Monday, March 30, 2015

MR Pom Poko

Warning: This children animated film contains testicles. But don't worry, it's just tanukis! 

Find more Studio Ghibli animated classics reviewed here!
Pre-Ghibli films: HorusPanda Go Panda / Castle of Cagliostro / Chie / Gauche / Nausicaä
Ghibli films - 1986 to 1991: LaputaGrave of the FirefliesTotoroKiki / Omohide Poro Poro
1992 to 1999: Porco RossoOcean Waves

Movie: Pom Poko (known in Japanese as Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko which means "Heisei-era Raccoon Tanuki Battle Pom Poko")
Directed by Isao Takahata 
Release date 1994
Genre Fantasy/Comedy/Drama/Environmental anime film
Country Japan

The eight feature-length animated film by Studio Ghibli, Pom Poko was written and directed by Isao Takahata, and released in 1994.

This time the film is an original story, not really based on any manga or book.

Following the release of Porco Rosso, Hayao Miyazaki wanted the studio to produce another film starring animals as a way to tell a deeper story to a bigger audience. He suggested the idea to use Tanukis (aka Japanese "Raccoon dogs" - not raccoons!) to Ghibli's co-creator Takahata. These animals have a long history in Japanese folklore. They are believed to be ancient creatures, fun-loving animals with shape-shifting powers.

While the entire film is very much deep within Japanese folklore like I said, you don't necessary need to be Japanese to understand the meaning of it, it still very much an international idea that anyone can get across. And thanks to the documentary style used here and there in the film, it's an important message easy to get about these mythical creatures inhabiting this world.

Originally Takahata wanted to make a film taking place in feudal Japan (which he finally did now by the way), but with Miyazai already working on a similar idea (which would become Princess Mononoke), there couldn't be two identical films back to back. But it's not much a problem since he was able to keep most of these ideas in Pom Poko. The film itself would take about 20 months in the making, using much of the same younger staff that just worked on Ocean Waves.

Pom Poko is a fantasy tale about these raccoon dogs living off in the mountains. At first only preoccupied by their innocent life, fighting amongst Tanuki tribes, with the ability to take a more human form... that is, until the human presence gets ever closer and they will have to fight humans if they don't want to lose their environment!

Oh, and in case you were asking, "Pom Poko " is the sound Tanukis make when they beat their belly.

The story begins in a more rural Japan, in the 1960s. Tanukis are being threatened by Japan's rapid industrialization. Suburban development is slowing taking over the entire countryside. The forest homeland that the mischievous tanukis inhabit in the Tokyo area is shrinking with each passing year.

It is now the early 1990s. The living space is running limited, and the diminishing nature is in even worse condition every year. The tanukis are left to fend for themselves. They fight amongst themselves due to the slowly decreasing resources. But it's time to unify all the tribes to put a stop to the end of their habitat. The tanukis begin attacking all these different places.

Thanks to their shape-shifting spells they begin all kinds of sabotages on the humans installations. They're able to finally frighten some of the construction workers... but as soon as some leave, more are soon sent to replace them!

They put a call for help to these ancient respected elder tanukis from other regions in Japan, where tanukis are still respected and worshiped. They decide to put more emphasis on the supernatural aspect which can still scare humans away. The tanukis improvise a giant "ghost parade" to scare off the humans making them believe the town's haunted. But people love it, and a local amusement park even takes credit for it claiming it as a publicity stunt.

Slowly the tanukis break into smaller groups, each with their own strategies to face the situation. Some attempt quick terrorism coups into direct confrontations with the humans. Another bunch simply decide to make some media appearances on television! One of the elders even starts a cult, now that he's senile! Some that can't shape-shift attempt a desperate attempt and sail off in a ship (to their deaths!!).

The only one last possible peaceful solution is to just attempt to join the humans. If you can't beat them, join them! Just like the last mythical kitsune (foxes) already did in the past.

The tanukis attempt one last gigantic trick, they create a big illusion around this entire urban area and turn it into a forest just like the place originally was. But it's already too late to save the tanukis...

The last few of them simply decide to blend into the human society. They're able to preserve a few park areas, but they're too small. We now see one of the last tanukis having fully joined our civilization. He is coming back home. The film ends on a little emotional ending after such a packed story, the film only asking the audience to at least consider animals and nature before destroying the last natural spaces...

Another classic Takahata. The film has a very nostalgic feel to it. Almost sad at times, despite the overall comedic tone of the film.

Where most American animated films on the same subjects such as FernGully don't always fully embrace an opinion, the tanukis here can be seen being serious about the problem and being open to any means to stop humans from ruining the last remnant forests, even kill!

It's a look back at the 1960s development boom that took over most of Japan (and more precisely Tokyo). Ethics of a country going through a lot of changes. All this through Japanese myths and legends. It's also a satirical view of our modern world through woodlife spirits. Really, a unique tale.

The art direction of the film is really stunning. The backgrounds are simply gorgeous, as usual with the studio. Visually stunning.

The film employs three art styles to represent the tanukis, three different depictions of our heroes through the film. First as more realistic animals when spotted in the nature. A second more anthropomorphic look to better identity with the tanuki protagonists (standing up, wearing cloth) as long as the humans are not looking at them. Takahata wanted to avoid a "Disney-style" with the clothed tanukis interacting with humans through the entire movie. And finally a third and last more simplified cartoony appearance inspired by veteran mangaka artist Shigeru Sugiura, which was a partial inspiration behind the film, whenever they're doing something silly or more slapstick when letting their emotions loose.

These three depictions of the tanukis allow to vary the atmosphere depending on the

Despite the film's fairly small presence amongst international audience, it's one of the best and most popular films of Studio Ghibli in Japan. It became the studio's biggest success in Japan at the time (even surpassing the release of The Lion King over there!). It's a really fun dramatic animated story with a lot of references to Japanese lore.

It's certainly definitively a very Japanese film, which if not much familiar with can be a bit tricky to get into. For that reason it was natural to expect some interpretation of the tanukis in the folklore, which are usually represented with testicles, cartoon on not. It's part of the culture (and it's not that graphic honestly, it's more comical if anything else really). Which they use while shape-shifting and whatnot. As for American fans, thankfully Disney didn't edit the film, the picture remained unedited and the only real change is having the English dub play around it by referring to that as "pouches".

There are several ways to read the narrative. Pom Poko looks like a simple children story talking about modern day Japan. The tanukis are really fun protagonists for both adults and children alike, thanks to their carefree fun nature. But deep down it's about a more serious grown up subject, about these last tanukis fighting here to survive. And despite all their incredible powers, they are still losing a war. The are several more serious points through the film as the story progresses. The film certainly has that special touch, that partially kind tone and a certain sadness to it proper to Isao Takahata.

The film has a more eco-friendly message, which can be found quite often in Ghibli films. A warm look towards much simpler past days gone by, while modern life forgot nature and where it all came from. The film can also be interpreted as a last fight from minorities being absorbed into larger cultures and losing their traditions, their own identity. Takahata want to show what modern world feels like through the eyes of the tanukis. A parallel can be seen with the Ainu people in Japan, or any other ethnic minority really.

Isao Takahata never shies away from tough endings. If Grave of the Fireflies was any indication, the man loves a sad powerful but sweet melancholic conclusion. And Pom Poko is no different, despite the more upbeat nature of the story.

The music was composed by Japanese folkloric band Shanshan Taifû (aka Shang Shang Typhoon), a blend of classic Japanese folklore instruments with rock and pop and what have you. They use lots of traditional instruments with percussions. It's far from the usual epic orchestral score from Joe Hisaishi, which is a really nice way to have this film stand apart from the other films of the studio.

Overall, Pom Poko is a charming tale. Despite sounding pretty strange to non-Japanese audience with all the lore explored in the story, it's a really fun and even sad heartwarming story about cute forest animals having to fight back for their land.

The film revolves around its ecological message, it's a tale of displacement and assimilation. It's such an impressive film which can be very moving and enchanting at times. 

It's almost feels like a very realistic war movie, glimpsed through fantasy layers, through the eyes of these tanukis.

The film has such beautiful animation. It feels pretty profound and it is Recommended for any animation fan out there..

It's probably Takahata's closest attempt at a more Miyazaki-esque style of film, but it still retained a very much realistic approach nonetheless proper to the director.

I give it:
2 / 3 DonPatchis!

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