Title: Pom Poko
Company: Studio Ghibli
Format: Movie; 119 minutes.
Dates: 16 Jul 1994
Synopsis: It’s the 1960s and Tokyo is expanding rapidly. Areas just outside the city are being cleared for new residential developments, leaving a group of local tanuki (Japanese racoon-dogs) homeless. Under the guidance of an elder tanuki, they band together to get rid of the humans before their home is destroyed. It seems an unwinnable war, but the tanuki have a trick up their sleeves – they can shape shift. After some training and enlisting the aid of some old, wise tanuki, they begin their campaign to win back their home using their skills of deception.
Creativity: Impressive and builds on Japanese lore.
Tone: Never too serious.
Message: Doesn’t even try to be subtle.
Death toll: Higher than you might think.
Pom Poko may not stand among Studio Ghibli’s most famous films, but it is a lot of fun to watch. Directed by Takahata Isao, it is built on a foundation of Japanese legend and lore and told in an almost documentary style. This could have made the film inaccessible to outside audiences, but instead instills it with a strong sense of creativity and culture. The film does a good job of explaining the history and abilities of the tanuki and uses both elements to its advantage. This, combined with a good dose of humour, makes for an enjoyable tale.
Takahata’s pet themes of environmentalism and family come into play once again. With the destruction of the forest as the central conflict, the film does not attempt to hide its central message. At one point one of the tanuki even addresses the audience directly about the need to protect nature. However, the humans are never portrayed as evil or purposefully driving the tanuki out. Similarly, the plot is more than just a simple case of tanuki versus humans. While the tanuki may agree on their objective, they don’t agree on the strategy. One faction, led by Gonta, favours all-out terrorism; one of his attacks leaves two construction workers dead. The other tanuki can’t argue the effectiveness of this tactic, but they hesitate. Is terrorism really the best option? Should they experiment with other options? How long can they wait before drastic action is necessary? Or, even worse, it is too late? If it comes to that, can the ends justify the means? Or should they simply give in and submit to human society? These weighty decisions offer no clear path.
Differing opinions also lead to the emergence of new leaders. Some are placed in positions of power due to age and experience, but others, such as young Shukichi and Tamasaburo, step in to take key roles and defend their ideas. Conflicting ideologies and experiences cause some tension amongst the tanuki. They are torn among the action-oriented Gonta, the experienced elders and the passionate Shukichi. Of the three factions, Shukichi seems the least comfortable in his new role, pushed by his need for rational discussion and desire to avoid a battle. This group of characters, along with a few other tanuki that form the main cast, are built from basic character archetypes, but their interactions are believable and familiar.
For all of its intriguing questions and conflicting politics, Pom Poko never gets bogged down or feels heavy. The atmosphere is light. Nothing is ever taken too seriously. Several short tanuki folk songs enhance the feeling of good cheer as the tanuki spend much of their free time celebrating and enjoying life. The drawing style of the tanuki when not in sight of humans is decidedly cartoony; with an endless choice of objects or people to turn into, the story moves along swiftly. Indeed, it is the fun the tanuki have that keeps me smiling. The humour is often simple and silly but manages to be endearing.
It would be easy for a film like this to have an exceptionally cheesy happy ending, with the tanuki regaining their home and living in peace. For a story grounded in reality, such an ending would ring false. Through our own experiences, we know that in the end development wins out over a small band of animals. In this sense, the tale could be considered a tragedy, but despite the final result for the tanuki, the filmmakers manage to instill that optimism and love of life into the conclusion.
There is more to this film than there might seem at first glance. Though it’s simple, it rings true, with characters and situations that reflect our own society, and yet silly enough to be fun and entertaining. It may not be as instantly memorable as some other Studio Ghibli films, but it’s certainly one that serves the studio well.
The Rating: 8
Reviewed by: Kaikyaku