REEL Review – Pom Poko (1994)

Director: Isao Takahata | Runtime: 1h 59mins | Animation, Comedy, Drama | Language: Japanese, English (dub)

The ever expanding city of Tokyo causes a development to encroach on the land of the raccoon-like tanuki, a magical race of shapeshifting creatures. After the constructions start to cause real issues with their home, the raccoons decide to fight back.

With the recent addition of most of Studio Ghibli’s backlog to Netflix, many more now have access to the incredible creativity of the minds behind one of the most famous and successful animation studios in the world. Although Ghibli is most widely known for it’s direction by Hayao Miyazaki, he started with Isaiah Takahata, together leading the studio to such success. Takahata’s most famous works include Grave of The Fireflies (1988) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), though he’s also known for today’s review Pom Poko, taking a folktale look at tanuki, most commonly compared to raccoons.

Though Takahata is credited as the solo writer, Miyazaki has the credit to the early idea that would become Pom Poko, and the playful nature that radiates all of his films can be felt here too. There are plenty of differences between both directors filmographies, arguably the most substantial is the themes they decide to explore – Miyazaki generally explores more personal and introspective ideas using the fantastically elements to emphasise the human components. Takahata uses their imaginative concepts in Pom Poko to explore larger-scale issues on a less character specific level surrounding urban development and ecological issues this has on the wildlife and nature it destroys.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t characters we follow in Pom Poko, but they do lack the same depth of Ghibli’s best works – many have a absence of an arc outside of Shoukichi, the young and idealistic raccoon who we accompany for most of the runtime. Though it may struggle on it’s characterisations it may be Ghibli’s funniest feature, using the sweet innocence of the tubby tanuki to play for humour instead of drama. Many of their animations use comedy to ground their characters, moment of levity to break up the tension and give the audience a easy thread to latch onto emotionally. Pom Poko pushes this to the max, though does forgo some of the dramatic heft for more whimsical humour – this is a comedy first and drama second, a rarity for Ghibli.

Even in 1994 Ghibli were in full control of their craft, mastering the animation allowing us to fully enjoy their creative vision.

Most of the plot revolves around the tanuki trying to combat the urban expansion by the humans onto their land in the Tama Hills. At first they set out a five year plan consisting of tricks and magical pranks to spook the workers off the construction sites, but even as they frighten some there are always more to replace them. The matriarch of the group Oroku was the one to unite the warring raccoons, so they look to her for guidance in how to refine their shapeshifting abilities, restoring them to the glory of their ancestors. Because of the shapeshifting being a central plot device, it creates many wonderful visuals throughout. Even in 1994 Ghibli were in full control of their craft, mastering the animation allowing us to fully enjoy their creative vision, emphasised the most in the ghost parade, though it isn’t successful we’re treated to a feat of artistry only really matched in films like Spirited Away (2001).

Though the film is a huge amount of fun, it does become quite muddled with the fast pace rhythm, the constant drops of exposition and a plethora of subplots. It might be easier to follow if we had better characterisations to follow, there isn’t much to grab onto emotionally for us to get invested in, instead you’ll find yourself finishing the film because of the humour and inventive visualisations. It’s a strange juxtaposition to many of the beats of the story though, as there are plenty of dark moments scattered throughout, and though this provides a dramatic level the sequences of raccoons being run over and killed alongside the more light hearted scenes is quite jarring and arresting – likely the purpose, getting us to agree with the central anti-industrial core, but it’s dealt with pretty heavy handed.

Pom Poko is a strange addition in the Ghibli filmography, it’s not as successful as My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies, but has more depth than The Cat Returns. It sometimes balances the heavier themes with the comedy well, but other times is jarring, and it certainly wears it’s heart on its sleeve. All this being said it is hard to deny how joyous it can be, and as always Ghibli delivers enough creativity to make the entire film worth watching.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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