Set mostly in the outskirts of Tokyo in the early 1990s, Isao Takahata’s film Pom Poko (1994) tells the story of forest-dwelling tanuki who band together to fight a guerrilla war against the humans who are destroying their natural habitat. Some of the tanuki can shapeshift—even into human form—and the jolly, mischievous (and very human) creatures carry out their war with the land “developers” in a playful spirit that belies the existential threat that is the backdrop of this strange and wonderful film.
Takahata highlights the Darwinian competition between the tanuki and the humans by layering the aesthetic representation of these trickster raccoon dogs. We see the tankuki in different ways. Most of the time the film represents the tanuki in a stylized anime that’s something like a mix between ceramic tanuki effigies and, like, Disney’s funny animals.
This representation is jolly and blithe, even when the tanuki are committing sabotage or banging each other over the head for scant resources. The tanuki are most human here, hitting a sweet spot far away from the uncanny valley. We relate to them. At other times, Takahata gives us an even more stylized version of these animated raccoon dogs—they become ultracartoon, simple bubble renderings, cartoony-cartoons avatars of their own pain or delight.
But what’s most affecting, at least for me, are the rare moments in the film that depict the tanuki in naturalistic imagery—the moments when Takahata reminds us that these are animals in a natural world. One is reminded of the film version of Richard Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down (1978; dir. Martin Rosen) in these scenes.
Takahata shifts his representations of the tanuki in Pom Poko between anthropomorphic, ultra-cartoonish, and realistic, an aesthetic gambit that points towards the film’s greatest trick—a spectacle of shape-shifting tricksterism. Larded with riffs on Japanese folklore and crammed with phantasmagoric images, Pom Poko culminates in a ghost parade that the tanuki perform as a means to scare the humans away. The episode is the climactic highlight of Pom Poko, a wonderful take on the Japanese folklore of a demon parade in which yōkai dance down the street in wild abandon.
Unfortunately, the demon parade gambit fails. Hunting publicity, an amusement park steals the credit. In a move that may reflect Takahata’s sense of his own aesthetic power, the tanuki master illusionists are almost as upset about this theft of credit for their masterwork as they are at the theft of their lands. Almost as upset though—of course this is film about the radical terror of impending extinction, and Takahata never refrains from underlining that central message.
For some, the thesis of Pom Poko might be a bit too on-the-nose—I mean, the film is not subtle in evoking the idea that humans are taking up too much of the earth’s natural resources. However, the film is far more subtle, and hence effective, in anthropomorphizing its funny animals in such a way that we see their problems as not unlike our own. The tanuki are very much like humans—prone to rash decision making, practical joking, stupid anger, infighting and badmouthing, and junk food. They can also cooperate when they need to…but even mutual cooperation has its limits.
Ultimately, Pom Poko is a surprisingly sad film. Like so many Studio Ghibli films, it feels like an elegy for not just another time, but another way of living. And yet it encodes that way of living into a new medium for a new time—another phantasy, another trick, another transformation.
How I watched it: I took my son to see it last Sunday. I’ve seen the film maybe ten times, and my son, who is eight, has seen it maybe three. He claims it’s his favorite Studio Ghibli film, or maybe second favorite, after Princess Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind (1984; dir. Hayao Miyazaki). Neither of us had seen Pom Poko in a theater before, and watching it on a big screen with big sound and a full crowd confirmed its aesthetic power.