Pom Poko Review
Lost within the forests outside of Tokyo are the tanuki, a raccoon-like creature that thrives in popular myths and stories in Japan. Of course, although often hidden from humanity, the tanuki enjoy life, feasting on the vegetation that grows around the little wooden shacks in which they live and whatever they can scavenge from the humans who live in the nearby suburbs. So far, the reach of Tokyo has remained at a distance from the tanuki and they and the humans are almost oblivious to the other, with the latter rarely thinking of the tanuki as anything other than mischievous shape shifters and omens of good fortune.
The film opens with the tanuki as concerned with living space as do the humans in the city, with the colours of red and blue fighting a battle over their claim to an area of woodland. The fight ebbs and flows but draws to a close when Oroku Baba, an elder tanuki, warns the warring clans that they are not the enemy of one another, more that it is humanity and the vast sprawl of Tokyo that is robbing them of their land. Agreeing to join together as one to fight the humans, the tanuki practice their shape shifting as the construction teams tear down the forests at the foot of their mountain, clearing the land for a new housing development.
Soon, the tanuki are passing themselves off as humans and bulldozers, trucks and dumper trucks are sent careening down valleys and mountains and into rivers, often with their drivers still inside. To the construction workers, the tanuki appear as monsters and ghostly children but from the nightly television news, the tanuki elders see that the humans will not be so easily dissuaded from building their new homes. Agreeing to outside help, which they so desperately need, the tanuki send their very best shape shifters to far-off lands in search of the transformation masters who they hope will turn the tide of war in their favour.
I am experiencing something of a slow conversion to Studio Ghibli from a purchase a few years back of Princess Mononoke, several months before the release of Spirited Away in the UK. Since then, my buying of the studio's films have been irregular but ongoing with Mononoke being joined by Spirited Away, Laputa - Castle In The Sky, My Neighbour Totoro and, probably my favourite, Kiki's Delivery Service. Along with Pom Poko comes Porco Rosso (reviewed later today) and even on the first viewing, this is a magical, wonderful film that is amongst Studio Ghibli's very best, a charming tale that has the timelessness of an age-old myth mixed with a modern story of the fight between progress and the conservation of our environment. In some ways, Pom Poko is much like Princess Mononoke but it also has the innocence and sweetness of Kiki's Delivery Service, leaving it a unique example of animation that has a broad and inclusive appeal.
What the film does best of all is to emphasise the characters of the tanuki, who, like the humans in the increasingly close suburbs of Tokyo, are not all warriors or scholars, fat or thin, young or old. On the contrary, the tanuki are rather a mixed bag of characters with Shoukichi being more keen on understanding humankind than on murdering them, whilst Gonta is a more militant tanuki who favours killing all of the humans working on the construction of the new town as well as those foolish enough to move into it. Equally powerful in this respect is the decision to show the tanuki in three forms - the first and rarest being as feral wild animals, the second being the humans they transform into and the third being soft, cuddly creatures who are the most commonplace and are bumped between being in character and being portrayed as generic tanuki, typically as their emotions overcome them.
If any of this sounds confusing, then worry not for even younger viewers can grasp the changes in characters. Whilst cleverly done, it's also nicely played and a touch obvious, with Shoukichi being a quiet, scholarly tanuki who transforms into an anonymous-looking salaryman whereas Gonta is a robust, quick-tempered tanuki who becomes a human version of the same. These transformations come into the film in a hastily but perfectly executed boot camp sequence that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of various tanuki as regards their ability to take on a human form. Almost with military precision, which this is, of a sort, the tanuki battle one another in such events as a giant game of rock-scissors-paper with the competing creatures using their powers to transform into the titular shapes. Their first trip into Tokyo reveals the shortcomings of the transformations, with some of the tanuki reverting to their true form on being frightened by passing vehicles or simply when overcome with hunger. The fur that sprouts from their faces or their falling onto four short legs are moments of comedy that can easily catch the eye of children but its the touches of humour in the voiceover and on the screen that will appeal to the adults, as the transformed but weakened tanuki take to consuming cans of energy drinks, such as Red Bull, to sustain their human forms.
As good as these moments are, though, the heart of the film is in the tanuki's desperate battle for their woodland home, which becomes increasingly so as the film progresses. The journey of two of the more experienced and skilful tanuki ends with their return, bringing transforming masters home with them. Despite the beautiful parade of monsters in the streets of the New Town that accompanies their arrival, it's touched with moments of sadness as we're led to believe that it will ultimately be unsuccessful. Even as the secret of progress is revealed to them by a transforming fox, or kitsune (Ryoutarou), we can cheer on what appears to be one of their final battles, whilst also seeing that their situation has become quite hopeless. Similarly, Gonta's holding off of a ground clearance crew with a chainsaw and two strimmers is heroic but ultimately futile before the tanuki's display of transforming powers, which reclaims their earlier displays from the kitsune and his amusement park employers, is left looking beautiful but is inconsequential.
If this makes it sound as though Pom Poko ends on a low note, it should be said that the tanuki recover from this gloom for two final hurrahs, one of which will leave a lasting memory of their existence on those humans living in the newly-built suburbs whilst the other is a more private celebration in the small hours of the morning. As such, Pom Poko could be described as a feelgood movie but it's much too subtle for that, too ethereal and difficult to grasp. The backgrounds, painted in what appear to be watercolours, are similarly elusive, being beautiful but more suggestive than definitive, a world away from the brash colours of, for example, Disney's Brother Bear, which is set in a woodland very much like that inhabited by the tanuki. Again, this implies that Pom Poko is a fairytale, something to be told and retold, varying in the telling depending on whose voice carries it. The narration, which can often be intrusive but is never so here, reinforces this impression, with the narrator's folksy tones bringing the tale of Pom Poko to a certain time and place but not a definitive one.
Pom Poko will probably never be one of Studio Ghibli's major releases - it feels too small and too localised a tale for that, particularly when compared to Laputa, Castle In The Sky or Princess Mononoke - but neither should it be considered a minor film nor one to ignore by everyone but completists. It's a good story but it's beautifully told through animation with bright colours, stunning animation and plentiful amounts of comedy for children as well as having some carefully considered messages for adults, making it great family entertainment as well as a film that, for its artwork and storytelling, can be admired as a considerable achievement.
In not owning any other version of Pom Poko but for this one, it's impossible to tell if this is the same print that was used on DVD releases elsewhere in the world. Certainly, the print is in good condition with little visible damage but the encoding of the picture has left some noise around the edge of the animated characters. Otherwise, the picture is in very good condition with good reproduction of the film's colours and often impressive detail.
Regarding the audio, Pom Poko comes with its original Japanese track as well as an English dub and both have subtitles. Comparing the two subtitles is interesting in itself as the one that appears to be more of a direct translation is more detailed and better written than the English dubbing and its accompanying subtitles. Both tracks - and there are only the two with no, for example, French dubs included - are in Dolby Surround and are in fine shape with no obvious use of the surround channels but for the occasional background sound effect or for ambient noise.
Aside from the previews of other Studio Ghibli films, including Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke, the main extra on the disc is the second version of the film, rendered in storyboard rather than full animation. At first, I thought this would kept within a scene or two but when the multi-angle onscreen display remained lit for the opening five or six minutes, it was necessary to both turn it off and to rethink what had been included as extras on the disc.
I can't say, though, that I'm actually that interested in storyboards, not when they relate only to a scene or two nor for the entire film. However, whilst I can see why dipping into this for a moment might be of some interest, I doubt if anyone will watch close to two hours of it in a single sitting.
I always have a slight feeling of dread and of disappointment when I begin to watch a Studio Ghibli film and Pom Poko was no different. Firstly, it's the familiarity of the animation and the particular look to the characters that Studio Ghibli's films have in common before the epic length of the thing is revealed, at which point the magic of the film begins to work and I fall into it. It happened with Princess Mononoke, when a rather drab beginning turned into an epic with warring clans, magical creatures and assassinations.
Pom Poko is much the same with a very ordinary opening few minutes being transformed into a remarkable piece of animation soon after Oroku Baba breaks up the opening battle. Director Isao Takahata invests a great deal of heart in his story of humanity encroaching into the woodland of his tanuki and this is evident throughout the film with their highs and lows being met with smiles and with our sympathies. Even in his slight diversions to the piece, such as the quickening of the young tanuki's hearts during their annual, springtime mating season, Isao Takahata expertly mixes comedy, the warnings in his story and a small amount of sadness to winning effect.
No doubt, there will be those who, for the small amount of extras, will look to R3 for a DVD of Pom Poko but this isn't at all bad, with a good quality print used to ensure the film enjoys a decent presentation, if not availing of a second disc for what few extras were included elsewhere.