Isn’t it frustrating that we humans, as a species, love familiarity so much? I don’t get me wrong, I know that that’s one of the reasons why the history of homo sapiens on this planet didn’t end with us being eaten by sabertooth tigers, and when it comes to lots of things in my life, I think there’s nothing better than what I already know and feel comfortable with, especially when it means I’ll live to see another day. But I don’t get why people are sometimes so protective and unwilling to experiment with stuff that doesn’t require you to put your life in danger, like watching a movie that is “weird”.
Weirdness is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but almost anyone can admit that a large part of western audiences are very dismissive of the unfamiliar when it comes to their audiovisual entertainment. Take for instance this year’s most popular movie. On paper, Guardians of the Galaxy is a crazy-ass movie about a talking raccoon and a dancing tree having adventures on space. In reality, however, it is as conventional a summer blockbuster as you could find. You can anticipate almost every beat in the movie before it happens, but I guess that’s something that audiences like. Something that makes them feel comfortable.
But we are not talking about Guardians of the Galaxy here, we are talking about Studio Ghibli, and so, let me change directions into a more appropriate example: About four years ago or so, I showed Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro to my then girlfriend for the first time. She enjoyed the movie, but her first reaction when I asked her what she thought of the movie was to say: “This was too weird for me. Maybe if I knew what a Totoro is, but right now… It’s just too weird”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea. Totoro, and especially Catbus, were so different from any kind of fantasy world she had ever encountered that she had to think they were ingrained in some kind of cultural tradition. These aren’t things someone can just make up.
Just in case she is reading this for some reason, I want to make clear that I’m not criticizing her, but am rather fascinated by what constituted “too weird” for us. I mean, she is a very sophisticated film watcher, so I think it’s very curious that My Neighbor Totoro of all things was the movie where she drew the line. In any case, I bring this whole anecdote up because if Totoro elicited such a reaction out of her, I can only imagine what she would have made out of the movie I’m writing about in this post, Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, because on first glance, even I thought this movie was fucking weird.
If you have heard about this movie before, then you probably think of it as “the one where you can the testicles of a bunch of cartoon raccoons”, and I don’t blame you. Until very recently, that was all I knew about the movie, too. But what you should know -although it shouldn’t be a surprise since we’re talking about Studio Ghibli- Pom Poko is a much more thoughtful movie than just a wacky comedy about raunchy raccoons. You should also know that the fact that these raccoon’s testicles are clearly visible, that is far from the weirdest thing about the movie’s plot.
You see, in this case, all of what we westerners think of as “weird” in this movie, is actually based on Japanese folklore. Most specifically, it is based on the mythological image of the Tanuki, whose name is translated into “raccoon” in the English dub of the film, but more accurately known as the “Japanese raccoon dog” is a very real animal, that most Japanese people would immediately associate with a series of legendary tales about them.
This is an important fact, because being produced for a primarily Japanese audience, Pom Poko assumes that we are already familiar with the Tanuki, and so, even though there is voice-over narration that tells us about this particular tribe of Tanuki -who live in the outskirts of Tokyo, and whose habitat is affected by the cities’ expanding suburbs- and their abilities, it does so with such deadpan attitude that I was a little bewildered by what was going on. In the span of ten minutes I had learned these Tanuki are shape-shifters, able to transform into pretty much anything they want, and that Takahata chose to draw their testicles for a very particularly reason. It turns out the male Tanuki can expand their testicles into gigantic sizes, as shown in the following illustration.
Pretty weird, huh? Well, the movie’s intended audience found it pretty normal (this was the most popular Japanese movie of the year it was released), and yet, I feel kind of sad that they didn’t have the “what the fuck am I watching?” moment that I did when I popped Pom Poko into the DVD player. In any case, it took a quick Wikipedia search to realize that the movie that had been sold to me as a raccoon comedy ended up being a much more “serious” endeavor than I expected. Although by that time, I already knew that, because I had watched the whole movie, and frankly, should have already known, because I had seen three of Isao Takahata’s movies and had concluded that he was a very particular auteur.
So even though Pom Poko is tonally different from Takahata’s previous movies (the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies and the touching Only Yesterday), it is a Takahta movie through and through. The first thing I would mention when describing Takahata as a filmmaker, would be the fact that his movies tend to have a political bend. In the case of his first two movies, the messages were approached through a “social realism” lens, but starting with Pom Poko, it seem to be replaced by a more allegorical lens (I say replaced because this is also the approach he takes in his latest movie, The Tale of Princess Kaguya).
Takahata’s movies seem to subscribe to the Renaissance idea that art should “teach and delight”. This is most definitely the case in Pom Poko, which is a very funny movie that nonetheless packs a very deep message. In this case, the story of a band of Tanuki staging a war against the humans that want to tear down their forest in order to build housing complexes serves not only as a very strong ecological message, but as a way of exploring the history of Japan, which is very clearly presenting itself to me as one of Takahata’s biggest interests. I mean, his previous movies dealt with a proud country that turned its back towards its ailing children, and a young woman who finds the modern world is too disconnected from our roots with the earth and physical labor. Similarly, the fight in Pom Poko is not only for the preservation of the forest, but for the value of leaving room for ancient Japanese traditions in the modern world.
Let me explain. From what I understand of Japanese folklore, the Tanuki are mischievous shape-shifters, but they are also too lazy and too well-hearted to ever hurt humans. In Pom Poko, however, the circumstances push the Tanuki to the edge, and they must actively fight against humans in order to survive. I don’t know about you, but I think Takahata is trying to tell us something about the dangers of forgetting the reasons why cultures create mythologies and traditions to begin with, arguing, in this case, for the value of Shinto traditions in a world dominated by expanding commerce.
The second way I would describe Takahata is as a visual experimenter. The culmination of this sees to be Princess Kaguya, a movie in which every frame is delicately designed as a hand-drawn painting, but we already saw hints of this expressionistic visuals in Only Yesterday, where the flashback scenes features a softer palette, and were framed by unfinished lines and fuzzy edges. Pom Poko is experimental in a different way, seizing the Tanuki’s shape-shifting abilities to portray the animals in three different ways.
How does this work? Well, we see the same characters, only they are drawn three different ways depending on the circumstances. First, we have their most “naturalistic” appearance, which is how we are first introduced to them and how humans see them.
Then, there is their anthropomorphic form, which is the form they take when they are hanging out with each other. They stand on their hind legs, talk like human, and even wear clothes.
Finally, there is a very stylishly cartoonish form, which presents itself in moments where the Tanuki are overwhelmed with emotion (be it shame, or happiness, as in the image below), and that was inspired by the work of manga artist Shigeru Sugiura.
The Tanuki spend most of the movie in their anthropomorphic form, but the flow between the representations is very fluent, with Takahata trusting almost from the start that we won’t take more than a couple minutes to catch up with what he is doing. I’ve said this about almost every Studio Ghibli movie, but you have to admire how much trust these artist put in the audience, to the point where even a movie that features voice-over narration doesn’t try to take the audience’s hand and constantly explain what is going on (something that happens even in movies for grown-ups).
My ultimate takeaway from Takahata’s work so far is that his vitality as a filmmaker relies in his willingness to confront audiences with direct emotions in a surprisingly elegant way. As an example, on first glance, Grave of the Fireflies is a deeply sad movie, but somehow Takahata delivers an undercurrent of indignation that makes the heartbreak of the movie all the more infuriating and world-shaking. In Pom Poko he manages the impossible, as he decides to end the movie with a character addressing the audience directly to verbalize the message of the movie, and somehow finds a last shot that turns this decision from on-the-nose to supremely poignant.
Next Time: The first Ghibli movie that wasn’t directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata, I’m talking about Whisper of the Heart.