Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko)
Director/Screenplay – Isao Takahata, Producer – Toshio Suzuki, Music – Shang Shang Typhoon, Animation Supervisors – Megumi Kagawa & Shinji Otsuka, Art Direction – Kazuo Oga, Planning – Hayao Miyazaki. Production Company – Studio Ghibli/Tokuma Shoten.)
The tanuki (or racoons) in the forest of Taka are upset as humans start digging up the area to build housing developments. They gather to decide what to do about the problem. Some want to declare war on humans but the wise Reverend Tsurugame decides that they should try to perfect their ability to change shape. They send an envoy to seek the help of the legendary masters of shape-changing. The young raccoons practice their ability and soon become adept enough to be able to pass in the city disguised as humans. They then begin using their shape-changing abilities to sabotage the construction work and gain a great deal of amusement out of scaring humans by appearing as ghosts and various supernatural creatures. The hauntings gains much media exposure but still does not deter the construction efforts.
The name of Studio Ghibli is almost entirely synonymous with that of director Hayao Miyazaki, director of acclaimed anime works such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001). Miyazaki’s stature and acclaim has almost completely overshadowed the name of director Isao Takahata, also working at Studio Ghibli, even though the elder Takahata had acted as Miyazaki’s mentor when both started out in television animation. Isao Takahata has made some fine films and indeed is even more versatile than Hayao Miyazaki in terms of the artistic styles he is willing to experiment with as a director. These range from the talking animals fantasy of Pom Poko to the heartfelt childhood memoir of Only Yesterday (1991), the simple line drawn cartoon strip adaptation My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999), the more traditional Winter Days (2003) and his single best (and most well-known) film, the emotionally shattering Hiroshima childhood memoir Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Takahata later gained reasonable attention in the West with his adaptation of the classic Japanese folktale The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), all drawn in the style of a traditional Japanese woodcut.
On the face of it, Pom Poko might seem to have nominal similarities to the Disney talking animals fantasy or the likes of tv’s The Care Bears (1985-8). However, Isao Takahata approaches the story with a frequently side-splitting sense of humour and (occasionally) a pathos that is light years away from any of these. The film is filled with so many scenes that are hysterically funny – the depictions of the raccoons’ attempts at transformation and to blend into human society and especially the montage scenes with them scaring the humans – that they are difficult to list. Takahata’s sense of humour frequently spills over into the bawdy – there are some very funny gags about the raccoons and their testicles that are capable of transforming into everything from carpets to parachutes. (Indeed, the testicle humour in a film ostensibly for children’s audiences ended up having the film criticised by parental groups upon its screenings in the US and left Disney, who bought up the rights to all the Studio Ghibli films, scratching their heads as to how to release the film). Surprisingly the tanuki (and much of the mythology concerning their abilities, including their legendary testicles) are creatuers that feature in Japanese folklore.
The film also has a serious side to it. Indeed, while the first half of the film is overtly comedic, the second half becomes serious and resembles much more the contemplative fantasy of a Hayao Miyazaki film. Underlying it are many of the same environmentalist concerns that fuel Miyazaki’s films (and much of Japanese fantasy cinema) – the themes of the encroachment of human civilisation onto the natural woodland homeof intelligent forest creatures has many similarities to Princess Mononoke. The film goes out with a particularly sad ending with the tanuki choosing to depart aboard a boat to the afterlife with those left behind absorbed indistinguishably into the human world and a final haunting scene with one of the human-transformed tanuki finding his remaining comrades and joining them to play one more time.
On the minus side, at 112 minutes, just under two hours, Pom Poko is probably overlong. Some of the scenes in the latter half with the tanuki haunting the humans, even the ghost festival, and the cuts away to romantic romps could have been taken out to the film’s advantage. That said, it remains a perfect delight.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 1994 list).