Ponyo and Organic Design

August 14, 2009


There is no formal definition for the term organic design but we do have something called organic architecture. One of its principles advocates for designs that unfold and sprawls out like an organism, which you may find it interesting and relevant to Miyazaki’s visual mastery of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. When Miyazaki was asked about how he crafted colours and backgrounds for the film in his interview, he said,

I wanted to make it a simple story and to show simplicity through the colors. Also, since the main character is red, a goldfish, I didn’t want her colors to overwhelm the other colors, so the other colors had to be bright as well.

Below you can see what he did with colour scheme for yourself.




One of the reasons why I have no fond of most designs in anime today is because they feel more machinic than organic. What I mean by machinic is that, the characters for example, come pre-fabricated in typically archetypal model, such as dojikko, tsundere or tomboy, in different variations of awkward hair colours and shapes. There’s something unpleasantly heterogeneous and jarring about manufactured components being forcibly put together to function as a machine, which is the kind of feeling I get when seeing generic and uninspired designs. Miyazaki has produced yet another great anime of colourful designs that just warms our heart. Nothing feels artificial. Fantastical and unique, yet perfectly natural.


There is another intriguing idea to be found in organic architecture in that it’s a movement away from Sullivan’s form follows function to Wright’s form and function are one, which is exactly what you feel when looking at how the ocean waves are animated in Ponyo. One simply can’t help but be entranced by the crushing waves, the way they roar in storm, and how they soar and dance in moments of triumph. Ben once said that animators have the power to transform an ordinary event like ‘riding a bike’ into something magical, and there is no doubting the magic sparkling in Miyazaki’s water.ponyo


look at the details!

Aside from the movie’s relevance to organic design, I must also mention the wealth of care and love that obviously went into its making. Just imagining the kind of difficulty in animating all those tiny details, so fluidly moving at every moment, in a background that is not static but breathing alive. I invite you to watch Ponyo, Miyazaki’s most visually enticing work along with his Spirited Away, a simple story between a boy and a girl but also of lights and waves that sings in our ears and warms our heart.

spirited away

I could be mistaken but Spirited Away is I think where Miyazaki started developing his organic depiction of water.


16 Responses to “Ponyo and Organic Design”

  1. Cello Says:

    As a graphic designer and artist this is also something i caught as well. He surrounded warm colors with complimentary warm colors to provide a rich and engrossing image. Kids subconsciencely love it and adults can appreciate it. I hope this movie proves that 2-D traditional art is way mroe of a labor of love then any pixar movie. I believe Miyazaki doesn’t make movies for the money unlike a Toy Story 3 or a Shrek 4, but because he genuinely loves storytelling through animation and I think it shows! Great blog entry! Glad you had a chance to see it 🙂

  2. Sasa Says:

    I think there are many things that have never changed ever since Nausicaä. It’s not really “organic depiction of water”, but this liquid material in Nausicaä look a lot like the screenshot you have shown.

  3. Kitsune Says:

    Long live pencil and paper! 🙂

  4. gaguri Says:


    Glad to hear your view as a graphic designer. I’m sure plenty of love is being poured into pixars as well but I sure like the way miyazaki does it much better! I guess another thing I too like about Miyazaki as you mention is that he’d rather do put all that creative energy in animating another story, rather than using a prequel as a foundation to cheaply manufacture inferior clone.


    I don’t know if the screenshot can do justice to just how much alive the waves feel in Ponyo, certainly lot more than anything in Nausicaa.


    Indeed, although let’s not say goodbye to computer too soon x_X

  5. Shadowmage Says:

    I believe that most anime simply cannot use organic design because it costs too much money. A while back I recall that there was a dialogue about the differences between American animation and Japanese animation. Right now, Ghibli is Disney and everyone else is stuck making every single cell count. Because of this, the designs of characters and objects really cannot be organic or free flowing since they quite literally 1 to 3 images to have to capture exactly what a character/object is and create an illusion it is alive.

    In regards to whole 3D and 2D thing, it’s actually far harder to pull off convincing 3D images than 2D counterparts. Because of this, Miyazaki never really had an interest in CGI. He felt that it was too restrictive and time consuming relative to regular animation.

  6. gaguri Says:

    hmm, aside from ‘breathing’ part, other two points of organic design I wanted to get across was 1. design approach that sprawls out and unfolds within (and taking things around it holistically) and not machinic approach of ‘fitting’ things in as they see fit, 2. that form=function (i.e. style=substance, not just there to act as secondary role to support substance). I think they are matter of creative efforts and not as much economic. But you are right in that it’s just as hard if not harder to pull of realistic 3D than 2D, I remember reading something about Miyazaki re-doing his 3d animations into 2d in Howl’s because 3d didn’t look as good.

  7. Omeca Says:

    I respect your view as a graphic designer. I hope to proudly call my self an artist one day also, but i have a concern about your comment.

    I can appreciate the love for 2-d art. We all grew up on it. Much like how we all will have a lot of love for Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo system; or even have too much love for tetris – more so than our kids will understand.

    I think the love of 2-D work is us trying to hold on to the past. 3-D work can be just as emotional and visually perfect as any 2-D work. take for instance ‘Up’ by Pixar.

    ‘Up’ had texture, beautiful perspective, and a great color scheme. Not to mention amazing story and talented voice acting. and NO ONE can forget how the music made us feel for Ellie and Carl.

    3-D versus 2-D are only as good as the as the artist who render them. (Not limited to animators)

    Thank you!

    Sorry about my bad spealing.

  8. gaguri Says:

    Don’t worry about spelling, it’s nice to see someone drop by and clean the dust off my blog every now and then!

    I agree that 3D can be just as emotional and visually outstanding, and I love Pixars too. In fact, there is not one Pixar move I didn’t like, adored them all (wall-e, finding nemo, etc). Although I have to admit, I just like the sensibilities of Miyazaki more than Pixar. And generally, 2D generally looks better than 3D for my eyes, haha.

  9. Omeca Says:

    Thank you for your fast reply ( and understanding about spelling ;])

    But to expand on your good point; sensibilities, that is a loaded word. That almost makes it subjective. In the world of art, all things are subjective.

    But that is such an absolute, y’know? I know I am turning into a philosopher, and I am sure if I finish college and take the class I’d absolutely fail at it, but with that in mind I personally think that mindset (that I share with you) has to change.

    There was an artist somewhere that said that there is nothing left. All forms of art are already made; that there is nothing else. Then 3-D/ Digi art is created. Unlike most forms of art the first renditions of the style are the standard – they are considered the best. But 3-D/ Digi are different, to me.

    I think that the potential is limitless (unlike most art) because each advance brings more beautiful artwork. And Animation studios are experimenting with the Hay’s Code ( A Studio code of ‘laws’ that set the moral-standard for storytelling in Hollywood)- thus they are creating gems like ‘Finding nemo’ and ‘Up’.

    I think that digi art/ 3-D is that rare bird of an art form that can only evolove.

    2-D I believe has the same ability in some respects ( we can see the soul of the artist directly). But Sometimes I think that the story sometimes over shadows the work, music, and artistic direction. Therefore there is loss of focus on texture, sound FX, and natural exactness that exists in ‘the real-world’. I guess what I am getting at is this.

    2-D puts the soul of the artist in the mind/ heart of the watcher.

    3-D puts the story in their hands. You can feel the stubble of the hair, you can taste the falling meatballs, you can float in a house by balloons.

    I am not refuting the importance of 3-D versus 2-D , both are important – But 3-D is a newer and more exiting perspective. AHHHH DON’T HATE ME!

  10. gaguri Says:

    Why would I hate you, I’m perfectly fine with people liking 3D more =D

    That’s interesting view you have there with 2D putting soul of the artist, while 3D put the story in their hands. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I certainly think more ‘soul’, or thoughts are put into one’s act of drawing, rather than using computer (i.e. typing/using mouse). In the practice of architecture for example, one uses hand to draw and conceptualise your ideas, and only when you’ve really ‘created’ something, you ‘process’ that mechanically using digital tools.

  11. Omeca Says:

    I think I am understanding you more.

    In the world of art (Painting, culinary, sculpture, music, etc…) the soul of the characters, story, and artist are expected in order for it to be even close to being excepted. The soul is important.

    I think in 3-D though, the feat of reaching the soul of the viewer maybe the difference. The ‘realness’, clarity, the take your breath away moments rendered by animation 3-D are so profound that its no longer sympathy lke 2-D can cause… it is now Empathy. You can feel it because you see it, taste it, feel it, and touch it. (Can’t wait till we get to eat it.

    I suppose an analogy would be the difference between going to a museum and seeing the Mona Lisa(Actually one of my dreams). Versus going to the Sistine Chapel… (another one)
    One is more real, you can feel it, you feel like you are… its personal. I don’t know how to compare it.

    Architecture in 3-D. That is a great point. I think that ‘Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ illustrates my quasi-attempt to defend 3-D versus 2-D architecture. Architecture requires (in My mind)the animator to get really damned close to the original structure (Church, gate, house, or what-have-you) deviate a little bit and it turns from a reproduction into an artist’s interpretation. Most stories are retelling of common fairy-tales, campfire tales, or part of an oral/literary tradition. I think 3-D enhances the story… Exempting (as much as one can) the artist’s fingerprint. Okay that isn’t as bad as I made it sound. Remember Futurama? Remember the episode where Fry met ‘God’? And Matt Groening (creator of Futurama) said something through the ‘God’ character. “If you do it right, no one will know you did anything at all.”. I think that tenet is the missing commandment of artists world wide. No one buys a picture because they admire the artist’s interpretation, they buy it because they like it on a personal level. ‘Mona Lisa’ Is renowned for her smile… And because of her smile Da Vinci is renown. People connected to the realness of the smile; we have all had that feeling that made us smile like that… they were all different. ( I remember what I did) LOL.

    When I watch an animation I want them to dwarf me; In Howel’s Floating castle; the castle (which I think was organic) was amazing; but it doesn’t dwarf and humble you like Notre Dame does in the “hunchback of Notre Dame.”

    “Hunchback of Notre Dame”

    “Howel’s Floating castle”

    (Both are amazing films. Howel’s Moving castle is simply stunning.)

    (Mind you its getting difficult to find recent animation without the incorporation of both 2-D versus 3-D)

    So… Yup!

    (P.S. I like talking to you. Finally someone I can talk to about my budding passion.

  12. gaguri Says:

    Haha, I am enjoying our little conversation too. Most anime fans prefer not to go so deep into artistic merits of animation.

    Ah I have no doubt that 3D works can move people’s souls. What I meant was that the ‘act’ of working with your hands require more soul than with technology. That’s why in many fields, people will prefer to use sketches/make models using hand/etc. before using technology to refine it.

    I love what you say about being dwarfed when watching animation. Sometimes I watch it for fluff and fun too, but I find that the most profound and emotional works tend to dwarf me too, and remain my favourites for the time to come. If you haven’t yet, I recommend Utena the movie for some excellent architecture in animation, which will no doubt floor you! It also happens to be my favourite animated movie, bar none.

    p.s. when you’re posting links on blogs, try to leave out ‘http’ part, otherwise wordpress will label your comment as spam!

  13. Lauren Says:

    You both make some very interesting points and I just had to jump in (=
    I am in love with Miyazaki’s work, and am personally more drawn towards hand drawn 2D work rather than 3D. Don’t get me wrong, I love 3D animation (especially Pixar’s, they’re amazing), but my heart belongs to 2D, so to speak, haha.
    What I have found to be the case (at least for me) is that 2D animation is much more simple in relation to 3D (characters are more flatly colored, etc), and therefore the viewer’s attention is more focused on the story. Ehh, I’m not sure how to phrase this entirely. So bare with me as I try to explain what I mean (=
    Because 2D animation is much simpler, I feel that the team producing the film is somewhat forced to create a much stronger story, whereas with the realistic beauty of 3D there seems to be a bit more slack for story quality. Take Avatar for example. Personally, I thought the story wasn’t very deep nor creative, but the movie got away with it because of the richness of it’s 3D effects. I know it wasn’t an animation, but I feel I can still reference it. My personal feeling are that if the movie wasnt so visually stunning, it would have been a B movie, but the visual beauty of the film made up for the lack of a substantive story.
    Do you see my meaning? I’m sorry if I’m not being clear.
    Now, this by no means 2D animations are not visually stunning(Hello, Miyazaki (= ), nor does this mean 3D animations have no valuable story (Pixar shows us this constantly); however, as stated, I feel s though makers of 2D films must work harder to create quality stories and cause their flat 2D images come to life.
    For me, that is the beauty of 2D- making flat and stiff 2D images thrive, flow, and have a sens of depth that even some 3D or live action films cannot accomplish.

  14. Lauren Says:

    Ahh! Sorry for my mini essay! i didnt mean for it to be so long! @_@

  15. gaguri Says:

    Our general rule is that longer the comment the better!

    I too like 2d more but perhaps for different reason. I’m not sure if 2d is inherently more ‘simple’, since obviously something like Miyazaki or Yuasa might prove much more visual-heavy than some 3D indie animations (Pixars just has both story and visuals down in spades though). Often 2d works in anime, stories itself won’t have much to appeal to viewers, and everything must come across through 2d graphics, and most importantly, animation of them, that is, their movements, so they breathe alive on screen. That is when 2d, or even 3d, trascends flat screen and become illusions of being real and living. Ponyo is a very good 2d example because it is very weak story-wise, yet the visuals are strong enough.

    But I see what you mean with Avatar. Its amazingly rendered 3D effects is one of the biggest reasons why it’s such a success, despite it being yet another generic romance-fantasy-ethnic issues-melodramatic blablabla hollywood at core.

  16. omeca Says:

    Love this article.

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