Ghibli Month: Pom Poko

Pom PokoTsunderin: Welcome to the second month of Ghibli month! We start this glorious milestone with another environmental tale from Isao Takahata. I’m not going to lie: I went into Pom Poko expecting I would absolutely loathe it and why shouldn’t I? Pom Poko is generally considered one of Ghibli’s weaker films and I personally haven’t read or heard a single good thing about it. As thus, before actually forcing myself to sit down and watch it I was more than prepared to hate it. I was going to criticize the shit out of this film.

What did I think about it? Eh, it was decent.

Pom Poko centers around a development project right outside of Tokyo in the Tama Hills. In addition to being a prime location for Tokyo’s expansion, the forested Tama Hills also house an entire clan of tanuki—raccoon creatures that are fabled to have the ability to transform. As to be expected, the tanuki aren’t exactly happy with the idea that their home is going to be destroyed by the humans. Without a plan or any idea of how to combat this, the tanuki scour the forests for its ever-dwindling resources until enough is enough and the leaders of the group band together to think of a way to make the humans leave. It is eventually decided that they’ll put their efforts into mastering their transformation skills. However, after many years of complacency these skills have all but deteriorated. To solve this, they send one younger tanuki to Shikoku and another young tanuki to Sado to gather the elders of the transformation arts.

During this wait, though, one sector of the tanuki become restless and take the human eviction plan into their own hands. This small group of tanuki have no qualms with actually killing the construction workers and indeed, end up murdering three of them while injuring two others by leading trucks off cliffs, dropping construction materials onto the workers, and other such things. After listening to the news report on the television they acquired, the tanuki celebrate, thinking that the humans have finally given up. Of course, they haven’t and more workers come to replace the ones that had been indisposed.

Eventually, the three elders from Shikoku arrive to help and put the Tama Hill tanuki through an intensive training program to get their transformation skills to their peak. At the apex of all this, they forge a plan to scare all of the humans out of Tokyo. How do they plan on doing this exactly? By putting on a completely non-threatening parade of creepy figures from Japanese mythology. As to be expected, no one is scared. In fact, the credit for this parade is taken by a CEO from an amusement park who claimed it was a promotional event. Needless to say, the tanuki are quite put out and almost give up on their goal.

In one final act of retaliation, the previously mentioned violent group of tanuki go on a suicide mission to end the housing project, which goes about as well as you can expect. The rest of the tanuki either resign themselves to scrounging the city for food or take a final step and transform into humans, to live among them.

pom-poko-03MadameAce: While Rin may not have found this movie terrible and even listed it in the “not that bad” category, I am nowhere near as forgiving. Pom Poko has to be one of the most painful movies I have ever watched. I’ve certainly seen worse, but I’m not going to use that as an excuse to say that Pom Poko isn’t bad. Though I can see the potential behind the story, it doesn’t surprise me at all that people don’t like it. Pom Poko has the worst execution that I have ever seen.

The story is less of a story and more of an animated episode from Animal Planet. There’s the voiceover narrating what the raccoons are doing and what time of year it is, and it even breaks away from the more important plot to tell us when the raccoons are foraging for food and when the mating season is. I feel that this is the first place that the movie falters. I didn’t mind the voiceover at the very beginning when the movie was setting up the plot, but it just doesn’t go away, and the narrator, being bland and personality-free, has way more lines than any of the actual characters. There’s no fucking emotion to anything he says. This isn’t an educational special on TV about raccoons that you would watch because you want to learn about nature. This is a movie that’s supposed to be telling a story.

I would find this voiceover bad enough as it is, but sometimes I felt as though Pom Poko was purposefully being as painful as possible. I first became really apprehensive during a raccoon civil war near the beginning of the movie, in which all the raccoons magically transform from regular raccoons to samurai raccoons and the animators felt the need to animate their anatomy much more than it needed to be animated. As the movie progressed, I realized that my apprehension was more than justified.

There are many things that I’ve seen in my life that I would have been happier never seeing. There’s a long list of things that I regret experiencing. These tend to be things that you don’t realize are painful until you actually witness them. Things that you look at and go “why the fuck did anyone do that?!”

Thanks to Pom Poko, I have now seen magical, shape-shifting raccoon testicles.

Yes, those are animated balls being used in a murder.

And now, so have you.

Tsunderin: I’d like to go back to something Ace just mentioned off-handedly about the narrator not having any emotion in his delivery. Not only is that unfortunately true—his droning continues until he attempts to sound excited and even then it’s more like a shadow of excitement than actual excitement—but I honestly didn’t feel anything from the performance of about ninety percent of the cast. Where the voice actors really shine is when the tanuki are having fun, but when any dramatic emotion needs to be put forth, they just can’t reach the level of effort and believability necessary to have the audience connect with them. We don’t feel the tanukis’ pain, we watch it, and that does a disservice to the film as a whole.

I will give props where they’re due, however: the one tanuki that is sent to Shikoku has an amazing voice actor and I actually got invested in his conflicts, especially his desire to stay with his new-found love competing with his duty to return to the Tama Hills.

I think one of the biggest problems this film has—seeing as I have no problems with tanuki balls being artfully rendered—is with its protagonist, Shoukichi. The fact that I had to look up his name there (even though they say it about every three minutes) just signifies how utterly forgettable he is. There is a certain desire to have one’s main character be relatable to the audience, especially in stories that have a message like this one. Unfortunately, instead of making Shoukichi the ‘everyman’, they make him the boring man. He’s put forth as one of the more important animals in the Tama Hills, but there’s no reason why. Why would he be on the same level as say, Gonta, the leader of the more proactive tanuki? Gonta at least takes initiative and brings results for their purpose, but Shoukichi is seemingly content with just… not doing anything, even though he agrees that the humans are bad.

We Know This Can't Be Shoukichi Because There's Actually Character Development

We know this can’t be Shoukichi because there’s actually character development and emotion…

He lets things happen to him rather than making things happen. I’m not saying that this can’t be a character trait used for some good character growth—which I would argue Shoukichi does not go through—but when you’re trying to make your (human) audience resonate with an initiative that directly goes against them, no matter if it’s their beliefs or honestly attempting a small-scale genocide, you need to have a stronger protagonist. A much more thought-out protagonist. I’m not saying I would have enjoyed the movie more if it starred Gonta instead; I’m just willing to take the guess that it would have been much more interesting. At least with Gonta we have character development and a side-plot about how he trained his militia of tanuki. With Shoukichi we have the riveting tale of how he had babies once even though he shouldn’t have.

MadameAce: I honestly couldn’t tell that Shoukichi was the main character. He’s hardly the first character that we’re introduced to, and being that he’s not one of the tanuki leaders making plans, the first time he speaks, he comes across as random raccoon in the background who’s granted one line out of a courtesy break from that monotonous narrator. But then, Shoukichi just doesn’t go away. He sticks around constantly, and he keeps getting lines. I have no idea why he is the main character. It’s not as though he has any likeable traits. He’s just that one raccoon who was unlucky enough to be discovered by the Animal Planet people so now he’s stalked with a camera.

And speaking of that Animal Planet comparison and the narrator, who’s supposed to be the audience here? Because it sure as hell isn’t us. This movie is too childish to have an adult audience—at the very least, it certainly wasn’t written with adults in mind—and considering how obvious and forced to message is, Pom Poko kind of feels as though it’s talking down to the audience as well, which most people don’t appreciate. And for such a simple message, the movie’s really long, so it also feels like overkill. On the other side, I find it hard to believe that this movie is meant for children. Between the magical testicles and the overall feel, it’s inappropriate. I feel as though magical testicles are childish in their own right, but that doesn’t make the movie for children. As previously stated, the movie is very long and the main voiceover bland and uninteresting, meaning that many children probably would get bored. Children, like most people, watch movies to be entertained, not preached at. But Pom Poko takes it a step further by feeling like a lesson on raccoon mating habits.

It’s also possible that the audience is supposed to be the humans in the world that Pom Poko takes place in. Since the movie does have that TV Special feel to it, everything the narrator says and everything on the screen is presented as facts, as if these things do and are happening in our world and that this is a true story. If this is the case, I’m already put off by the fact that the lack of camera men and the use of the narrator constantly break the forth wall—how would they even get this footage since the raccoons pretend to be normal raccoons around humans?—and that any explanation I can come up with defies all logic. I can get behind talking, magical raccoons, but how the story is told breaks my suspension of disbelief.

Furthermore, I also ask, why should I care about these raccoons? They purposefully initiate guerilla attacks that result in human deaths, and the tanuki show no remorse. When the elder tanuki decide to have a moment of silence for the people killed, the other raccoons cannot hold in their laughter and decide to have a party. What the fuck?

Is the audience of this movie meant to be anyone with any sense of humanity?

Kill people! Kill people! Save the trees! Yay!

Kill people! Kill people! Save the trees! Yay!

The movie is just painfully dull. I’ll admit that I couldn’t finish it.

Tsunderin: I can understand why people don’t like this movie and I fully feel it deserves the reputation it has gained over the years. Yet, I still can’t bring myself to hate it. There’s so much creativity and ideas that are on the cusp of creating some deeper sense of meaning, but the ideas weren’t allowed to develop to fruition. I love the mythos of the tanuki, both mythical and historical, and I can appreciate the plot for what it was trying to be, but Pom Poko’s execution was just so flawed that it’s difficult to see how good (or at least better) the movie could have been .

I can’t say that I would never recommend watching this film, but I do feel like it’s one you can skip and never feel bad about it ever. Despite the myriad of interesting details, there’s just not a strong or relatable enough story to keep many people interested, unless you really like quasi-ecoterrorist sentiments to be hammered into your mind over and over again.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.