Pom Poko is one of Studio Ghibli’s little known and even lesser appreciated works.
Plot, setting, pace, and catharsis
Pom Poko tells the tale of a group of shape-shifting raccoons who take up arms against the human beings destroying their woodland, but this plot is only skimming the surface. What really hits the deck is the vibrant romp of animated brilliance throughout the whole length of the two hours which I think is an achievement in itself. And not even a single moment seemed to overstay their welcome.
A couple of issues – deforestation and cohabitation of man and wildlife – are touched upon, complementing the plot and effectually utilising its length, bluntly, but possessing a soul all the while.
Although, the film doesn’t get really serious with these issues until its second half, and up to that mark it’s just one oddity after another concerning the world of tanuki, is utterly exciting, and better experienced than depicted with words.
What makes Pom Poko unique
But beyond all that the movie is an ode to Japanese folklore, and how modernisation would result in its gradual disappearance from the human realm, and that’s probably the main (and only) reason if I tell you that you should watch the thing.
Two scenes are particularly worth mentioning here, one of which is a 10-minute-long “ghost parade” that, in its sublimity and awe-inspiring magnificence, is a privilege to lay one’s eyes upon. One leader of the group, upon request from his subjects, replicates The Battle of Yashima, and a reference to Nasu no Youichi’s skills of archery which we’ll witness again, nearly two decades later, in another eccentric show about tanuki.
It’s worth noting here that the spiritual conclusion of Kaguyahime no Monogatari also has its roots in this little sequence.
The tanuki again come together to a set up a display of their antiques, with a kaleidoscopic view of Japanese folklore, much to the shock and delight of people from all ages; while two drunk geezers in a street-side stall, oblivious to the wonder of their surroundings, contemplates the caprice of our neural circuits. In the distant night sky, a dragon turns into Miyazawa’s “Galactic Railway.”
Takahata, you beaut! We are unworthy!
The other sequence is a final journey of a group of tanuki towards Nirvana, sailing on a giant ship made out of the scrotum of their leader. (Yeah, let that description sink in for a moment.)
To elaborate a bit more on the aspect of that parade, or “Operation Goblin” as the tanuki had termed it, in all probabilities it’s a parody of Hyakki Yagyō which, according to older accounts of Japanese literature, is a dreaded summer-night where one hundred youkai, lead by Nurarihyon, roam the streets of Japan. This makes for an interesting comparison with how it’s depicted in the movie, in the frigid winter mocking a fake arrival of spring, and concluding without a single scratch to any humans. Originally it’s said that no ordinary human could survive the parade unharmed unless under rare and specific circumstances. This only adds an extra layer of depth to the already prevalent theme of disintegration of the old world and its ways present throughout the film.
This was an area I felt lacking. Although there’s a cast of likeable characters (they are shape-shifting tanuki for god’s sake, of course they’re likeable), none of them made that big an impact, one particular character had some development but then that died out because of less screen time, others were given unnecessary space, and so on. But all of that could very well be forgiven because good characterisation isn’t what this film was aiming at anyway.
Production values: Animation has seldom been more delightful, and equally supplemented by fitting tracks.
Values and aesthetics: There is better stuff out there in this regard but it doesn’t falter by a feather when it delivers. I’d also like to mention an anime that is close to my heart, Uchouten Kazoku, of which I was reminded of constantly while watching this movie.
Enjoyment and final thoughts: Not everything in entertainment that is good is universally acceptable, is what I’d like to add.