director Isao Takahata
I think it was after watching Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) that I started really looking at the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Studio Ghibli. The kids and I had watched a bit of a documentary about the studio that was attached to that DVD and they seemed to respond to the clips from Pom Poko, which I also had never seen. Though I’d heard of it, I really knew little about it other than it was also directed by Isao Takahata.
Outside of a bitter melancholy, the two films could hardly be more different. Grave of the Fireflies was largely naturalistic, following a story based in reality. Pom Poko, conversely, follows a wholly fantastic story of a world of tanuki, Japanese raccoon dogs (not to be confused with actual raccoons), an animal strongly associated with magical abilities in traditional culture, capable of metamorphosis and magic, slovenly tricksters. And magically metamorphose they do, turning from naturalistic-looking raccoons to goofier, more cartoony bipeds who speak, to even more simplified figures when partying or having fun. Not only do they change according to mood and necessity, but they manage to turn themselves into objects or other creatures, even humans.
Set in the 1960’s, in one of Tokyo’s last bastions of green space, a village of tanuki is getting run out of their space by urban development. The story follows them as they wage war, first physically, then spiritually (or spiritedly?) via magic tricks and enormous effort.
Like much of Miyazaki’s work, the film is about endangered Nature, and beyond purely ecological or biological concerns, the world of traditional country Japan is imbued with the spirits of Yōkai, traditional beliefs in which spirits pervade every natural thing, especially living creatures. The metaphor extends that in destroying the natural landscape and the homes for the creatures of this world, Japan’s heritage is destroyed by means of eradicating its own history, culture, spirits, spirituality. And though the film is replete with quite broad humor, it’s ultimately a story of loss and failure, sublimation.
The story is complex, spanning a long stretch of time, has certain levels of darkness, in the tanuki actually killing people and many of the tanuki being killed as well. The folklore is deeply ingrained in the story, meaning that without some prior research, a lot of things might seem bizarre or not make a great deal of sense to someone unfamiliar with them. For instance, all of the male tanuki have rather large testicles (apparently based on their true physiognomy), but that comes into play with other uses for their scrotums (referred to as “sacs”) in the American/English translation, leaving a lot of questionable thoughts on something not overtly explained. That said, it’s anatomically correct, not rude or crude.
The kids quite enjoyed it, though Felix noted that it was “sad” or “sort of sad”. I was struck by some parallel (though vastly different as well) to Watership Down (1978), another film about encroaching humanity on the natural animal world. It’s a strange mixture of broad humor, epic conflict, magic, joy and sadness. The magical “parade” that the tanuki evoke to frighten the humans is both a celebration and a failure, a disconnect for modern Japanese from the images of traditional folklore. The wild, weird creatures charm the children rather than cow them. It’s an odd tonality that is created.