Pom Poko (Studio Ghibli 1994)
What it’s about:
In my previous entry about Princess Mononoke I talked a little about heavy industrialisation of Japan, the transformation of the Japanese countryside over the post war period and the effect of this on Japanese culture. This techno/ecological revolution is, along with the psychological trauma of the loss of the war and the nuclear attacks that ended it, one of the great meta-themes of Japanese popular culture in the late 20th century. Princess Mononoke dealt with this phenomenon as an allegorical fantasy. Pom Poko deals with these themes directly.
A small community of Tanuki (Japanese Racoon-Dog creatures) find their area under threat from the expansion of Tokyo as their rural habitat is targeted for urban development. The film follows them over the course of the next couple of years as what normally happens to small societies / communities that get in the way of the onward march of industrial capitalism happens to them as the countryside is developed into housing around them.
Why it’s Good:
Pom Poko is one of the more underrated of the Ghibli films. Maybe it isn’t quite as good as some of the other Ghibli films on this list, it isn’t one of Hayao Miyazaki’s, but i think it is up there with the best of them. It’s a lucid and informative examination of complex and rather adult themes that is completely comprehensible by children. Its also one that I have a soft spot for because it is an activists film. At first, after the small communities of Tanuki that had fought amongst each other are united by the common threat, they form a committee and have a debate about what is to be done, the merits of direct action are discussed and assessed against more symbolic forms of struggle. The ultimate fate of the Tanuki has parallels with the fates of other indigenous peoples who got in the way, from the Native Americans, the Tribal peoples of Africa and the Aboriginal people of the antipodes. If you’ve studied the Ghost Dance or the Xhosa cattle slaughter the scene with the non-transforming Tanuki forming up into a ship and going out to sea to die should strike a chord as a slightly encoded representation of some of the great human tragedies of the last couple of centuries. I always cry at that part.
|The chairman tries to maintain order as everyone else gets a bit over excited|
There is also a really brilliant visual conceit that actually tends to confuse adults but small children seem to take to immediately. The drawing style for how the Tanuki are depicted changes depending on which aspect of their existence is relevant to the plot at a given time. This sounds more complicated than it is, basically, whenever the film wants to emphasise the reality of the situation the Tanuki are depicted realistically, more or less as they are in reality, when we’re in the story for most of the film when we are looking at the Tanuki as individual personalities they are depicted in a cartoony anthropomorphic fashion, a small amount of clothing (which doesn’t cover their scrotums on the male characters, which are apparently magic) which is more or less as they are depicted in traditional Japanese culture. In parts of the film where the Tanukis emotions are heightened to the point where they are acting or feeling events as a collective the individuality of the characters is de-emphasised and they are all depicted in broad strokes, literally, as the art style is flattened and simplified to the bare minimum. This is a really neat conceit that conveys a lot visually in a way that you couldn’t do in any other medium. Using the style and complexity of the art for narrative emphasis is something that is simple and intuitive, its also something typical of Japanese visual storytelling methods, you get it in a lot of Manga and Anime, but rarely in the west.
What the Young ’Uns will hopefully take from it:
|1st meeting of the local community residents association to |
discus the "Human Problem"
Well, the film has an obvious environmentalist message, its a good introduction to the notion of what capitalist development does to the land and to any inconvenient inhabitants of that land that happen to be in the way. Its also a bit of a primer in community politics. As soon as the bulldozers move in to the area the little Tanuki stop fighting amongst each other, form a residents association, have po0litical discussions about how best to deal with the situation, some favour direct action in the form of violence and sabotage against the humans, some argue for more measured forms of resistance. As the plot shapes up, these different strategies are tried to different levels of success, its this that drives the story along in fact. Most kids films and series and entertainment in general, even ones I’ve spoken about here, tend to be plotted along the capitalist / individualist model, the lone hero or band of heros against discreet groups of baddies . Its refreshing to see something that is about communities and interest groups and how they interact because this is how the real world actually works.
Also, Japanese Racoon Dogs have magic testicles. Thats a lesson that frankly we should all learn. Seriously, other cultures are a lot less squeamish about depictions of certain aspects of the human physiology. In Japan, cure little cartoon creatures with anatomically correct scrotes aren’t a big deal. A good thing too, frankly this is better than teaching children to be ashamed of their bits, ‘cause that isn’t going to do them any harm when they get older, right?