Studio Ghibli Collection: Pom Poko

February 6, 2005 on 3:25 pm | In Pom Poko | Comments Off on Studio Ghibli Collection: Pom Poko

Takahata Isao made Pom Poko at Miyazaki Hayao’s insistence that Studio Ghibli’s project following Porco Rosso should be about tanuki. Takahata had something else in mind, but made Pom Poko anyway and was quite successful with it. As a film, it’s a little less successful due to its intense running time and repetition of key themes: in short, it runs out of steam.

Tanuki are Japanese raccoon dogs. While they’re not the same as raccoons, they’re close enough for that to be an acceptable translation. Raccoons in Japan hold a special significance as they share the same trait as the fox (kitsune) and some cats (neko): they can transform themselves. Generally this is thought to be with the aid of a leaf, but the truly talented can do this unaided.
Western children of the early to mid-eighties would be familiar with tanuki and their leaf transformations from Super Mario Bros. 3, wherein Mario could fly with the aid of a leaf that gave him a racoon ear and tail. Back before anime was widespread, Nintendo games were the best source to gain an understanding of Japanese culture, at least on a visual level.

Pom Poko is about a war between raccoons and humans. The raccoons lived peacefully with humans until developers decided to get rid of traditional Japanese housing (one with nature) and replace it with a community for people to live in (high rises, “concrete roads”). The destruction of their mountain causes a shortage of food, and the two tribes of the mountain fought a war. Eventually they realised that they would have to combine tribes in order to continue existing and unite against the common evil of the humans.
Two raccoons are sent to find the masters of transformation in Shikoku and Aikawa and the rest are trained in the arts of warfare – and three years

This movie bursts with promise, but it never realises this. It’s an incredibly long series of failed attempts by the raccoons to rid themselves of the humans, obviously a futile attempt as humans still prevail. There are many scenes that re-iterate the raccoon’s goals, and their plans are generally too tedious to write down.
The point where Takahata seems to have really lost the thread is at the very end when one of the raccoons directly addresses the camera to talk to the audience; it is distinctly not cool.

The most publicised part of Pom Poko is its testicle fixation. Many of the film’s funniest moments involve the raccoons’ testes, and there is no way to make it sound good; because of this feature many parents claim that Pom Poko is harmful to children. Like fun! Despite its Japanese cultural specifications, a lot of the material on offer in this movie is told in a universal language: the raccoons’ actions are funny by anyone’s standards and testicle jokes are especially funny to children – they choose to be delighted rather than horrified by the body.
Basically the only reason to be offended by this movie is if you’re a knee-jerk reactionary.

The production is, as expected from Studio Ghibli, quite attractive. The tanuki have three forms: raccoon dogs, tanuki and SD tanuki. That is: natural, anthropomorphised, and drunk anthropomorphic raccoons. The traditional parade to “scare” the humans is remarkably well done and practically drips with Japanese culture.
Direction is a bit sloppy; not only is the whole film drawn out, but there are several shots and “jokes” that last entirely too long for their own good.

Pom Poko definitely has its moments, its just that overall it has too many of them. When the movie brings itself to a logical conclusion, it comes back for more. This is a good film but would have done well to have less overall content or at least fewer occasions for Gonta to say “Kill all humans!” Pom Poko could have been a TV series or a shorter movie. While Pom Poko is not easy to recommend, it can’t simply be dismissed.

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