Pom Poko (1994)
PG, but it is a really weird and uncomfortable PG. Apparently, there's this element about raccoon mythology (you read that right) in Japan that involve raccoon testicles? That's a thing that is really lost in translation over her. So, like, a lot of the movie has very clear testicles on the drawings. The raccoons inflate these testicles to make blankets and fly around with them. Yeah, I'm uncomfortable writing this as much as you should be uncomfortable reading this. Similarly, male and female raccoons are distinctive because of breasts. If this wasn't uncomfortable enough, the raccoons try terrifying humans into leaving their land, so there are some disturbing images within the movie. But oddly enough, I kinda / sorta support the PG decision on this movie in the long run. My kids didn't pick up on a lot of the stuff that my wife were side-eyeing each other about. PG.
DIRECTOR: Isao Takahata
So like when we watched Asterix the Gaul because my students were studying France, we decided to watch a Studio Ghibli film for Japan. Since we have watched all the ones that they wanted to watch in the past before, we decided to try this one. I don't know if I'm going too far on a limb to say that anime can get weird, especially by Western standards. Hiyao Miyazaki is a little off, but he is inspired by a lot of Western filmmaking. Pom Poko is next level weird. It never really gets into the absolute bananas stuff that I've seen with a lot of other anime. But I can't deny that this is an absolutely bizarre movie that I often have a hard time wrapping my head around. Part of that comes from the fact that the story of Pom Poko is entrenched in a lot of Japanese cultural norms that, as an American, I only have a little exposure to. For example, the testicle thing that I talk about in the MPAA rating.
But I will never let my own cultural ignorance decide the value of a movie because I actually really liked it. I mean, I'm only occasionally grateful when my wife puts her nose to the iPhone, but she was giving some really good cultural background for the movie. And considering that our goal was to expose our kids to some deep Japanese culture, a lot of this really checks the boxes. This might be one of the greatest celebrations of Japanese folklore available to kids. (I mean, I do have to learn what it means when a fantasy character walks around with a leaf on his head because, between this and My Neighbor Totoro, it's clearly a thing that I should be understanding.)
While Pom Poko is definitely a message movie, with its focus on environmentalism versus the onslaught of progress, it feels like it a mix between a character piece and something that is a fairy tale to those who know the story of raccoons. Again, as an American, I have to run to catch up on a lot of things. Things that I probably should have known before starting the movie is the rich cultural history of raccoons. The film stresses that people in Japan assume that raccoons are supernatural creatures that have the ability to shapeshift. That is not a thing over here. But I do like how this ability kind of defines their personalities. These aren't shapeshifting raccoons that often go for utilitarian choices with their decisions. Rather, there's something really telling about the forms that the raccoons decide to take. It's odd, especially, because the raccoons in this movie act almost as a hybrid protagonist. While we have Shokichi, the possibly more moral raccoon, he doesn't have a goal any different from the rest of his pack.
Shokichi, instead, seems to be the character who is simply more developed than the other characters. He has a fate, and a depressing fate at that. You won't find me complaining very loudly when a story has a bittersweet, or even an outright sad ending. Shokichi, as a protagonist, is simply someone who we are meant to hold onto as our avatar. He's possibly the most human of the characters. He voices what the audience is thinking. He's one of the few characters in the story who have a named love interest. But even Shokichi isn't anything separate from his pack. While there are some that follow Gonta, voiced by a very Lex Luthor-y Clancy Brown, these raccoons all make decisions together. It's almost like we need Shokichi to remind us that there's a value in the individual. It's the concept that it is hard to empathize with a large group, but it becomes easier to relate to a smaller pack of animals.
For a movie so entrenched in fantasy, it's weird that the movie is so darned serious about the ending of the story. Okay, it's not really weird. I completely respect that choice. Because it is a message movie, having elements of fantasy affect how the real world works is a bit of a cop out. The raccoons are losing their homes to industry and civilization. I like that the movie doesn't do what Avatar does and try to make the concept of progress this overt evil. Because people are moving in and need a place to live, they are wiping out the forest areas of the town. It's depressing, but it also makes a lot of sense. Considering that the majority of the movie is spent trying to find ways to get rid of the humans in the town, the grounded elements of us understands that they will fail. Civilization is an unstoppable force, for better or worse. (In this case, for definitely worse.) We are an invasive species. It's this brutal story to tell to children. It's not like we see a ton of death. Some of the raccoons die by getting hit by cars. It's bleak, but it also isn't overt. Instead, we're left with the flaws of a utopian vision of harmony. The raccoons, as a last reminder of their supernatural abilities, show the world of apartments surrounded by nature. We know that this isn't ever going to be a reality, but it is this nice dream of man and nature living symbiotically instead of parasitically.
There's also a weird meta narrative to the whole thing. So, my favorite scene is the part where the raccoons all shapeshift into people without faces and torture the poor policeman. Oh my goodness. Good stuff. I'm surprised that my kids didn't freak out forever over that. (For all I know, they did and this is all being repressed.) But the real piece de resistance is the parade in the middle of town. The goal of the raccoons is to put on an absolute nightmare of a parade. They have all been practicing to up their games. They have gotten the shapeshifting masters to help them learn what needs to be done to ensure success. Cool. All of this is rad. And they put on the most insane spectacle. The best part is, while some do honestly become frightened, the general consensus is that this is the best parade that is imaginable. Instead of fleeing for their lives, they're all mesmerized by this spectacle. Eventually, to provide further commentary, a local huckster takes credit for the spectacle, which is pretty damning of human beings in general. But what a commentary that makes about the fascination with horror. Pom Poko is all about scaring humanity out of complacency. But we're watching the movie to see how horrifying these raccoons can get. Once the film is over, there's a good chance that we'll continue living in our comfortable homes. I know that my house a hundred years ago wasn't the suburbs. As much as I'd like to think that I'm the hero of the story because I sympathize with the raccoons who are losing their homes, I'm really still the villain. Like the spectators of the parade, I'm there to see the spectacle, think about it, and move on.
Pom Poko is pretty great. I don't have any kind of authority to say if Pom Poko gets the respect it deserves. I know that it is in the Ghibli lineup, but I feel like it doesn't get the attention that the Miyazaki ones do. A lot of that comes from the idea that Westerners probably can't wrap their heads around the overt weirdness of the movie. But really, it should be watched. Most environmental message films tend to be a bit...trash? But Pom Poko really hits a lot of sweet spots, despite the abundance of raccoon testicles.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.