The more I dig into the work of Isao Takahata, the more I realize he’s just as big of a genius as his Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Maybe the reason that he doesn’t get as much adulation is because his movies are more difficult in their subject matter, a little bit harder to penetrate. Making grown-up anime about contemporary Japan isn’t nearly as visually stunning or awe-inspiring as something like Castle in the Sky. With his 1994 film Pom Poko, Takahata combines problems of modern day Japan with the magic of folklore. It’s also got raccoon dogs with giant ball sacks.
On the surface, Pom Poko seems like a funny little comedy about raccoon dogs (a creature called a tanuki, which are feral canines that live in Japan and resemble raccoons, but are NOT raccoons) trying to scare humans through their innate powers of transformation. However, if you dig deeper, it’s actually a condemnation of progress at the cost of nature, a theme about which both Takahata and Miyazaki are very passionate. Presented as a kind of documentary in animated form, the film also discusses how people can forget or ignore the folklore of their ancestors with all the hustle and bustle of modern life.
To really understand where Takahata is coming from with this, you need to understand tanuki and what they mean to Japanese society and folklore. They’re akin to foxes in that they tend to live near or around cities because deforestation has severely reduced their habitat, and they do look an awful lot like a raccoon in terms of coloring. In Japanese folklore, they’re said to be tricksters (a trait they share with foxes) and have the ability to shape-shift into different things in order to blend in and go unseen by humans. They can even become humans and live in cities as one, totally undetected. You remember in Super Mario Bros 3 how there’s that one suit that looks like a full raccoon with the hood and the tail and everything, and how you could turn into a statue and be neither noticed nor touched by bad guys? Well, this was a Tanuki suit. (Or “Tanooki” if you’re a stickler for Mushroom Kingdom spelling conventions.)
In popular art, the Tanuki is almost always depicted as being laughing and jocular, wily and smart, but much more interested in celebrations and eating. They’re also almost always drawn or sculpted with laughably huge testicles to show off their virility and their sort of engorged lifestyle. This is no different in the movie, and their ball sacks are shown as being directly useful in transformations. They even parachute using their ball sacks at one point. It’s deeply weird.
The Tanuki in the movie are visually represented in three distinct forms: as actual animals that any human could see, as anthropomorphic creatures who wear clothes and walk upright when humans aren’t around, and as exaggerated manga figures based on the artwork of Shigeru Sugiura. These are all important, because Takahata’s trying to use the very familiar pop cultural depiction of these animals and their perceived magical powers to also talk about how they’re affected by humanity’s expansion of cities. As urban sprawl leads to the destruction of the surrounding forest, the Tanuki and other animals are mostly disregarded in these decisions. Takahata is making sure the audience sees them as being real, alive, and in need of help.
Told mostly through voiceover narration over the course of several years, Pom Poko is about two warring factions of Tanuki who put their differences aside because their habitat is being infringed upon by humans. They decide to learn about humans through television, and they start stealing food and sort of enjoying what humanity is offering them, until they infringe further on their home. The group has many discussions about what to do, and it’s decided they need to relearn the ancient secrets of shape-shifting. In order to gather more intel, many of the Tanuki actually learning to live as humans.
When their reconnaissance fails to help them, they decide they need to scare away the humans and so they begin to shape-shift into various different horrifying nightmare visions to try to make the humans leave. These manage to scare folks, but not enough to halt the excavation and land development. So the Tanuki up their game and bring in elders from different Japanese islands to help them learn to use their powers for bigger and even scarier images, which people either think are hallucinations or a publicity stunt by a local theme park. At one point, a fox living in human form proposes to an elder that all of them permanently live as humans, but not all the Tanuki have the power to transform, and others can’t for very long. It takes a lot of energy, you know.
The movie is very funny and some of the explanations for things in modern society are said to be the inventions of Tanuki. For instance, energy drinks were the creation of Tanuki who were depleting their energy in human form too quickly. And we spend all this time with these fun, dancing, lazy, and kind of silly creatures, so it’s a good time. But the movie is also really sad, especially toward the end when, despite the hard work of many of the Tanuki elders, members of the group die trying to fight off the humans, get wiped out due to territory being depleted, or get hit by cars. When they die, we always see them as the real animals, not the cartoon versions. It’s important that the message of animals losing their habitat not be lost amidst the animated revelry.
So the movie definitely has Takahata’s ability to tell warm, heartbreaking stories, but it also displays a whimsical visual style unseen in one of his films before. The transformations of the animals are gorgeous, and some of the scenes of the Tanuki attempting to scare the humans are frightening and beautiful in their complexity. One such scene involves a man seeing a bunch of people without faces. The big one shows all of the Tanuki turning into traditional Japanese ghosts or totems of evil, and it’s really lovely to watch. There’s a fluidity to all of these transformations that we just hadn’t seen in Takahata’s work before.
While definitely odd, Pom Poko is right in line with the previous work of Isao Takahata, but we’re already nearing the end of his canon as director. After merely three films made at Studio Ghibli, he’d only have two more, but both would look to stretch the bounds of the anime genre and the visual style that usually remains true in all Ghibli features. Next week, we’ll be discussing 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas.
Images: Studio Ghibli
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!
Catch up on past Takahata Textbook entries here.
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