Thoughts on Isao Takahata's Pom Poko

I love Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pom Poko, Isao Takahata's 1994 Studio Ghibli feature, but I understand that it's a very Japanese movie that may feel a bit dense to Westerners who don't know all the cultural icons being cited and quoted. It's really a mock documentary fused with elements of comedy, tragedy and social commentary. It's very surreal, and I always expected this movie to become a cult favorite with stoners and animation buffs. The movie looks spectacular, with some of the wildest and most inventive animation of any Studio Ghibli movie. This is without question the studio's most under-appreciated classic.

I always enjoy the emotional range Takahata delivers in his movies. For much of the movie, things are funny and silly and all the tanuki pranks are in good fun. There is a lot of terrific visual and slapstick comedy, funny gags involving shape-shifting animals who pull pranks on humans. Then, halfway through the picture, the tone suddenly becomes deadly serious. Overpopulation leads to food shortages. Shortages lead to more daring raids on human territory. A tanuki is trapped and caged. Another tanuki is run over by a truck and killed; cue a closeup of the dead animal, replete with blood on the open road. Playtime's over.

You can say that Pom Poko is a movie about a society that is overrun and nearly destroyed by an invading civilization, but notice how Paku-san spins this narrative on its head. He is not only speaking about the tanuki, or the ancient Ainu people (referenced in the landmark Horus, Prince of the Sun), but post-war Japan itself. This movie really a story about how modern Japan has lost touch with its cultural heritage in the name of "Western" progress. The centerpiece of the movie is a spectacular parade of ghouls, ghosts and phantoms, conjured by the tanuki in an effort to astonish and scare away the humans, all taken from various interpretations of Japanese religious and cultural archetypes. The hope of this sequence lies in the wide-eyed faces of children, dazzled at the sights before them. The tragedy lies in the fact that neither they nor their parents recognize any of this.

The following day, a slimy corporate executive claims credit for the "hoax", using it as a means to pimp his own Disney-esque theme park (another satirical critique of Western cultural appropriation). The people shrug it all off, meekly accept this narrative and go about their business. They are cut off from their ancestors, lost in a fog of materialism and consumerism, and it breaks your heart.

This message is a running theme is many of the Studio Ghibli movies, and may be the most dominant of all Ghibli themes. Takahata's 1987 live-action documentary, The Story of the Yanagawa Waterways, addresses many of the very same topics. When you see how ancient canals and rivers are devastated and turned into enormous trash heaps, you are shocked at how such beauty and careful design could be so carelessly thrown away. In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki depicts a lumbering "stink spirit" who is revealed to be the spirit of an ancient river, flooded and buried in a mountain of trash that explodes out of its body in spectacular fashion.

One thing that has always irritated me: many people in the West just can't get past the genitals. "Uh-huh-huh, heh-heh-huh. They got balls. Huh-huh-uh-huh." It seems that for many moviegoers, this is as deep as it goes. It's like laughing at Donald Duck when you realize he's not wearing any pants. That said, Paku-san has a lot of fun with that part of Tanuki mythology, and the final battle with the police has a certain absurdity mixed in with the tragedy. One of his other movies, Jarinko Chie, also has a fair amount of gross-out humor, and it's not something you normally see from Takahata.

What can I say? It's Paku-san. It's layered with folk tales and myths that go back centuries, plays upon popular stories of shape-shifting raccoon dogs, presents the animals as defenders of the forests, and then openly mocks the whole premises as slapstick farce. Then he just pulls the rug out from under you and hits you with the lethal consequences. The movie's final shot, a long pan to reveal an endless horizon of sterile buildings and skyscrapers, directly quotes the final shot from Grave of the Fireflies, and we're left to once again ask the same questions. So maybe we could say that Pom Poko is Fireflies played up for laughs?

Pom Poko outgrossed The Lion King in Japan, was the highest grossing domestic movie of 1994, and was Japan's submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, the closest thing we seem able to muster these days are theme park attractions, Angry Birds, and Emojis. It's enough to make you want to tear off your clothes and run off into the woods.

P.S. I almost forgot one final detail. The character Gonta, the militant tanuki leader, is supposedly modeled after Hayao Miyazaki. The character is Takahata's inside joke about the gruff, bossy, dictatorial nature often showed by his Studio Ghibli partner. It's funny how Miyazaki-san is always depicted by his associates as overworking tyrant (I'm thinking of Yasuo Otsuka's sketches of Miyazaki during the production of Future Boy Conan). Miyazaki himself has even parodied this side of himself in his comics.

P.P.S. Pom Poko was the final time that both directors worked together on a movie project. Their partnership began in 1965, and for many years, they were an essential team, ala Lennon-McCartney. Over time, however, the two grew and evolved in very different directions, ending the partnership for good. To this day, Paku-san insists that the two are still good friends, but the two never so much as think about business. It's a running theme in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, and it's a quiet tragedy that only speaks to those who know the inside score.


SlackerInc said...

I just saw this in the theater, and was really impressed by it—especially the first half (in the second hour, it started meandering and repeating a bit, and dragged on too long).

One thing I was wondering: some of the gags were truly hilarious, but they made me wonder if they were actually a faithful translation of Japanese jokes, or kind of a BLR approach where they just wrote gags in English that would roughly fit the action seen on the screen. Any idea if there’s truth to this?

Jonathan Hagerman said...

Thank you so much for this post! I've seen all the Studio Ghibli movies and love them all, but this one has always had a special place in my heart. I've seen so many movies of all genres, but that scene you allude to at the end of your essay, when the raccoon dog who has been living as a trudging tired commuter tears off his clothes and runs into the woods, transforming from his exhausting human form back into a joyful animal - all while musing in his voiceover that he doesn't know how humans are able to endure the tedium that we do - that scene has never been far from my mind.

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