Movie Review: "Pom Poko"

January 22, 2014

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, I have pretty weird taste in movies. I like action and adventure films, but I also like animated films from Disney and Studio Ghibli. Well, this one from Studio Ghibli (more specifically, the English dub version by Disney), takes the cake for weirdness. To quote one imdb user review, it was “very, very, very strange.”

Very strange indeed. “Pom Poko” is from Studio Ghibli, but is not a Miyazaki film, directed instead by Isao Takahata. The movie follows a group of magical raccoon dogs (tanuki but misleadingly called “raccoons” in the movie) living in the Tama Hills outside Tokyo as their forest is turned into a giant housing development project (Tama New Town), one of the largest developments in Japan. It felt like the director was deeply conflicted about the entire subject of the film. The tanuki of the film are the same ones of Japanese folklore, and able to shapeshift, so they do everything they can to frighten away the humans, but without success. There are no real villains in this film; almost all the humans (except the owner of a theme park and the head of the developers) are shown in a positive light, and the new town itself looks pretty nice. The environmentalist message doesn’t seem to have much bite to it here, unlike in “Princess Mononoke” or “Nausicaa.” The raccoon dogs ultimately adapt, either by living as humans (thanks to their shapeshifting), moving away, or living on the suburban fringes, on golf courses or in the hedges. Some of them apparently choose suicide by following a Buddhist dance cult into oblivion. I have no idea what that was supposed to represent, and no, it didn’t really make sense in the context of the film. The final appeal to the audience is to consider the other animals who aren’t as resourceful as the tanuki. By doing what, exactly, I have to wonder? The development as shown seems quite compact and dense (this is Japan, after all), the developers left pocket parks for wildlife, and there was never really a clear thesis about any alternatives. “Save the forest, maybe, it’s pretty nice” seems to be the message. The tanuki’s final stunt is to return the appearance of the new town to the agricultural hinterland that it once was, but clearly all these new people can’t live on farms, and as the illusion fades, we’re left wondering what to think about all this. “Oh well, so it goes” seems to be the conclusion.

I wasn’t expecting the movie to depict historical events so realistically, since most of the other Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen have stayed deep in fantasy territory, with the notable exception of “My Neighbor Totoro.” But here we have tanuki interacting with apparently ordinary people; fairly typical suburban development; realistic portrayals of construction sites; and even the magical shape-shifting creatures are also shown occasionally as normal animals with regular mating seasons and the need to build up fat for the winter. That also fly sometimes? And really enjoy watching TV? It’s here, where the fantasy rubs shoulders with reality, that I most strongly sense the cultural differences between me and the target audience, who perhaps can make more sense of this blurring. Maybe one has to be an animist to understand this movie.

At any rate, I was by turns confused, bored, and mildly amused at the depiction of Japanese construction trailers and illegal dumping. I found the narration to be uninspired. This movie is like a primer on the hazards of greenfield construction with a bizarre overlay of bouncy anthropomorphic animals thrown in to liven things up. I can’t really recommend it, but it was too weird not to review. Watch at your own risk. (If you want some really excellent Studio Ghibli films to watch instead, my favorites are “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Nausicaa,” “Spirited Away”… well, pretty much everything directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Also “Porco Rosso,” “Castle in the Sky”… yeah. Any of them will work.)