January 26, 2006
Pom Poko is at once instantly accessable and completely foreign. Japanese culture is alien to American eyes, and Pom Poko is Takahata's celebration of that unique Asian culture. It's the most alien of all the Studio Ghibli films.
Pom Poko is, as Takahata described it, a "fictional documentary" about the culture clash between tanuki and mankind, from the tanuki point-of-view. It is a story about the animals attempts to hold back the tide of human progress, and it is also the story about an indigenous population swallowed up, taken from their own land.
This is a film that wears many hats, perhaps too many for those who look at the animals and expect Winnie the Pooh or Bambi. The story weaves through slapstick comedy, social commentary, satire, surrealism, and tragedy. It changes moods much the way the tanuki change form, bending and molding into a new shape, and relentlessly moving forward.
I think you will understand the overall plot, as the playful tanuki play endless pranks and try a variety of ideas to drive the incoming humans out of their forest. You will likely miss many, if not most, of the cultural-specific themes; the children's folk songs, the stories and antecdotes, the mythology, the religion. But don't worry too much; Takahata aims to rewaken his Japanese audience, one becoming more and more Westernized, to their vast heritage. Repeated viewings are absolutely required.
Pom Poko is a little different for Takahata, but he still employs all his talents, and his brilliant, calculating mind is very much in evidence. Thematically, it's very similar to The Story of Yanagawa Canals and Miyazaki's own Spirited Away, but with a darker, more tragic turn. It's as much a eulogy as a call to arms.
One last note for the teenagers and dumb college kids. You've heard right. The male tanuki are shown with their genitals. It's, again, purely a cultural thing. People in Japan don't have a problem with it. Get over it. Grow up.
Soundtrack notes: Disney released Pom Poko (alongside My Neighbors the Yamadas) last summer on DVD, with a new dubbed soundtrack. Unfortunately, it's pretty terrible. Not that the quality of the acting is poor (it's actually quite good in parts), but so much of the original script is scuttled or censored that it just ruins the film. I guess not everything can be whitewashed into the vapid, Stepford Family-fed Disney formula, can it? Thank goodness for that.