The always excellent movie blog Critic After Dark has a number of brilliant, thoughtful essays on Studio Ghibli's movies, with a sense of understanding and knowledge I rarely find these days. Case in point - joy! - film critic Noel Vera wrote a masterful essay on Horus, Prince of the Sun.
I'm highly tempted to just quote the entire review, but I'll hold back a little. The entire piece is excellent is worth considering. My only gripe...cranky Grampa Simpson alert...that damned title! Widdle Pwince Baby Schnookums, my eye. And, yes, I know how fortunate we are to even find other Westerners who've even heard of Horus, much less seen it. I complain with a grin on my face.
Anyway, read Critic After Dark's essay on Horus, Prince of the Sun. Then download the fansub and watch the movie again.
...Little touches of psychological realism, distinguish Takahata's storytelling. The colors may be bright, the characters round-eyed and faintly Disney-ish, the sidekicks cute small animals, but their words, actions, thoughts, feelings, are not all adorable. Hols has a complicated relationship with these villagers--the trust they give him is provisional, on the apparent death of the fish, but his success has also won him enemies among the villagers, enemies that conspire to turn the people against him, force him back into exile.
Arguably the most striking sequence in the picture is when Hols discovers an empty village, eerie with silence. Among the deserted huts he encounters the mysterious Hilda, an apparent survivor of whatever devastation has emptied the little town. Hols takes her back with him, and her singing enchants the townspeople, who find themselves stopping work to listen.
If Hols relationship with the village is knotty, Hilda's is well nigh hopeless--she often finds herself looking upon the villagers as grotesque in their simplicity, despite their kindness. Hilda's character actually makes more sense if you see her as the traumatized survivor of some unknown holocaust--the inability to open up to people, the tendency to be willful and perverse, the obsession with death and destruction (she suffers from survivor's guilt and exhibits suicidal tendencies). Likewise the villagers' response to her--an uneasy mix of incomprehension and mute fascination--is more understandable if you keep in mind the chasm in experience between them and the girl, how strange yet alluring it can be. Yes they have suffered (the pike's recent reign of terror comes to mind), but they simply cannot understand the effects total destruction can have on a young mind, the kind of nihilistic philosophy it can create, even in a lovely girl with a beautiful voice.
Perhaps Takahata's finest and least appreciated effect would be the sense of roundedness, of solid familiarity, he gives the villagers. Viewers looking for easy entertainment might find the scenes of singing and festival-dancing and everyday living dull, but the scenes go hand-in-hand with Takahata's idea that the real protagonist of the film isn't Hols, but the community as a whole--this in turn going hand-in-hand with Takahata's view of the complex relationship between individuals and the various communities that inhabit his films.
Thus: in Only Yesterday, the heroine Taeko's easy efforts to immerse herself in a small farming community is contrasted with her childhood struggles to integrate herself into her own family; in My Neighbor the Yamadas the focus is on one family and, to some extent, the neighborhood they live in. Pom Poko is possibly the fullest and most complex expression of this idea of community-as-protagonist--yes they are raccoon dogs, yes they are mythological figures, but the way these dogs debate, squabble, compromise, celebrate, and make love reminds one of the interactions and struggles found in any community, particularly one faced with the possibility of extinction. And tragic Pom Poko may ultimately be (a conflict between animals and men can only end one way), it is relatively optimistic in its view of community relations compared to what may be Takahata's finest film, the great Grave of the Fireflies. There a young boy and his little sister struggling to survive the waning years of World War Two begin a gradual and complete rejection of their community--a rejection that will result in consequences the film shows us with simple, unflinching honesty.