It’s Animals Versus the Anthropocene in Studio Ghibli’s “Pom Poko”
Gather around and hear the tale of the tanuki with prominent testicles trying to save their vanishing way of life.
Still from Pom Poko (1994).
I know you know Studio Ghibli, and this guy who won’t retire (lucky us), but let’s take a journey back to 1994 and dig up Pom Poko, a deep cut Ghibli joint helmed by the house’s other director, Isao Takahata. He cofounded the studio with Hayao Miyazaki in 1985 and produced two of that director’s early films in addition to writing and directing five features of his own for the company before going off to the great castle in the sky last April.
While Miyazaki’s work skews towards the fantastical, Takahata often took the path of realism, sending out films that pulled no punches about life during World War II for Japanese children, as in the devastating 1988 picture Grave of the Fireflies, or producing meditations on nostalgia and memories of youth for 1991’s Only Yesterday. After these two, it makes sense he would have switched things up and gone a bit nutty: Pom Poko has a firm and worthwhile underlying message about the conflicts of coexistence between humans and animals and who has more of a right to live and in what fashion, but it couches its concern for the consequences brought by rapid urbanization in a tale of adorable tanuki (a breed of Asian raccoon dog) scheming against the encroachment of Japanese people’s apartment towers and curbing of nature into discrete little parks.
Japanese raccoon dogs are a recurring motif in the nation’s folklore, and are said to be mischievous, magical creatures that have the ability to shapeshift into objects or even humans so as to pass through society undetected, in addition to having the enviable ability to utilize their sizable testicles to fashion useful weapons or tools. I’m not here to explain a culture, just to convey its richness. The tanuki of Pom Poko definitely get a few chances to show off their below-the-belt abilities, but this is more or less a family movie too, so don’t get too worked up about it. The main story in the film follows a group of critters around the outskirts of Tokyo as they face displacement by the construction of new housing development from the 1960s to the 1990s, corresponding with a period of major economic growth of Japan in the post-war era.
Generations of tanuki band together in a series of skirmishes and initiatives aimed at driving out the humans, including the staging of hauntings, strange visitations in the shapeshifted form of creepy children, and, in their final grand attempt, an all out parade of magical illusions that do more to enrapture the town that has oppressed them rather than scare them away. And a local amusement park takes credit for the animals’ magic anyway, claiming it was their PR stunt. Though the tanuki have history, the land, and genitals that can expand into parachutes on their side, it’s still not enough—the people will breed and lifestyle must be built. Sad!
A sly fox character—whose own species has similarly had its numbers dwindled by the overstocking of humanity—convinces some of the tanuki that they must assimilate into the human world if they want to survive. So a few do, chugging energy drinks to keep up their shapeshifted facades and taking jobs, spotting their kin still rooting around in the garbage for scraps sometimes. Would it really be progress though, if a few beggars weren’t left in its wake?
Pom Poko screens in theaters nationwide on June 20 in an English-dubbed version. For tickets, see Fathom Events’ website.