an antagonist comes from her causing the storm that destroys the port town. Her motivation might have been to selfishly achieve everything she wants — a human life with Sousuke — but her concern for human life and show of support for Sousuke’s family reveals that she never had any truly malicious intent. As a little girl with overwhelming power and determination, her loss of control can be explained as a folly of youth and an important lesson for Ponyo to learn.

As the antagonist, Ponyo challenges Sousuke to hold onto compassion for magic and the Ocean regardless of the damage that was done to his home. This is a reflection of the all too real relationship that Japanese civilians must endure with natural disasters. This is the significance of the final scenes between Sousuke — the heroic protagonist — and Ponyo — the overwhelming, but not evil, antagonist. This leads the children to their final challenge — can Sousuke still love Ponyo, and does Ponyo love Sousuke and humanity enough to let go of her magic?

Sousuke might not go through an obvious growth in character as he’s as loving at the end of the film as he is at the very beginning. Ponyo, on the other hand, goes through the most growth. She starts off causing the story’s main conflict as an immature and selfish child but learns from her mistakes and practices compassion and selflessness, leading her to clear the storm she made. This rarely used formula features a grand lack of tension between the protagonist and the antagonist, but that’s the whole point of the film’s theme of fostering peace.

While Ponyo caused more damage than Lady Eboshi, Yubaba or the suffocating traditions of Princess Kaguya, her role and her journey show filmmakers and storytellers that there is a wide spectrum of what it means to be the enemy of the hero. It doesn’t always have to end with a heinous villain who needs to be punished. The contention between hero and antagonist, whether they be marked as a villain or otherwise, also doesn’t have to exist. Sometimes, the protagonist and the antagonist just have to learn to live together in peace, even if that means forgiving them for a natural disaster.

Ponyo Official Poster


A five-year-old boy develops a relationship with Ponyo, a young goldfish princess who longs to become a human after falling in love with him.

Release Date
July 19, 2008

Studio Ghibli

Tomoko Yamaguchi , Kazushige Nagashima , Yûki Amami , Yuria Nara , Matt Damon , Cate Blanchett , Liam Neeson , Hiroki Doi

101 minutes

Awards Won
Tokyo Anime Awards

Where to watch