Review of Pom Poko (1994)
Animals hone their shapeshifting abilities to try to protect their forest home from a human construction project: Tama New Town, a massive planned suburb of Tokyo. Bit by bit, crises of leadership and natural urges precipitate their failure.
An eclectic epic of environmentalism. There is an element of modern urban fantasy here, with the tanuki emulating 1980s/-90s urban legends, ostensibly to frighten local developers. This element connects to a larger current of cartoonish yōkai and ghost mythology, which connects in turn to deep wellsprings of Japanese popular culture and a zest for animation (transformation) almost for its own sake. The tanuki wear more traditional Japanese clothing than the people they haunt, and their magical tricks blend into striking non-magical visual metaphors and conceits of the craft: Urban development is Buddha playing in a sandbox.
The animation is not really there to entertain the premise that ghost stories are caused by raccoon dogs. The animation is mostly there because it’s beautiful. The shifts in style, from naturalism via traditional clownish anthropomorphism to extreme simplification and back again, are shockingly well executed at scale. However, Pom Poko is internally contradictory in its funny-animal silliness, its pathos and its pacing. The conversation between two drunk old men, one hour and fifteen minutes in, sheds some light on how the tanuki shift between modes: It’s a naïve attitude toward the Todorovian fantastic, a deliberate authorial non-decision on what is actually supposed to be happening. Still there’s enough moralism to address the audience directly. It’s the Ghibli equivalent of Picassos äventyr (1978), and yet the film stands up well to repeat viewing. The wealth of movement and detail demonstrates a deep love of and confidence in the medium, though not in narrative. In its multivalent portrayal of human encroachment upon the natural world, Takahata very nearly hits the mark.