(Check out my previous Studio Ghibli essay on Only Yesterday if you missed it!)
1994’s Pom Poko was a huge hit when it was released in Japan. Like many Studio Ghibli films before and since it was the highest grossing Japanese film of its years and helped to further solidify Ghibli as a household name and an always marketable choice for producers. The film was Yoshifumi Kondo’s last film as key animator for Studio Ghibli before beginning work on his 1995 film Whisper of the Heart. It was also Takahata’s first collaboration with composers Shang Shang Typhoon: a Japanese pop band with traditional folk elements whose music fits perfectly into the film score in the classical sense, meaning it is largely invisible music that plays “behind” the filmic text in a supporting role to subtly heighten the emotional and intellectual themes therein.
The film shows the struggles of a group of Tanuki, or raccoon dogs, in a rural area not far from the outskirts of Tokyo in the early 90s. Due to a severe lack of housing and burgeoning market for homes in and around the city where urbanization is increasingly drawing Japanese away from their small villages and into the megalopolis, a development company is working to deforest a nearby area, raze its mountains, fill in its valleys, and create a new suburb community. But the Tanuki and other animals who live here are slowly being displaced and losing access to food and other resources in the process. The tale is one of the Tanuki’s fight against industrialization and commodification of their habitat and home.
They begin their battles in a manner akin to the monkeywrenching campaigns of environmental activist group Earth First! in the 80s and 90s. The Tanuki destroy expensive industrial equipment and make roads dangerous at night through manipulation of roads and bridges and by blocking visibility of drivers, thereby resulting in the deaths of three people. As the Tanuki begin to re-learn the ancient art of shape-shifting magic to trick more humans into thinking the forest if haunted whilst simultaneously being protected by outraged Shinto deities, many local rural residents and workers fall for their tricks. Many people leave or quite their jobs out of fear of the gods or ghosts residing in the forest, but there are always new workers ready and able to take their places working. The press reports on ghost sightings in the forest with a tendency toward mockery of those who report on the goings-on in the forest, which makes the whole issue a joke to the general public and ends up working against the Tanuki in the long run.
The forest is steadily destroyed despite all efforts by the Tanuki and their council. The ones who can shape-shift begin lives as humans in the city, following after the example of the kitsune, the Shinto fox spirits, who did the same previously and used their shrewd natures to claw their way to the top of the business world. The Tanuki unable to shape shift continued to forage and lived short, but interesting, often adventurous lives before becoming roadkill or victims of traps, dogs, and the cruelty of man. The forest is lost, though small nature parks are left standing and community initiatives are created to live in cooperation with the local wild animals, which keeps the remaining Tanuki from dying off completely.
The entire exercise is handled with solemnity in its didactic moments with very little talking down to the audience. That said, the feature includes tons of fun-loving scenes involving the Tanuki at play and enjoying life during the courting and mating seasons. There are whimsical scenes of Tanuki learning to transform for the first time, training, scaring humans whilst disguised as spectres and Shinto deities, and creating a tragi-comic parade whose visual brilliance was not matched until Satoshi Kon’s Dream Parade in ‘Paprika.’
The Tanuki themselves are animated in three different manners representative of Takahata’s three visual preoccupations: As realistic Tanuki in a realistic natural space that evokes the poetic realist emphasis of Takahata’s film Gauche the Cellist. Other times, the foxes are shown in a minimalist way evoking manga animation as in Takahata’s earlier film Jarinko Chie and later in My Neighbors the Yamadas. Finally, the third representation of the Tanuki in the film is a kawaii anime aesthetic which can be found in earlier Takahata films like Panda! Go, Panda! The three representations don’t seem to exist for any particular ideological purpose. Instead, each works to heighten the emotional and dramatic valences of the scenes in which they are animated. The realistic Tanuki often heighten the film’s traditional sense of beauty and help the viewer to emotionally identify with the pain and tragedy of loss at the core of the film. The manga themed animation serves to fit in with moments of comic relief and gives the viewer a release from an otherwise, taut, gripping, and depressing tale, which consequently keeps the viewer emotionally invested in the film for longer than they might be otherwise if the film were dark throughout. Finally, the anime style Tanuki are anthropomorphic and create an audience identification for the viewers as humans who can view the struggles of the Tanuki from a recognizable vantage point.
Some critics have reviewed the film negatively for its overt didactic edge and supposed brow-beating approach to its subject. I’ve never read the film in this manner, however. Takahata’s message of co-habitation with wildlife and environmental protection is uncontroversial and relatively conservative in scope and in its call for personal action. Furthermore, it stands as an extension of his earlier preoccupation of documenting Japan’s rural communities as in 1987’s The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals as well as representing a environmental consciousness trend common throughout the Ghibli canon. If anything, not expressing his interests and ideological preoccupations would mean not expressing himself, working from a script not totally his own, and therefore, not deserving the title of auteur within his productions. By staying true to his interests throughout his career, Takahata’s career is all the stronger for it, not the weaker.
[Next up: My Neighbors the Yamadas]