Review: Pom Poko (1994)

pompoko_scene_01

Ok, I don’t think this is an uncommon response for those unfamiliar with the tanuki, but it took me a while to come up with more than: “I never thought I’d see so many raccoon scrota in one movie.” Apparently the connection between the raccoon dog/tanuki and enormous ball-sacks emerged relatively recently in Japanese folklore and popular culture, and is to do with the process of hammering out gold leaf inside a tanuki skin. Cool. There’s no indication of that connection in Pom Poko though, where the focus is very much on the legendary transformative abilities of the animals, which are put to use here to try to defend their land from human development.

Part precursor to Princess Mononoke, part Ghibli does The Animals of Farthing Wood, this is a strange blend of cute woodland shenanigans and the bleak realities of urban expansion. These two sides are represented in the art, as stylised and beautiful as we’ve all come to expect from a Ghibli movie, and from Isao Takahata himself. Generally, when they’re around humans or human activity, the tanuki are depicted realistically; when they’re experiencing strong emotion (grief, fear, joy) the crowd becomes more of a caricature, apparently in the style of surrealist manga. Most of the time though, they are anthropomorphised as above, the slightest details of hairstyle or accessory enough to make each individual stand out.

Now you’re just showing off…

Structurally, the movie is told in what might be described as chapters, although the narrative voice-over treats it more like a chronicle of the years since the tanuki were forced to band together to seek a solution for their shrinking habitat. At first, they fight each other, then they try to learn about the humans from television, and to rediscover the art of transformation. This leads to increasing levels of interaction with the human world as their abilities improve: initially they transform into trees and other objects in order to force road accidents at the construction site. This develops into more elaborate types of hauntings and apparitions at shrines, before culminating in a wild display of spirit activity in the nearby town (that unfortunately all goes a bit Beetlejuice on them). Their last act is to show the encroaching humans what the forest once looked like to all of them, before it was bulldozed for housing estates.

The story does end up dragging because of the necessarily repetitive nature of the tanuki’s attacks on the humans. They have a ‘five year plan’ that is begun early, but the movie still covers several years in the lives of the tanuki protagonists. Their lives revolve around the seasons — initially, they practice abstinence in order to keep their numbers steady, but after a year of this, followed by a series of small victories, self-control is lacking the following spring. See also: any comments section under an article connecting global warming to an ever-increasing human population. The tanuki are human-like also in their adoration of television and tempura, their disagreements over whether the solution to their problem should be a violent one or a peaceful one, and in the divisions between those who are able to transform and those who are not. I don’t know if it’s relevant to Japanese culture in the same way as British culture, but by the end of the movie I wondered whether the whole thing was actually meant to be a comment on class as much as on environmentalism. The tanuki who can transform become normal middle class humans: busy and tired with work and commuting, some of them selling out their old lands for easy money. Those who could never transform simply become urban wildlife: living fast, making lots of children and dying young. Additionally, there are the foxes (kitsune), who long ago gave up on their fellows who couldn’t transform, and moved wholesale into the human lifestyle, exploiting whoever they can, and clearly being depicted as suave and successful in their new lives. At the end, the main character, Shoukichi, sees his old friends frolicking gleefully under the moon on a golf course: after a long day in the human world, he sheds pieces of his human identity bit by bit, racing to join them in their carousing and singing. Concern for the tanuki is deflected by the voice-over, as we witness their success within the human world, and instead the movie ends with a reminder to think of the real animals, who can’t transform: rabbits, deer and others.

The movie is funny and surreal and, of course, looks utterly gorgeous. The characters aren’t deep enough that I ever felt it tugging hard on any heart-strings, but they’re a likeable bunch nonetheless. The blend of whimsy and brutality works fairly well; the animals, even with their anthropomorphic qualities, are made animal in a way I don’t recall seeing done so well since The Animals of Farthing Wood adaptation (though that certainly did do individualism and personality in more depth). Their lives are not bloodless and nor are the human lives they are at strife with. As with the sympathy shown to Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, the humans living in the town nearby are shown to be as much at the mercy of the developers as the animals are: one says he’d happily leave only he can’t afford to live anywhere else. The workmen scared away by the tanuki are constantly replaced by more workmen. Maybe it’s ironic that the pressure already put on the environment by the human community ends up being added to by the foxes and raccoon dogs who transform to join their society.

Uncomprehendingly, a family that sees the tanuki close by their house marvel at the sight of them so near, and wish they could see them more often. There’s no answer or solution or happy victory at the end of Pom Poko: mingling folklore, environmentalism and a distrust of the distant bosses it remains contemporary, despite also feeling very early ’90s in some ways. The tanuki ultimately accept their fate with either the aggressive lack of compromise or the cheerful optimism with which they lived. It’s up to the viewer to take away a message from the film or to let the same thing keep happening.

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