Of the Studio Ghibli movies I’ve seen so far in the festival Pom Poko really caught my attention. Aside from anything else I liked about it, it is just great storytelling. It takes us through the effects of urban development on wildlife – specifically tanuki (racoon dogs) and foxes – through a mix of realism and fantasy, drawing heavily on folklore about these animals.
The tanuki try everything they can to fight against humans – including killing – and their community is divided into factions favouring different methods. Ultimately they don’t succeed and many die. A hard-hitting message, but given with huge doses of humour and using an ensemble of well defined characters who you can relate to.
Part of the appeal of the movie for me was the folklore of tanuki. They are fun loving and food loving, mischievous critters who can shape-shift! The males also have interesting uses for their testicles which leads to some of the hilarity. To have these ideas woven into a contemporary story (made in the 1990s) without – as far as I can tell – modern updates is interesting.
I found it provided a way to care about the animals through anthropomorphism without entirely removing them from their animal natures. (They aren’t written as humans who look like animals which is so common in animation.)
Another thing that appealed to me about Pom Poko was the mix of visual styles. Utilising the flexibility of animation, the way the tanuki are drawn changes according to the situation. When humans are likely to see them they are realistic representations, when away from human sight they are more cartoonish, and when they are indulging in pure fun they become highly stylised.
Back to the story telling though… it was startling for the way it moved from humour to sadness to hope and back again repeatedly. Pom Poko really takes the characters and the viewer on a journey.
And if you’ve never seen a tanuki then here you go!