Studio Ghibli #8: Pom Poko (1994)

Three years after Only Yesterday, and six years after Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata took his signature experimental style in a new direction. Setting aside the grounded realism of his first Studio Ghibli film, and the nostalgia-tinted “realism” of his second, Takahata moved into the realm of fantasy and folklore with Pom Poko. Following the 5-year plan of a group of Tanukis (“Racoons” in the Dub and English subtitles), trying to reclaim their forest home in the wake of rapid development of the Tokyo area. I have an interesting relationship with this film, as when I first watched it I absolutely hated the film, I found it meaningless and over bloated, and as a result I was hesitant to revisit the film. But upon rewatching it I found it to be significantly better than I remembered, with a charming cast of characters, interesting animation and a powerful environmentalist message. But saying all that, I still think it’s the weakest of the Ghibli’s I’ve seen so far for this column. 

The film uses the Tanuki’s as a twofold metaphor, while I’m far from an expert in Japanese cultural history (and therefore might get some details wrong), my understanding is that Tanuki’s play a big part in the country’s folklore. So Takahata plays this battle between the humans and the shapeshifting creatures as both a warning against forgetting and rewriting the history of Japanese culture, and a warning against the rapid industrialisation of Japan that Takahata would have seen growing up in post-war Japan. The film is framed almost like a pseudo-documentary, with heavy use of voice-over narration and very naturalistic framing of shots, but while it has these elements it would be wrong to classify the film as a mockumentary, it simply appropriates these styles to instill a sense of naturalism into the fantasy world. 

The worldbuilding of Pom Poko is one of the film’s most impressive feats, from the very beginning we’re introduced to the Tanuki’s and we instantly understand, through the charming animation, their characteristics and nature. Then once we start to get to know specific tanuki’s, the film does a phenomenal job at highlighting their character in the midst of the ensemble cast, which only elevates the film to have a great spread of characters with specific desires and motivations. Similarly, the introduction of visiting Tanuki’s from other tribes, and eventually the foxes we meet creates a sense of an expansive world filled with magic that elevates the core message of the film.

The highpoint of the film, as with pretty much any Ghibli film, is the animation. Takahata, known for his innovations and experimentation in his film, utilises three distinct styles of animation for the tanukis. The first that we see is a realistic presentation of the animals, the traditional four-legged furry creatures, the second is an animated version in a more expected “cartoony” version, this is the two legged anthropomorphic version that is treated as the Tanuki’s “real” version for when humans aren’t around, and then an even more “cartoony” version, consisting of less detail than the other two styles, which is shown when the Tanuki’s are deflated or beaten in a fight. Not only do these different styles highlight the versatility of the animation crew, but they also play into the mystical nature of the Tanuki’s and the magical realism of the film, with the latter form adding humour into the playful Tanuki’s atmosphere. Along with these forms we also see the Tanuki’s transformations into human characters, and at times creatures/statues/spirits/etc, and again, the animation in these transformations is exceptional. One of the most stunning scenes in the film is the “parade” that the Tanuki’s put on to scare the humans; not only does this contain some easter eggs to previous Ghibli films (and I’m a sucker for some good easter eggs), but the way in which the parade unfolds is tremendous. We see various sprites from Japanese folklore and other creatures fill the streets to intrigue and scare the citizens of Tokyo. Accompanied with a beautiful score, this scene is visually stunning with these intricately crafted creatures and figures floating throughout the streets, all with their own flourish and charm, all meticulously directed by Takahata to culminate in a visual symphony playing out on the screen. 

The downfall of the film, unfortunately, is its length. While it’s striving to be an epic story of these Tanuki’s struggles, the film itself struggles with keeping the pacing and intrigue over it’s two hour length. The quality of the story noticeably drops at times and while it’s trying to maintain multiple storylines and it’s ensemble cast of characters it becomes quite tedious. Especially as a lot of the plot ends up feeling repetitive as the Tanuki’s try, but ultimately, fail to scare the humans into leaving, and while the details of the plots themselves are changed, it does get to a point where you feel like the film is retreading on itself. This is not to say that the moments themselves are enjoyable, and each plot is certainly fun, it’s the lack of any real change or progress that makes the pacing drag especially in the second act of the film.

But while I think this is one of the weaker Ghibli films, I also think it’s a wholly fascinating film that uses its influence of Japanese folklore in order to create a warning against destroying the environment and to remember and honor history. Nothing, for me, sums this up better than the final sequence of the film in which we see how some shape-shifting Tanuki’s have adapted to human life as a result of their homes being destroyed. In this sequence we see as one Tanuki returns to his species to join in a dancing ceremony, before offering a warning to the camera about urban development and its impact on the forest creatures by saying “not all of us can disappear. What about the rest of the animals?”. It’s a clear play on the shape-shifting nature of the animals and also a poignant warning to the audience and it sums up perfectly the themes that Takahata is trying to get across in the film.

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