Rounding out the list of Takahata-directed Ghibli films is Pom Poko, an ecological fable starring the tanuki of the Tokyo forests. Humans are encroaching on their territory and the tanuki must band together and find a way to stop them. I am actually quite surprised that this was given the full DVD treatment by Disney, as it probably poses one of the greater challenges when it comes to localization. For one thing, there is a great deal of Japanese cultural references packed into its 2-hour length. One of these references, which got a lot of heat from critics in the anglosphere, related to folklore involving certain parts of the tanuki male anatomy, which, as with references to menstruation in Omohide Poroporo, was a topic I imagined Disney would want to avoid. However, I think the reason Pom Poko passed Disney’s checks while Omohide Poroporo remains in the backburner is that you can repackage Pom Poko as a Disney-style children’s film a lot more easily than you can with Omohide Poroporo, and while I haven’t watched the Disney dub, I imagine that many of these references were made less overt in their localization.
Pom Poko approaches its ecological message with a lighter tone than, say, Princess Mononoke, and has something of an episodic feel – though not to the extent of My Neighbors the Yamadas. There is a lot of comedy, but the film doesn’t stay within the realm of safe children’s tales – for example, in one segment, the tanuki actually end up killing humans in their attempts to save their forests, and aren’t all too perturbed by that fact. Clearly Takahata didn’t want to simply create a story about harmless, cuddly creatures who are being unfairly destroyed by humans. The tanuki can be greedy and unlikable as well – in one scene, when discussing their wishes to kill all humans for destroying their land, one member of the clan reminds them that no humans means no hamburgers or tempura to eat. The other tanuki agree – some humans should be left alive, for the purposes of cooking. Regardless, they do have their endearing qualities, and I’m sure most viewers will find themselves rooting for their success.
Essentially the film consists of the tanuki hatching various schemes in an attempt to scare off or discourage humans. For example, while watching television, they overhear a man worrying about the destruction of Shinto shrines and possible divine retribution. Thus, the tanuki, who possess shape-shifting powers, take advantage of this and appear as mythological creatures near the shrines, which clearly has an effect on the humans who see it. A more direct tactic is simply to frighten the humans by appearing as monsters and the like. All of this is covered in a documentary style with a narrator throughout. Some of these episodes are quite interesting, particularly due to the Japanese mythology which weaves through the story, but some them feel a bit overlong. I think I would agree that a 2 hour length results in stretching the content of the story a bit thin.
On the other hand, I was rewarded at the end with a rather touching finale and coda. The film does end on something of a bittersweet note for the tanuki, particularly since you do grow fond of them by this point (though the final send-off is a happy one). It is also fairly ambiguous, morally. Clearly we are meant to sympathize with the tanuki, but humans aren’t vilified for their expansionism either. As far as the individual characters go, the film doesn’t have a specific main character, though there are several dominant personalities which drive the story. In the end though, this isn’t a particularly character-driven film. The voice of the narrator begins to resemble someone telling a legend or folk story, and that is the impression that the film left me with. We’re hearing the story of the trials and tribulations of the tanuki. If you’re searching for the kind of character development and complexity that Takahata delivered in Omohide Poroporo, you should look elsewhere.
The art style is rather interesting. When we are in the forests, within tanuki society, they are portrayed in an anthropomorphic manner, but when scenes switch to their interactions with humans, they are drawn in a detailed and realistic manner, as a human would see them. As it’s a Studio Ghibli production, there really isn’t anything to complain about, though I would say that it isn’t one of the most visually impressive films among their works. Musically, again, the score functions well but didn’t impress me on any greater level.
I may be wrong, but I think Pom Poko is the most frequently criticized Ghibli film, going by the reviews I have read. Many of these negative reviews usually focus on the vast amount of cultural idiosyncrasies in the film, while others say that it overstays its welcome. On the first point, I don’t doubt that Pom Poko is not the best introduction to Ghibli films for folks who aren’t Japanophiles, and much of it will likely come off as very baffling and random. As for the second point, I do feel that it tended to drag at certain moments. However, I don’t think these points are really enough to spoil the film as a whole. Pom Poko is a strange film, yes, and it certainly approaches its ecological themes differently than those of Miyazaki, but even if it’s not among the best of Studio Ghibli, I’d say it’s worth my recommendation.
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