Pom Poko (impressions)

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10 February 2015

Pom Poko

By Michael Toole

Isao Takahata does not shy away from complicated movies with tough endings. His Grave of the Fireflies is arguably the most powerfully sad war movie ever made, and his recent The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a slice of sweet melancholy. Pom Poko would appear to promise something a little more upbeat, being a tale of clever raccoon dogs causing mischief in the human world, the better to derail their pesky, encroaching construction projects. But if you've seen work crews clearing forests, leveling the ground, and pouring foundation, you know that nature doesn't tend to win out; like the former two films, Pom Poko isn't really a movie of happy endings.

"We'd assumed humans were animals, like us," asserts the elder tanuki, Seizaemon, early in the film, “but the truth is, they're much stronger — maybe stronger than the gods!” We meet Seizaemon and his colony of tanuki, raccoon dogs native to Japan, at the start of the real-life redevelopment of Tama that began in 1965. The tanuki are puzzled and alarmed by the incursion, knowing that if they're driven out of Tama, they'll have to invade other tanuki enclaves and compete with them for food and shelter. But even as the community of tanuki chafes under crisis, they're generally a spirited, cheerful lot, even in the face of imminent pressure and danger from the human construction crews that edge closer with each passing day.

Well, most of them are. While many of the tanuki busy themselves with formulating distractions for the humans, chiefly by using their legendary shape-shifting powers, not to mention something the dub refers to as their “sacks” (don't miss the amazing moment when one of the tanuki drives a dump truck off the road by blocking the entire windshield with his scrotum!), the young chief Gonta advocates open aggression against their problem. But to most of the tribe, violence isn't the answer — they request help from the best tanuki shape-shifters in Japan, a motley crew of talented oldsters that are centuries old, and settle in for a long and hard shoving match with the invading human colonists.

From the beginning, the narrator frames the struggle of the tanuki as a losing one. But Takahata presents the entire affair with remarkable warmth and great whimsy. The music is a particular treat, provided by the folk/pop group Shang Shang Typhoon. But the highlight of Pom Poko is Takahata's way of depicting the tanuki. When the animals approach humans, they're depicted just as they look in the natural world, as sleek, almost photorealistic little raccoon dogs. When they're scheming amongst themselves, they suddenly get all puffy and cartoony and anthropomorphized, with round, friendly faces and stubby limbs. When they're ecstatic and expressing joy together, the tanuki explode in a riot of squiggly lines, turning into simple characters that are meant to evoke the gag manga of Shigeru Sugiura. (If you hit the bookstore and peep his Last of the Mohicans adaptation, you'll see the influence.) Despite the human characters having that Ghibli look to them thanks to character designer Shinji Otsuka, this film is a breed apart from the typical Studio Ghibli film, at least in the visual sense.

Takahata also changes the angle of approach from a narrative standpoint. There's a central voice, an unseen storyteller who chronicles the struggle of the tanuki, but the rest is presented documentary-style, with various characters describing the film's events in voiceover, as if they're war correspondents being interviewed from the front lines. This is kind of unusual, but it does help drive home the idea that these goofy little animals are in an intense struggle for their very survival. In their acts of subterfuge, the critters even get a few humans killed, darkly amusing acts for which the tanuki are endearingly remorseful.

I've seen Pom Poko in both English and Japanese, but for this latest viewing, I opted for English. You know how most of these Ghibli dubs have Hollywood stars who are generally modestly-talented voice actors, at best? Yeah, they don't do that here. Pom Poko has a sprawling cast of characters, so a large voice cast is essential. The anchor of the film is ostensibly the young Shoukichi, played with surprising grace by TV actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but the dub producer had the good sense to let veteran character and voice actors take most of the remaining roles. If you like American cartoon voices, you've got an all-star cast, including Maurice Lemarche, J.K. Simmons, Tress MacNeille, and Clancy Brown. That's the Brain, Air Monk Tenzin, the corporate lady from The Simpsons, and Lex Luthor, if you just know the voices and not the names. These folks are the backbone of voice-acting in Hollywood, so it's great to see them getting good roles like this. One big, weird caveat about the dub: the script persistently refers to the tanuki as "raccoons," and stacks of yen as "dollars," which is dumb.

Beyond that, the Blu-ray release once again follows the reassuringly familiar Disney format: Blu-ray and DVD are both in the package, with the usual storyboard extra — and that's it. If you're hoping for an interview with Takahata or even some chat with the voice cast, you won't find it here. The film looks great and the storyboard sequence is always welcome, though.

As Pom Poko continues, there are a number of weird, idle conversations, long moments of conflict and violence, and a sense that this film just goes on a little too long. Here, Takahata's message isn't very complex — the natural world is sweet and primal, but is almost comically powerless in the face of human progress and desire — but he takes ages to get to the point. I like long movies, but I spent the last quarter of Pom Poko anxiously waiting for the curtain to drop, the overture to start, and the players to bow and shuffle off.

Late in the film, the tanuki try to put on a particularly big haunting, in order to scare the many hundreds of new residents of Tama away. The young families living in the new houses and apartment buildings see the apparitions, and react not with fear, but with wonder and delight at a world they'd long since forgotten… and that's when it becomes most obvious that the tanuki's cause is doomed. Once again, Takahata works his magic, you really feel for these characters, and you have to watch their anxiety grow as they realize there's nothing they can do. In the end, the tanuki do whatever they can to make it, but it's one of those happy/sad deals. Warm, funny, weird, downbeat, and downright absurd at times, Pom Poko’s a film that is very much worth seeing, but you're apt to be a little too glad when it's over.

Ghibli Blog

Pom Poko (2006 Review)

26 January 2006

By Daniel Thomas MacInnes

Pom Poko is at once instantly accessable and completely foreign. Japanese culture is alien to American eyes, and Pom Poko is Takahata's celebration of that unique Asian culture. It's the most alien of all the Studio Ghibli films.

Pom Poko is, as Takahata described it, a "fictional documentary" about the culture clash between tanuki and mankind, from the tanuki point-of-view. It is a story about the animals attempts to hold back the tide of human progress, and it is also the story about an indigenous population swallowed up, taken from their own land.

This is a film that wears many hats, perhaps too many for those who look at the animals and expect Winnie the Pooh or Bambi. The story weaves through slapstick comedy, social commentary, satire, surrealism, and tragedy. It changes moods much the way the tanuki change form, bending and molding into a new shape, and relentlessly moving forward.

I think you will understand the overall plot, as the playful tanuki play endless pranks and try a variety of ideas to drive the incoming humans out of their forest. You will likely miss many, if not most, of the cultural-specific themes; the children's folk songs, the stories and antecdotes, the mythology, the religion. But don't worry too much; Takahata aims to rewaken his Japanese audience, one becoming more and more Westernized, to their vast heritage. Repeated viewings are absolutely required.

Pom Poko is a little different for Takahata, but he still employs all his talents, and his brilliant, calculating mind is very much in evidence. Thematically, it's very similar to The Story of Yanagawa Canals and Miyazaki's own Spirited Away, but with a darker, more tragic turn. It's as much a eulogy as a call to arms.

One last note for the teenagers and dumb college kids. You've heard right. The male tanuki are shown with their genitals. It's, again, purely a cultural thing. People in Japan don't have a problem with it. Get over it. Grow up.

Soundtrack notes: Disney released Pom Poko (alongside My Neighbors the Yamadas) last summer on DVD, with a new dubbed soundtrack. Unfortunately, it's pretty terrible. Not that the quality of the acting is poor (it's actually quite good in parts), but so much of the original script is scuttled or censored that it just ruins the film. I guess not everything can be whitewashed into the vapid, Stepford Family-fed Disney formula, can it? Thank goodness for that.

Midnight Eye

28 March 2002


By Tom Mes

With the international attention and praise heaped upon Hayao Miyazaki in recent years, one would almost forget that there is another genius at work in the offices of Studio Ghibli. Quite unjustly overshadowed by the success of his fellow Ghibli founder, Isao Takahata is not only the more experienced director of the two (having started his directorial career in 1968 with Little Norse Prince Valiant / Taiyo no Ouji Horusu no Daiboken), his work is also more varied. To put it somewhat disrespectfully: Takahata's films aren't always about heroic twelve-year-old girls.

It's certainly not my intention to slam Miyazaki with this remark - the man deserves all the praise that has come his way - but in my view Takahata is the more interesting director. Unlike Miyazaki, who is an illustrator/animator first and foremost, Takahata is a consummate director: during the process of filmmaking he never once puts brush to paper. As a result, the look of a Takahata film changes from title to title, and is related to each film's subject and themes, rather than its director's signature style. In the case of Pompoko, the style even changes during the film. Depending on the roles its raccoon characters adopt toward their environment and toward each other, the little creatures are drawn in a very realistic, a more anthropomorphic, or in a more simple cartoon-like manner (the latter allegedly inspired by the work of manga artist Shigeru Sumiura).

Although their changing styles and subjects would suggest otherwise to the casual viewer, Takahata's films are closely interconnected and share a single point of view. With their settings in various time periods (the war years in Grave of the Fireflies / Hotaru no Haka, and Osaka of the 1970s in Chie the Brat / Jarinko Chie for instance), all his films are history lessons in a way, or rather portraits of human behaviour at specific periods in time. The word 'Heisei' in the Japanese title of Pompoko reflects this (referring to the period that started with emperor Aikihito's ascension to the throne in 1989) and while its protagonists are raccoons, the intent is to show human behaviour through their eyes, offering a different perspective on the consequences of human actions.

In Pompoko those human actions consist of the expansion of cities into the surrounding countryside. Bulldozers invade the foothills of the Tama mountains, west of Tokyo, where a tribe of raccoons has been living a life of luxury. Faced with the destruction of their natural habitat, they decide to fight back, utilising the skills of disguise for which they are known traditionally and mythically. However, over the course of several peaceful decades, most raccoons have forgotten these skills and it takes a strict regiment of practice, overseen by grande dame Orokubaba, to put the tanuki back in touch with their roots. The first attempts are moderately successful, as the raccoons transform themselves into faceless humans to scare off unwelcome visitors. Soon the more militant members of the clan start taking more drastic measures, transforming themselves into boulders to knock trucks and bulldozers off the road. This results in a number of human casualties, but not the end of construction.

Pompoko delivers a serious message, but does so with a good deal of humour and positivity (enhanced by the wonderful folklorist music of the group Shang Shang Taifu). That Takahata doesn't try to tug at the heartstrings with an overdose of Watership Down-esque sentimentality is much to the film's benefit. The furry heroes are not treated as cuddly potential roadkill, but as determined, stubborn, good-natured rascals with individual character traits. Their humorous and often spectacular metamorphoses into everything from stone statues to near-perfect humans (save the brown rings around the eyes) are a delight to watch and one of the film's main draws. Similarly, the humans are not portrayed as mindless thugs bent only on destruction, which gives the film a lot of balance and perspective. The final moments sum this up succinctly: without wishing to give anything away, there is one characteristic scene in which a young family that inhabits one of the new houses in what was once the animals' domain are delighted when they spot a group of raccoons scurrying around the garden.

Although the overall sense one gets for most of the film's running time is of a somewhat reactionary longing for the indistinct 'good old days' when man and nature lived in more harmonious circumstances, this too is offset by a good dose of relativity in the final moments of the film, which paints a not altogether negative image of a compromise between worlds old and new. Even the tanuki themselves, though their clan-like structure and solidarity seem like glorified examples of the kind of close-knit bonds that modern humans have lost, are seen in the beginning of the film as an in-fighting bunch leading far too luxurious a life. It's not until they are faced with the threat of a common enemy that they band together to form a tight unit. Harmony is never an absolute state, Takahata seems to say, and one must change with the times and with the situation in order to make the best out of life.

Pompoko is a delightful, often uproariously funny film, at once childishly irreverent and thoughtfully mature. Being a Ghibli work, it is beautifully rendered and technically impeccable, with a great number of memorable set pieces. Let's hope that the ever-increasing foreign interest in the Ghibli catalogue will also benefit this great film.