Reviewby Michael Toole,
The tanuki of Tama Hills have a problem: human beings. Tama is close to Tokyo, and the need for living space has the people rushing to develop the area into a dense residential neighborhood. Faced with losing their natural home, the clever raccoon dogs must cling together and use all of their cunning—not to mention their mythic ability to shapeshift—in order to sabotage, negotiate, or just plain scare the humans away.
Isao Takahata does not shy away from complicated movies with tough endings. His Grave of the Fireflies is arguably the most powerfully sad war movie ever made, and his recent The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a slice of sweet melancholy. Pom Poko would appear to promise something a little more upbeat, being a tale of clever raccoon dogs causing mischief in the human world, the better to derail their pesky, encroaching construction projects. But if you've seen work crews clearing forests, leveling the ground, and pouring foundation, you know that nature doesn't tend to win out; like the former two films, Pom Poko isn't really a movie of happy endings.
"We'd assumed humans were animals, like us," asserts the elder tanuki, Seizaemon, early in the film, “but the truth is, they're much stronger—maybe stronger than the gods!” We meet Seizaemon and his colony of tanuki, raccoon dogs native to Japan, at the start of the real-life redevelopment of Tama that began in 1965. The tanuki are puzzled and alarmed by the incursion, knowing that if they're driven out of Tama, they'll have to invade other tanuki enclaves and compete with them for food and shelter. But even as the community of tanuki chafes under crisis, they're generally a spirited, cheerful lot, even in the face of imminent pressure and danger from the human construction crews that edge closer with each passing day.
Well, most of them are. While many of the tanuki busy themselves with formulating distractions for the humans, chiefly by using their legendary shape-shifting powers, not to mention something the dub refers to as their “sacks” (don't miss the amazing moment when one of the tanuki drives a dump truck off the road by blocking the entire windshield with his scrotum!), the young chief Gonta advocates open aggression against their problem. But to most of the tribe, violence isn't the answer—they request help from the best tanuki shape-shifters in Japan, a motley crew of talented oldsters that are centuries old, and settle in for a long and hard shoving match with the invading human colonists.
From the beginning, the narrator frames the struggle of the tanuki as a losing one. But Takahata presents the entire affair with remarkable warmth and great whimsy. The music is a particular treat, provided by the folk/pop group Shang Shang Typhoon. But the highlight of Pom Poko is Takahata's way of depicting the tanuki. When the animals approach humans, they're depicted just as they look in the natural world, as sleek, almost photorealistic little raccoon dogs. When they're scheming amongst themselves, they suddenly get all puffy and cartoony and anthropomorphized, with round, friendly faces and stubby limbs. When they're ecstatic and expressing joy together, the tanuki explode in a riot of squiggly lines, turning into simple characters that are meant to evoke the gag manga of Shigeru Sugiura. (If you hit the bookstore and peep his Last of the Mohicans adaptation, you'll see the influence.) Despite the human characters having that Ghibli look to them thanks to character designer Shinji Otsuka, this film is a breed apart from the typical Studio Ghibli film, at least in the visual sense.
Takahata also changes the angle of approach from a narrative standpoint. There's a central voice, an unseen storyteller who chronicles the struggle of the tanuki, but the rest is presented documentary-style, with various characters describing the film's events in voiceover, as if they're war correspondents being interviewed from the front lines. This is kind of unusual, but it does help drive home the idea that these goofy little animals are in an intense struggle for their very survival. In their acts of subterfuge, the critters even get a few humans killed, darkly amusing acts for which the tanuki are endearingly remorseful.
I've seen Pom Poko in both English and Japanese, but for this latest viewing, I opted for English. You know how most of these Ghibli dubs have Hollywood stars who are generally modestly-talented voice actors, at best? Yeah, they don't do that here. Pom Poko has a sprawling cast of characters, so a large voice cast is essential. The anchor of the film is ostensibly the young Shoukichi, played with surprising grace by TV actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but the dub producer had the good sense to let veteran character and voice actors take most of the remaining roles. If you like American cartoon voices, you've got an all-star cast, including Maurice Lemarche, J.K. Simmons, Tress MacNeille, and Clancy Brown. That's the Brain, Air Monk Tenzin, the corporate lady from The Simpsons, and Lex Luthor, if you just know the voices and not the names. These folks are the backbone of voice-acting in Hollywood, so it's great to see them getting good roles like this. One big, weird caveat about the dub: the script persistently refers to the tanuki as "raccoons," and stacks of yen as "dollars," which is dumb.
Beyond that, the Blu-ray release once again follows the reassuringly familiar Disney format: Blu-ray and DVD are both in the package, with the usual storyboard extra—and that's it. If you're hoping for an interview with Takahata or even some chat with the voice cast, you won't find it here. The film looks great and the storyboard sequence is always welcome, though.
As Pom Poko continues, there are a number of weird, idle conversations, long moments of conflict and violence, and a sense that this film just goes on a little too long. Here, Takahata's message isn't very complex—the natural world is sweet and primal, but is almost comically powerless in the face of human progress and desire—but he takes ages to get to the point. I like long movies, but I spent the last quarter of Pom Poko anxiously waiting for the curtain to drop, the overture to start, and the players to bow and shuffle off.
Late in the film, the tanuki try to put on a particularly big haunting, in order to scare the many hundreds of new residents of Tama away. The young families living in the new houses and apartment buildings see the apparitions, and react not with fear, but with wonder and delight at a world they'd long since forgotten… and that's when it becomes most obvious that the tanuki's cause is doomed. Once again, Takahata works his magic, you really feel for these characters, and you have to watch their anxiety grow as they realize there's nothing they can do. In the end, the tanuki do whatever they can to make it, but it's one of those happy/sad deals. Warm, funny, weird, downbeat, and downright absurd at times, Pom Poko's a film that is very much worth seeing, but you're apt to be a little too glad when it's over.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Beautiful visuals, fun characters, and a resonant story of nature's losing battle against man.
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