Thursday, 8 September 2011

Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) Review

Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) (1994)
Pom Poko, released in 1994, is Isao Takahata’s 8th animated project which he has written and directed with Studio Ghibli. Taking a different approach to his usual ‘human’ and realistic style, Pom Poko became a success in the Japanese box office, and was eventually submitted as Japan’s selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Stepping back from ‘human subjects’, Takahata focuses on the traditional Japanese folklore of tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs). Essentially, our main characters are a group of mischievous, gluttonous and cheerful raccoons that have the ability to shape-shift in order to trick humans.............and have shapeshifting testicles.  
The story follows a band of racoons who are under attack by MAN!!!! Initially set in the 1960s, a gigantic suburban development is beginning to be constructed on their land. Trees, grassland and forests are being cut down, causing a dramatic effect on the tanuki population. A resistance forms including Gonta, an aggressive chief, Tsurugame, an old guru, and Oroku, the wise-woman, in order to battle the human efforts to build houses, offices and roads on their habitat. Told in a ‘diary log’ style of narrative Pom Poko’s story structure is pretty simple to understand, but does dawdle during the second act. 
Firstly, this is a very ‘Japanese’ film, but one that remains relatively accessible to a wider audience. The focus on Japanese folklore and mythology is quite daunting but is very interesting. Many viewers unfamiliar with the likes of yokai (a class of Japanese supernatural creatures) or oni (demons, devils....), will enjoy a ‘child friendly’ visual introduction to Japan’s unique and strange supernatural identity. The ‘ghost parade’ scene in particular, barrages the audience with Japanese myths and legends, with some cameos from other Ghibli films. Demons, giant babies, three headed females all appear in an effort to scare the locals. It definitely is a hilarious and surreal WTF moment. 
Inevitably, environmentalism and the general impact of humans is prominent in Pom Poko, more so than in any other work by Studio Ghibli. And to some extent this hinders the film’s general impression. This being a major plotline for the film, the message is somewhat preached continuously rather than allowed to be expressed naturally. What the slightly over-rated Princess Mononoke did to successfully convey its message of ‘environmentalism’, was to employ it though a smartly told narrative and well-developed selection of characters, which are lacking in Pom Poko. 

Studio Ghibli, and especially Isao Takahata, have a very creative and masterful understanding of the concept of characters. From the likes of Calcifer from Howls Moving Castle to Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a special connection that viewers build with them. Their unique, or relatable features/ traits help, or even solely create the film. However Pom Poko falls short even with top notch Japanese voice acting. This isn’t due to the dialogue, but lies with the story and the sheer scale with which we are introduced to all these characters. All too often, characters “disappear” then reappear causing confusion and a disregard for them. 
In terms of the animation, Pom Poko is great with its vivid colour palette and energetic flow and spirit. There is also a good blend of animation styles to depict the characters. The contrast of the ‘red-eyed’, typical looking raccoons from the humans’ perspective, to the ‘humanized versions of the tanuki, and to the cartoony figures of Shigeru Sugiura’s manga, is an enjoyable and interesting arrangement of various visual styles. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is a mix of traditional Japanese folk, kabuki and children’s music that’s matches the playful and joyful nature of the film and its characters. 
Overall Pom Poko is a great film, yet dawdles too much on its message rather than crafting a flowing narrative and memorable, individual characters. The script is great, the story is simple, and its a very funny film. 

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