The small community of tanuki—a breed of raccoon-dogs—at the center of Isao Takahata’s animated Pom Poko has its origins in Japanese folklore, partially in the ghostly figure known as bake-danuki. In Takahata’s tale, they’re the lynchpins of a living ecological system being bulldozed and repurposed as living communities for humans, expanding their species exponentially. The radical act of Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata’s previous masterwork, was its transformation of a wrenching, wholly convincing vision of the repercussions of war on life at home, specifically in the final days of World War II in Japan, into a sort of war fable. In Pom Poko, the question of folklore’s relation to the not-so-subtextual political realities of the time is built into the narrative, as the tanuki come to symbolize both the struggles of early civilization and the effects of advancing societies.
The film is narrated with an almost studiously anthropological remove by Shinchô Kokontei as the tribe of tanuki, somewhat centered around the young Shôkichi (Makoto Nonomura). It’s his practice and ultimate mastery of metamorphosing into other beings that constitutes the trajectory of the story, and he becomes a rather endearing symbol for cultural nostalgia. They are, by their very being, totems of an earlier generation, and of fables as a form of historical communication. Their wish to remain in their home, to convince humankind of the benefit of maintaining ecological areas for wildlife, is treated tenderly by the filmmakers, but isn’t ignored as an essential affront to progress.
It’s this distinct lack of sentimentalism that makes the losses endured by the tanuki clan, including wise elders and masters of transformation, as well as students and would-be warriors, all the more genuine and sincerely felt. Takahata, who got the story idea from friend and occasional collaborator Hiyao Miyazaki, intertwines emotional and scientific views of society in broad, thoughtful terms. His characters represent a large social stratum, designated by attitudes toward violence, family, death, usable skill, and communal good. There’s a clear sense of Takahata’s personal morality consistently expressed through these characters, an exquisitely argued, rarely didactic contemplation of the inevitability of progress and those which may get left by the wayside due to an inability to change or adapt.
Unlike Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko is also, essentially, a movie that appeals to kids, filled with great flourishes of imagination and simple communal camaraderie; it’s philosophies are wise and unique, but also surprisingly plainspoken. For all the contemplative sequences where the very nature of violence and evolution seem to be on the minds of the tanuki, there are also admirably goofy scenes of the creatures learning how to transform or continue to hold the guise of a human. Their abilities climax in an extravagant, thrilling pageant of ghostly and ghoulish creation toward the end of the movie, an act staged by the tanuki to scare the humans away from their home. It doesn’t work, thanks largely to a local theme park taking credit for the spectral happenings, a sly comment on how great invention is often mistaken for (or co-opted as) insubstantial frivolity.
The tanuki are ultimately seen as symbols of the importance of folklore, which Takahata clearly has immense faith in. He enjoys the details, sober morals, and expressive power of stories like those the tanuki are found in, but by the end of Pom Poko, he also recognizes their limitations in the face of actual growth as a human. Takahata’s wondrous film is itself at constant interplay between the unsentimental realities of human progress (and expansion) and the unbound thoughts and creative perspectives that fantasy can entertain without necessarily being reduced to mere entertainment.
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment have gone to considerable lengths to retain the texture of Isao Takahata’s film, and keep the boldness of the colors. There’s no evidence of elaborate post-production or image manipulation, just vibrant reds, blues, greens, and yellows, and deep, inky blacks. Background textures are wonderfully potent, and there’s a clean sense of detail throughout. The film looks great from frame one, and it largely sounds great as well: Dialogue is clear and out front the whole time, with effects and music balancing nicely in the back. A very strong treatment of a would-be classic.
The only extra here is a feature that allows you to watch the film in storyboard form. It’s interesting for a few minutes, but lends marginal context to the film and its production. A trailer is also included.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment skimps on the extras, but crowns Isao Takahata’s entirely distinct Pom Poko with a lovely A/V transfer that highlights the film’s beautiful animation style.