Photos - Heisei Gassan Tanuki Pom Poko

Here are a pair of high-resolution photos (click for full view, as always) of Isao Takahata's 1994 Studio Ghibli film, Heisei Gassan Tanuki Pom Poko. These both come from the spectacular visual high point of the movie, the Tanuki "Spooking War." This sequence is a visual marvel, wildly surreal, packed to the rafters with icons and figures from Japanese mythology and folklore.

Pom Poko is a virtual encyclopedia of Japanese culture, a lost culture that is now completely alien to modern eyes. Never before has any movie so skillfully portrayed the alienness of Japan's rich heritage. An American counterpart to the Spooking War would involve a parade of the Founding Fathers, of Paul Revere on his Midnight Raid, of Lewis and Clark, of Harriet Tubmand and Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

The Tragedy in the Spooking War is not that one of the old Tanuki masters dies, or that the parade of ghostly images dissipates. The tragedy is that the people have been brought face to face with the ghosts of their cultural past, and they cannot recognize them. By the next morning, the entire event is cynically passed off as a hoax.

Takahata's hope lies in the faces of the children. They are the ones watching, wide-eyes, captured by the mystery and awe of these ghosts. The hope is that they, in time, will reawaken to their own past, before all of Japan is completely consumed by Western materialism, in concrete and steel clear to the horizon.

Were you smart enough to figure that out? Or were you too busy pointing and giggling at the pee-pee parts?


serhei said...

Tschk. Japan existed for thousands of years whereas "America" arose well within modern history. If you want to balance this out then include English culture (which America arose out of), go through Shakespeare and Chaucer and look up every single reference to a popular superstition, legend, or well-known (at the time) historical event. I'm pretty sure you would come up with material for a reasonably good 'Spooking War'. Or just look in the very old and still-used "Brewer's Dictionary of Rhyme and Fable"(or something like that?) to save time.

[There is another question to be raised - how we keep being drawn to e.g. Shakespeare despite the fact that the characters are speaking a language that is, half of the time, so culturally alien that it requires a dictionary to understand. It is at least understandable why some people do not enjoy Shakespeare.]

Not to lessen the import of all of the specifically American stuff you mentioned. American culture desperately needs its own Pom Poko-type summarization, since we too have managed to alienate ourselves from most of the stuff that happened before the 60s. Nobody remembers the adrenaline rush of sending man onto the Moon, let alone what the founding fathers stood for. When people do remember what they stood for, they tend to complain about how they would be utterly appalled to see what American society has turned into.

Alienation from history, though, is in fact a universal human constant, because Stuff that Happened in History is Way Over There, and we are Over Here. The difference between various eras is what kind of awareness we possess, through education, art, or otherwise, of what exactly Way Over There is about. What defines the relation of art in an era to history - is the art feeding off the vast untapped reserve of past ideas, archetypes and memories that are out there, free for the taking, or is it feeding off of itself in an increasingly pointless cycle?

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

We're drawn to Shakespeare because he was the finest poet of the English language. And also because our school teachers forced it upon us.

Aliennation from one's history and identity is indeed universal, and that's where a movie like Pom Poko (and to a similar degree, Spirited Away) can be identified by people around the world.

But Japan is a special case, a nation that completely rebuild itself after its total destruction at the end of WWII. They fully embraced the Western world, and perhaps this is most clearly felt in that first post-war generation. They were the ones to be exposed to Western and American culture and values, ideas like socialism and democracy, the Beatles, E.T., yadda yadda.

This conflict between the modern Japan and its deep heritage forms the backbone of the Studio Ghibli films. That nostalgia for the past, and uncertainty for the present, haunts both Miyazaki's and Takahata's work.

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