Yorie YamashitaNijiko KiyokawaYuriko IshidaShigeru Izumiya
Pom Poko
Medium: film
Year: 1994
Writer/director: Isao Takahata
Actor: Makoto Nonomura, Shinchou Kokontei, Yuriko Ishida, Akira Fukuzawa, Beichou Katsura, Bunshi Katsura, Gannosuke Ashiya, Kobuhei Hayashiya, Kosan Yanagiya, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Norihei Miki, Shigeru Izumiya, Takehiro Murata, Yorie Yamashita
Keywords: anime, fantasy, environmental theme
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 119 minutes
Url: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=809
Website category: Anime 1990s
Review date: 1 February 2015
It's a Studio Ghibli film by the studio's other founder, Isao Takahata. It barely resembles a narrative as you'd understand it, while I was struggling not to fall asleep in the middle. However it's still quite interesting and the ending saves it.
It's about tanuki, a kind of Japanese raccoon dog. They're the size of badgers and Japanese folklore says that they're playful shapeshifters with big bellies, friendly smiles and truly enormous testicles. The latter appear in this film too. There's a kamikaze scrotum attack. Anyway, this film shows a tanuki community's woodland home under threat from the bulldozers.
Yes, It's a Cute Animals Fight Back movie. The tanuki spend most of their time in cute cartoon form and playing pranks. What makes this different from the Disney version you're imagining is that it's doing this in a realistic context. Firstly, the town that's being built by developers is real. It's called Tama New Town, it was designed as a new town in 1965 and it currently has a population of about 200,000. Secondly, the tanuki are divided on how to resist the humans, with a militaristic faction advocating (and using) lethal force. This film has a body count. They're still cute cartoon animals, but they'll occasionally kill people... or more often themselves get killed.
Thirdly, the tanuki are being portrayed at once as silly cartoons and as real animals. The art style changes. Even apart from the shapeshifting, they have two cartoon forms and a third, realistically drawn one. As the latter, they can get run over by cars. They have sex and produce litters of cubs. (We don't actually see the sex, but we do see boys chasing girls while the narrator tells us that they're making babies.) They scrabble in bins and are basically big, cute, lovable rats. This gives an unusual undertone to the side of the film that's just cartoon characters, because Takahata and Miyazaki have no intention of cheating with a magic Disney ending. This film's style is fantastical, but underneath all that its story is real life. If tanuki were getting trapped by humans for their fur, then at some point Takahata's going to show us one in a steel trap.
(I mention Miyazaki because the film's from an idea of his, by the way.)
That probably sounds like a massive downer, but it's not. It's an unusual kind of celebration. This film loves its silly, cloth-eared, argumentative tanuki. Even when it's staring unblinkingly at bad news, it's celebrating the easy-going tanuki spirit and ability to keep going, no matter what. It's clear-eyed, but kind and optimistic. It finds the good. This is interesting, I think, especially in the ending.
It's also being anti-preachy. Obviously the whole film's about the tanuki's loss of habitat due to suburban development, but it's not Heroic Animals vs. Evil Mankind. Tama New Town's developers aren't bad people and it looks as if the town is needed. Conversely, the tanuki love a stolen Big Mac. There's also an amusing bit where a family are packing up after their picnic and the tanuki are appalled that these humans are tidying up after themselves. Discard more food! Drown the countryside in litter! Obviously this is an ecological adventure and it's not afraid to include scenes like Ponchiki talking to the audience at the end. "We speak for every animal in the forest." However what it's saying is far, far more subtle and more nuanced than, say, Princess Mononoke, with the film for instance being aware of the tension between Soft-Focus Rural Fantasy Idyll and progress.
It's also pleasingly immune to other ideas of what's normal in the movies. Tanuki girls are all fat, for instance. That doesn't stop them from getting romantic scenes and being chased by tanuki boys.
All that said, on a fundamental level it's kind of boring. It's a narrator-driven story, in which the protagonist is the entire tanuki community rather than any individual. There's also very little story development. Tanuki try to prevent something that can't be prevented. This lasts two hours. It's an interesting film, but that's partly because it breaks the rules of drama and is thus, alas, largely undramatic. Oh, and Tomoko says that the Japanese voice actors are bad (I didn't notice), while apparently the English dub calls tanuki "raccoons" (no) and refers to their scrotums as "pouches" (ahem).
I admire a lot about this film and I'm quite keen to rewatch it one day, when I've set my expectations appropriately and paralysed my attention span. I like its detailed use of Japanese culture and mythology, for instance. If in doubt, assume that anything in this film is genuine, from songs to the powers assigned to foxes in folklore. The film has a great spirit of fun and warmth, which undoubtedly helped it become the number one Japanese film on the domestic market in 1994 and the Japanese submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's a film that's likely to divide people, I think. Even children might either adore it or be bored. I wouldn't dare try to predict which. However it's a fiercely distinctive work from Isao Takahata, with plenty to think about.