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.
Honestly, this has to be one of the weirdest movies I have ever seen from studio Ghibli. Not to say that its a bad thing, its more like others will react very strongly to the movie if they aren't familiar with some of the Japanese mythology that is focused on tanuki in general. And now I will explain what I think the film succeeded in and what it failed in.
Story- The group of tanuki are rebelling against a surburban development project that is destroying the forest. There are many different arcs of narrative that take place in the movie, but I think the story didn't flow as well as it could have been. Even with the story reaching new parts like finding the old masters, it goes at a sluggish pace.
Animation- The animation is actually one of the better parts of the film. The way the tanuki characters transform into objects, animals, people and monsters is fun to watch.
Sound- From the sounds of battle to how the characters move and such is done well.
Characters- This is probably one of the weaker parts of the movie. There are no lead characters to connect with or relate to, making them as bad as the humans they fight against.
Overall- I think its easy to imagine why this Ghibli film is one of the more forgotten ones. It has its themes of war and preserving nature, but its rather done in a clumsy and obvious way compared to the smoothness of Princess Mononoke. It has its production value, but that alone isn't enough. Aside from the scrotum jokes and its weird sense of humor, it seems decent enough for kids to watch. But for older and wiser fans of Ghibli movies, there are much better films to be invested in compared to this one honestly.
The forests of Tama Hills are being rapidly destroyed due to urbanization. The raccoon dogs of the forest battle to protect their home using their long-forgotten transformation talents. The once silly and lazy raccoon dogs, or tanuki, determinedly disrupted construction with hauntings and pranks.
The introduction to the story is told by a narrator, giving it a National Geographic documentary feel. You learn about the plight of the Tama tanuki through the narrator, and then as the story progresses, by the following the dialogue of the tanuki themselves. The tanuki are at first animated like realistic wildlife and transform into cuddly creatures who stand upright and speak. They are identifiable by the articles of clothing they wear.
Pom Poko may appear to be family friendly, but at close to two hours with some serious pacing issues, I doubt a child would last 20 minutes. It is unfortunate--with a good editor to trim about 45 minutes off the top, the film would have been more widely accepted, in my opinion. Secondly, the anime features tanuki. You might be familiar with the tanuki statue--a raccoon dog wearing a straw hat, sporting an enlarged scrotum. The scrotum symbolizes good financial luck. In the film on several occasions, the tanuki enlarge their scrotums to be used as blankets, parachutes and a boat. This might lead to awkward conversations with children.
My favorite part of movie was the Monster parade. The imaginative animation featuring yokai of Japanese folk lore was a delight to behold. At one hour six minutes, look for guest appearances from Kiki and Tombo and Totoro hidden within the parade.
The film presents a theme of wildlife conservation. In fact, the tanuki break the fourth wall and talk about the fate of forest animals in the last scene. Upon deeper reflection, the movie is an analogy for the adaptation of the Japanese people. Traditional ideas battle modernization and only those who are willing to adapt or transform will persevere?.
If you can sit still for two hours (maybe by watching one half of the movie at a time,) you will be rewarded with a magical glimpse at Japanese folk lore. Any fan of Ghibli will enjoy the studio's familiar man vs. nature plot with a tanuki twist.
I felt that Pom Poko has an excellent story to tell and I enjoyed the documentary style that some parts of the movie were portrayed as. I also liked how there were not confirmed good guys and bad guys and there is no single triumph by any one side that decides everthing, but rather it is portrayed as a war were both sides had gains and losses. However in the end neither side really won the battle. The racoons lost their battle in some ways, but then they won in other ways. I also enjoyed how the environmental message was portrayed. It was different from the usual "You humans are assholes for doing this" and trying to send the audience on a guilt trip, but rather it portrayed the message as " Lets try another way of doing things". It was all in all a good story. My only problem was that it did seem to have a little story ADD and it seemed to jump subjects a bit too much.
The animation of Pom Poko was quite excellent. I felt that the transformation scenes of the racoons were animated quite nicely. There was also a special attention to detail which I found rather charming. The only thing that I didn't like was that the racoons had their genitals exposed.
I found that the characters were quite relatable. I feel that most people can relate to the racoons and they know other people that are quite like the racoons as well. You could understand were the racoons were coming from with their emotions and their actions. They also provided a way to show the disunity that often plagued the racoons, and showed that they were a democratic society.
Pom Poko is for sure a great movie and I feel that it should be watched and enjoyed by all.
Japanese people have a weird psychology. On one side, they cherish progress. It’s their heavy industry and workaholic tendencies that turned their country into one of the most advanced places in the world. On the other hand, they still have a desire to be close to nature and folklore tradition as they were before all the westernization of their way of life took place. Anime themselves are a western product. The animation methods were not invented in Japan; they were just developed into new forms there. And yet, many titles seem to reflect the above dilemma. Most anime deify technology and progress (all mecha series and non-samurai action series are basically foreign concepts seen under a Japanese perspective). But in the same time they include a type of elegy; a deep sadness caused by sadden changes in the life of the characters and the fast and cruel passing of time that leaves many to think of their lively youth or their tender childhood. This movie portraits this form of elegy, a nostalgia of times long gone.
The story has to do with progress and adapting to the change of time. Humans expand their city into a forest inhabited by shape-shifting tanuki (something like raccoons). The tanuki don’t want their way of life to change and try to find a way to stop them from destroying the forest.
It sounds like a silly children’s adventure with “evil” polluting humans versus the “good” ecological tanuki. Well, it’s not that simple as the humans don’t really have a role in the story; they just expand their city like they normally do when they have overpopulation. And the tanuki are too stupid and ignorant to be seen as heroes. And the story is more about social issues rather than generic ecology lessons. Although there are many ups and downs in the way the tanuki try to stop the humans, in the end it is just an attempt, followed by a time of peace, followed by a documentary, and repeating the process. It is quite linear and predictable after a while but it never feels like there are clear good and bad sides to the conflict.
There is also nothing outrageous in the movie. Nothing really impossible or improbable happens and there are several explanations justifying everybody’s actions. The tanuki transform and trick or scare people but not in ways a disguised person wouldn’t accomplish. And just because they are magical talking animals they still have no superiority over the technology of humans. In a way they are just a representation of people living before the westernization of Japan.
There is a conclusion and it’s not your typical happy ending one. It is quite simple and predicable but wraps things up nicely. And no, it is not exactly a cop-out.
There is nothing eye-catchy regarding the character figures and the backgrounds. They are just forests, cities, humans and animals drawn in an almost typical anime style. What stands out are the visual effects that are full of fluent animation and artsy touches of theatrical nature, used to evoke feelings to the viewers. There are many scenes that are made to resemble documentaries and very old black & white movies that easily inflict you with something by playing along their stereotypes in a very ironic and sad way. Facial grimaces are also so innocent and silly that you can’t hold a smile.
The voice acting is quite good as the tanuki talk in a very immature way that you almost think they are ignorant brats. And the documentary and old movie scenes are really in touch of how people really sound during those shows. Music is atmospheric but also too low-toned and completely forgettable. Sound effects are as masterful as the visual effects in their theatrical appeal.
There are no prevailing characters or personalities, everybody is closer to a plot device. The tanuki are metaphorically speaking the ignorant, traditional Japanese people while the humans and their city is technology and science invading and altering their way of life. It is a nice concept but you will remember the events of the movie and not the characters.
A rather big problem it has is that it does not know to whom it is aiming at.
-It has talking animals but it is not for kids as it is very preachy and without much action.
-It is not for teenagers since young people can’t feel nostalgia about times they didn’t live in.
-It is not for adults since very few people are willing to give up their comforting technological and without much free time lives in the big city.
-It is not for old folks. They did live back then and they do miss those good old times. But who would bother watching an animated movie with animals, depicting that?
All these reasons are enough to alienate most viewers and discomfort the rest. The rest will most likely get a nice weird film but it is still not a movie for mass appeal.