When most people think of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s films tend to jump out and thwack you round the face in all their gorgeously animated glory, but what many may not realise is that Isao Takahata brings an equally impressive portfolio or work to the table. Part of the reason for my adoration of both the company’s founders comes from Takahata’s preference of placing greater focus on the Japanese way of life, its history, and mythology – and never has this been more prevalent than in his 1994 feature presentation, Pom Poko.
In creating a solid, comprehensive, and ultimately entertaining narrative, Takahata makes excellent use of Japan’s rich and often wacky folklore by weaving so many legends, spirits, and monsters together that it’s like a mythologist’s wet dream. Of course the film’s central focus is the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), a particularly popular and mischievous youkai (monster). These furry critters possess the power of transformation and various folktales document their impish antics – some of which the film incorporates into its plot, such as one who would trick humans by changing leaves into money.
Throughout the film, stories such as the tale of ‘The Noppera-bo of Akasaka Road’ (a terrifying faceless monster) appear as one of the tanuki’s many pranks. However, the culmination of their hard work comes in what is easily the most impressive scene of the entire movie. In order to scare the construction workers threatening to destroy their habitat, the tanuki decide to stage their own version of the ‘Hyakki Yako’ – or ‘Night Parade of a Hundred Demons’ – which is an old belief that during summer nights, various supernatural beings will take to the streets in a large parade leaving anyone who witnesses this spectacle to die. Naturally this scene lends itself beautifully to showcasing various youkai, from the Karakasa (a cyclopic umbrella demon) to the long-necked Rokuro-kubi, as well as a nice nod towards a Japanese children’s literary classic – ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’ by Kenji Miyazawa. While a veritable ‘Where’s Wally’ of Japanese culture, any casual viewer is unlikely to fully appreciate the intricate details, in the same way that a non-anime fan would miss half the references that Lucky Star hurls at its audience.
As much as I adore Miyazaki’s fantastical films that whisk you away on a magical adventure, I do love the versatility of Takahata’s direction. He prods, pokes and yanks at all the right tear ducts in the tragically spectacular Grave of the Fireflies, brandishes a totally different visual style in My Neighbours the Yamadas, and in the case of Pom Poko, transforms the plot into a mockumentary. With narration, interview-esque sound bites from the cast, and the use of a real life location (Tama Hills actually exists to the south west of Tokyo), Pom Poko’s faux-journalistic approach successfully relays the underlying message that humans should care more about nature and its inhabitants. While this technique of storytelling is a refreshing difference, it can make the movie that much more difficult to immerse yourself in. With commentary inserted into the narrative, each section of plot seems to come to a stop instead naturally flowing into the next, which creates an almost jarring sensation – much like the slight pause that occurs when a DVD switches layers.
For over twenty years Studio Ghibli has been consistently producing animation of an extraordinarily high quality, and Pom Poko is no different, with fluid movement displayed by each character or item feeling entirely natural – well as normal as shape-changing raccoon-balls can be anyway. Boasting lush green backgrounds juxtaposed with the barren construction zone and harsh machinery, the film creates a beautifully believable backdrop for the boisterous tanuki.
Pom Poko’s character designs particularly impress. That each individual has their own distinct appearance is remarkable when considering the sheer size of the cast. On top of that, the film represents our furry protagonists in four different ways throughout, depending on the nature of the scene. Primarily they take on a delightful, family-friendly manifestation complete with items of clothing and various visual quirks to easily distinguish between them. Secondly it adopts a more simplistic, cutesy visage, in order to mirror the tanuki’s carefree nature, which often emerges during party sequences to enhance the merriment. Thirdly, they appear as ordinary and realistic raccoons to enhance the film’s documentary feel and depicts how they look to regular people. Finally, some take on the form of a person during the movie; this is particularly striking as each humanoid tanuki bears similar facial features to its more adorable counterpart and makes it relatively easy to differentiate who each character is.
The voice acting in Pom Poko is top-notch, both in the original Japanese and the English dub. The suitable difference between the natural voicing of storyline sections and the sombre narration enhances the film’s overall execution and plays nicely alongside the animation to provide a pleasing all-round experience.
Pom Poko scatters appropriate incidental music throughout with a score ranging from upbeat, whimsical tunes for the tanuki’s many parties, to more traditional melodies with a slight spiritual edge to reinforce the film’s mythical elements.
Boasting a large cast, Pom Poko manages to successfully accord each individual tanuki their own personality, from the aggressive, war-mongering Gonta to the more passive and rational Shokichi. That being said, with so many protagonists running around, none really receive much exploration, nor do they really evolve – in fact if you’re not paying enough attention, many of the characters simply meld into one big, furry, testicle-stretching mass. As the credits roll, Gonta is just as quick to attack, and Shokichi continues to stand firm on his beliefs that they shouldn’t harm humans. While this isn’t a deficit per se, it would be nice to see more of a change, especially since the rest of the narrative develops so well.
One particular trait that all the tanuki share is their laid-back and comical nature, which frequently shines through even during the most serious of times. Their inclination towards partying after each minor success, mischievous nature, and the tendency of steering near-on every conversation in the direction of food, provides Pom Poko with the majority of its humorous content. This carefree attitude makes the cast far more amiable and adds to the overall entertainment value, thus allowing everyone to enjoy it whether laughing at the tanuki’s pranks or guiltily sniggering at their little… err… ‘Raccoon Pouches’.
As an environmentally based film that is little more serious than the likes of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, yet more light-hearted than Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Takahata’s Pom Poko is one of Studio Ghibli’s hidden gems. With a rich foundation of Japanese mythology and ecological issues, this film is one of the more intelligent movies out there, but the presence of cute, fun and fluffy tanuki also makes this an entertaining movie for the whole family.
In modern Japan, Tokyo is expanding and considerably reducing animals' habitats, including those of the tanuki (raccoon-like creatures). What humanity doesn't know, though, is that tanuki are intelligent creatures, that can talk and even walk on two legs with the power of transformations! To secure their survival, the two combating tanuki clans join forces against mankind in a war they dub 'Pom Poko'! Humans are a difficult adversary, though... can the tanuki open mankind's eyes to the beauty of nature, before their homes are replaced by yet another suburb?
While I like a variety of different genres, if you give me comedy or slice of life, I'm bound to be happy – and if it's dark humour, all the better! I'll review whatever takes my fancy at the time, and whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop me a line.