Pom Poko (1994)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata & Hayao Miyazaki

As the Studio Ghibli canon continues, I am preparing myself for a letdown, somewhere, anywhere, along this string of remarkable films. I am also preparing myself for new visions of what are fantastic worlds and oftentimes even better stories. We don’t quite get that yet with Takahata’s Pom Poko, which tries to combine the realism of Takahata with the imagination of Miyazaki, resulting in a finished product that feels lacking slightly in both departments. The collaboration of artists at Ghibi had to be an amazing environment in which to work, perhaps even akin to the early days of Walt Disney Animation Studios, where ideas flowed easily and working came as a joy, creating unforgettable art.

I would certainly have been interested to sit in on the pitch meeting for Pom Poko, and to see its idea evolve throughout the process. The tanuki are part of an ancient Japanese folklore, and even though the English dubbing referred to them as raccoons, they are perhaps more accurately described as raccoon dogs. These shape shifting, rather jolly and innocuous creatures have long inhabited the forests in the Tama Hills, an area near Tokyo. When suburbinization begins to threaten their long held lands, the raccoon dogs must find creative ways to ward off the humans from taking more of their forests, often resulting in hilarious pranks to fool the humans into thinking the forests are haunted. Their ability to change form is paramount to their success in this endeavor, as they send off two of their kin to seek out the masters of shape shifting from around the country, but their time is running out.

Not aware of the premise of the film, and simply going off the images of the cute and adorable “raccoon dogs”, I was rather excited to see the imagination of this film unfold. I was, however, curious when I noted that the film’s director was Takahata, and not the endlessly imaginative Miyazaki. While Miyazaki was included in the development of this project, undoubtedly lending his ideas to the shape shifting world of the tanuki, his fantasy world didn’t seem to marry very well with the otherwise incomplete narrative direction of Takahata. Pom Poko is full of bright moments, including the overall premise, but it fails in its execution by too often wandering around aimlessly, adding little or nothing to the story while failing to deliver a captivating fantasy world.

For a film whose run time nears two hours, the story being told by Isao Takahata should have been much shorter, and would have been more efficient and entertaining as a result of it. Too often Takahata strings things along to afford him the opportunity to show more attempts by the tanuki to thwart the humans. However, these moments add little to the understanding of the creatures themselves, or their struggle and plight in their current situation. Many things seemed to be retread, and the finished product feels like an inefficient, yet inspired film trying to be more than it perhaps truly was. It seems like there is a very sweet, funny, and environmentally mindful narrative hidden underneath the bloat.

There are plenty of laughs throughout, including endearing characters, great set pieces, developing the tanuki into a community worth cheering for. It is a shame, then, that set between these many brilliant moments are those which seem to drag on and on instead. The film has a central message worth listening to, concerning the expansion of human infrastructure into the existing ecosystems of nearby forests, countrysides, and likewise. Pom Poko is very much a cautionary tale, but I’m also not sure if there is an answer provided, other than simply to adapt to the changing world around us, as the tanuki are forced to do. This may not be the most ideal resolution, but rather it is a compromise. A compromise seems suiting given my reaction to the film, as I was forced to compromise some story elements I felt were unnecessary, or which drug on far too long, for some time spent in a good fantasy world, with good characters, providing ample laughs.

*** – Good

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