Pom Poko – Review
Original Release Date: July 16th, 1994
Reviewed by: Tom
Synopsis: 1960s Japan. Like much of the post-war world, life is booming. With that comes development. A group of Tanuki, living peacefully in Tama Hills, become threatened as Japan’s need to expand its suburban development extends into their homeland. The forest is chopped down and the ground paved over. Flashing forward thirty years the Tanuki have turned on each other, fighting among themselves for the diminished food and resources available to them. But at the urging of Oroku, the Matriach of the Tama Hills Tanuki, the group ceases hostilities and unifies in an effort to bring an end to the continued suburban development. The plan is to use the ancient art of Tanuki transformation to infiltrate and sabotage the development projects. But can a group of mischievous Tanuki really stop man’s charge toward expansion and progression?
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
Pom Poko is probably one of Ghibli’s odder films, jumping between a whimsical and cartoonish depiction of the Tanuki’s blight with the more grounded, realistic, and harsh reality of man’s ever need to expand and its effect on these poor creatures. The effect begins with Pom Poko’s constant juggle between animation styles. The film opens with a detailed and realistic depiction of the Tanuki as man encroaches on their country side, gradually taking the land from these poor creatures and turning them against one another as they’re forced to fight for what little land they have left. It feels like a Japanese version of Watership Down, that is until the Tanuki take on a more anthropomorphic appearance and, when the film truly gives into its whimsy, sometimes a truly cartoonish depiction that eliminates all detail the other two styles utilize.
The art is superb, particularly the more realistic sequences that bring to life the plight of the Tanuki. It’s during these sequences when the film is most poignant, offering up the dark horrors of man’s carelessness for wildlife. The film never dwells too long on this, rather morbid, subject. Instead for the majority of its run time Pom Poko instead becomes light-hearted and whimsical in both animation and tone. We watch as the Tanuki fight back against man often utilizing methods more hilarious and silly than violent. And in the rare case when the film does delve into violence its glossed quickly, rarely lingering on the repercussions of these actions. The serious message is there, buried under a fun facade that keeps the audience from turning away.
The film is more focused on its message, and the narrative of its story, than presenting the audience with well developed and defined characters. There’s sixteen or so named Tanuki characters in the film (give or take a fox) and I’d be hard pressed to remember more than a handful. Some remain in the foreground of the film for much of its run time, like Shoukichi or Gonta, but others receive but a few scenes or disappear for long stretches of the film’s run time, making it difficult to latch onto anyone or care for them beyond a more superficial understanding of the situation. Even Gonta and Shoukichi, two of the film’s more prominent characters, remain one note, defined by their rolls in the story as the Aggressive combatant and wide-eyed optimist. Neither strays far from this initial perception, acting more as pawns for which to deliver the film’s underlying message.
This is a double edged sword. Pom Poko does an excellent job of conveying its message beneath the whimsy and comedy that Ghibli is generally known for. It keeps the audience in their seats even if they are perhaps disinterested in the honesty of the film. But at the same time it means some scenes lack the impact they could have. Namely the ending of the film sees Shoukichi reunite with an old friend, a character who I’d never grown attached to, and took a moment to recall, making the scene feel more hollow than touching.
Many of these characters do little more than carry the story forward, assuring the plot moves quickly over the years this battle between man and Tanuki takes place. Each is a component in the overall narrative and, as said previously, never strays from their predetermined role.
The real meat of the film is rather not the characters, but its story and message. That’s what Pom Poko is far more concerned with addressing, the blight of man on nature. And this is where Pom Poko truly excels. By distracting the audience for near two hours it manages to hammer home the morbid truth of our affect on the planet and the wild life who become displaced by our selfish need for progress. The film is, of course, earnest in its topic, the plot squarely focused on the Tanuki’s efforts to combat the ever expanding development plans. But for two hours the film dressed those efforts up with comedy, whimsy, and silly antics associated with Tanuki in Japanese society. It’s message is vaguely hidden beneath an entertaining facade, one more approachable for general audiences compared to say, Ferngully which is so overbearing it’s bound to turn anyone away who’s less than receptive to the topic. Rather than preach, Pom Poko visualizes its message, allowing audiences to become lost in the narrative rather than confront the serious nature of its topic for too long.
The films conclusion however pulls us right back to reality, painting an ending that has only tints of optimism, briefly giving ourselves some self-congratulation for doing the right thing, before we’re pulled down to the depths of the film’s reality, that all our efforts do little to aid those already suffering. If not for the undercurrent of optimism I might be tempted to call the film’s ending depressing.
Pom Poko is a powerful movie and acts as one of the deeper, more message driven Ghibli films. Standing alongside the likes of Princess Mononoke. Thankfully this depth and message are unhindered by the dub, which, beyond a few minor localization changes, keeps the overall tone intact and the quality high with a main cast that fits the film perfectly. There’s a few places where the dub falls short, hindering some third act scenes that required stronger performances, but these moments are fleeting and do little to damage the over all excellence of the film. The bigger issue with the dub is a surprising one. Normally its the Japanese version of films that lack subtlety, often hammering home their message with broad, on the nose strokes. Instead its the American version that takes Pom Poko’s message and proceeds to amplify it with extraneous amounts of additional narration that leave little to the imagination, untrusting of the animation to sell the message to its audience.
Overall Pom Poko is one of Ghibli’s stronger outings. It’s preachy, perhaps, beneath all the fun to be had, but it disguises its timeless message with enough fun to distract less receptive audiences. I don’t know that the film actually manages to reach people unreceptive to such cultural criticisms, but Pom Poko makes a strong effort, with such effective animation and a constantly moving plot that it’s a treat for anyone to watch.
Pom Poko is available on DVD and Bluray and can be purchased via Rightstuf.com