Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Starring: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, Tress MacNeille, Andre Stojka, J. K. Simmons, David Oliver Cohen
Isao Takahata wrote and directed Pom Poko, which was originally released in 1994 in Japan, followed by an English dub in 2005. It’s an environmentalist story told through a story about tanuki (translated to Raccoon in the English translation), which feature prominently in Japanese folklore, especially with their ability to transform into other creatures and objects.
The story is told through a narrator, voiced by Maurice LaMarche in the English dub, who describes the history of a group of tanuki whose habitat is being destroyed by the rapid expansion of Tokyo, specifically the project New Tama in the mid-60s. The narrator gives a very matter of fact approach, giving credibility to the story and making it feel like a documentary in places. He tells of the tanuki as they try to fight back the humans and keep their land the way it always has been.
Pom Poko is very similar in theme to a later Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke from 1997. Both deal with conservation and the effects of humans expanding cities and towns. This one is more child friendly and light-hearted in approach with a good mix of comedy with the environmental message. It also hits a lot harder than Mononoke does, as you get attached to the tanuki presented and feel their struggle. The film isn’t afraid to get dark, and when it does, it’s that much more powerful as it’s almost shocking.
There are a lot of characters in the film, and while there are a few distinct ones, most do tend to blend together. It doesn’t matter, because it’s the entire group that’s the main character. They use their powers of transformation to scare the humans, thinking they will back off, but instead a company take credit for the event announcing it as a publicity stunt. Whatever the tanuki do, it never seems to stop the humans advancing. The films message is not intended to be subtle and it really drives the point home as the final act is quite mellow and dark.
Surprisingly, for a film that spends so much time with tanuki dancing about in celebration, there’s quite a lot of death in it. For the most part it’s quite kid-friendly, but the death, while not brutal or gory, leaves an impression. It’s a very sad film to sit through, even with the amount of jokes and funny moments thrown in. That’s not to say it’s not funny, because it is. Isao Takahata does a really good job at blending the sad with the happy, creating a very melancholic tone throughout.
Pom Poko has one objective, and that’s to spread its environmental message. It does that in spades and to great effect. While it has a powerful message at its heart, the story is still completely engrossing and entertaining.
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