Nov 4, 2011

[Movies] Pom Poko / Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko (1994)

Pom Poko / Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko
I will always partly regret how late in life I had discovered the wonders of Studio Ghibli animated movies. While I'm not claiming to be old or anything like that, but I do always feel like I'm constantly playing catch-up with the rest of the world in terms of watching each of the Studio Ghibli movies.

Thankfully my partner is fully supportive of my efforts to experience more and more of the wonderful world that is Studio Ghibli, although this was definitely one of the stranger ones I've come across.

Pom Poko relies on the viewer's relative awareness of Japanese folklore with respect to the tanuki, or raccoon dogs. As far as the stories are concerned, they're famous for being mischievous tricksters who often have the ability to transform into different shapes and sizes in order to execute their various pranks and what have you. This ability becomes central to this particular story as they try to protect their lands from, what else, humans.

Pom Poko / Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko is a 1994 animated feature film released by Studio Ghibli. It was directed by Isao Takahata as based on a story by Hayao Miyazaki.

The story is set in the late 1960's as a massive housing project called New Tama is underway to help address the growing population of Japan. The development involves re-purposing an extensive amount of forest land to be converted into living space for humans, at the cost of the tanuki's native habitat. With resources growing more and more scarce, the tanuki start to fight among themselves in order to increase their chances of survival, at least until Oroku (Nijiko Kiyokawa / Tress MacNeille) intervenes and unites the factions to deal with the threat - the humans.

Pom Poko poster and celImage by SolGrundy via FlickrTheir initial plan is straightforward enough - for the tanuki to re-learn  how to utilize their transformation abilities to allow them to fight back against the humans. chief Gonta (Shigeru Izumiya / Clancy Brown) is determined to lead a counter-offensive to defeat the humans while others like Oroku and the elder Tsurugame (Kosan Yanagiya) advocate alternative solutions. One of those strategies involves reaching out to the legendary transformation masters, who potentially hold the keys to helping more of the tanuki unlock their lost abilities.

With a story based around shape-shifting animals, you know that the animators set up a pretty big challenge for themselves. And despite that, the movie looks absolutely AMAZING in terms of how seamlessly the tanuki shift from one form to another. Given this movie was made entirely without the aid of CGI and related technologies, the quality of the animation becomes even more phenomenal. All the characters shift from one form to another ranging from the ultra-realistic form they taken when humans are around to the highly anthropomorphic form they take when they talk among themselves and the highly cartoonish extremes they end up at in moments of extreme joy or fear. The transformations are quick and highly fluid, making the movie certainly feel magical in this regard.

Like most other Studio Ghibli movies, the story also has a strong environmentalism angle behind it - as you can tell from the synopsis alone. But it's not just a one-sided story advocating that the needs of the planet are above all others. As the movie progresses, it becomes harder and harder to figure out which side we should be rooting for, if any. Naturally people need places to live and yet so do the tanuki. Thus we return to Miyazaki's often revisited message about the need for humankind to find balance with the environment.

Tanuki statuesImage by Stéfan via FlickrThe movie ranges from being highly comedic to direly serious about the plight of the tanuki. But this doesn't take away from the story or somehow make it less effective. If anything it turns this movie into quite the amazing vehicle for such an important statement about conservation that's accessible to different generations.

Word of advice to parents though - the myths around the tanuki do involve them having exaggerated, um, "male pouches" down there, so this is not meant to be offensive or pornographic in any way. so the sequences involving the tanuki transforming their, well, "male pouches" into various objects, weapons and even a means of flight are all part of the mythos. The Western nations have things like elves and pixies. The Japanese had these shapeshifting raccoon dogs with exaggerated genetalia. Go figure.

Despite that last paragraph, this is still a movie that I'd strongly recommend for any parent wanting to teach their children the importance that forests and wildlife play in our lives. It's funny, entertaining with just enough reality to keep things grounded but not drag the whole narrative down with it.

Pom Poko is a great movie with a great story and stunning hand-drawn animation that is becoming a lost art these days. As bizarre as a lot of the movie seems to anyone raised outside of Japan, it's definitely one of my favorites due to how brilliantly it all came together. Thus it gets 4 examples of tanuki transformation abilities out of a possible 5.

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