Pom Poko (1994)
It’s my last semester at Cornell University! With that in mind, I’m making it a point to catch every movie worth catching at the Cornell Cinema before I graduate, this time for good.
Naturally, I would jump at the chance when I hear of a Studio Ghibli movie showing, Pom Poko (ぽんぽこ) being the film in question here. Pom Poko follows magical, transforming raccoons as they fight to protect their homes from humans expanding the Tokyo suburbs.
You heard me right: magical, transforming raccoons. They go around pretending to be Buddha statues, soccer balls, and even humans.
With that in mind, Studio Ghibli is definitely no stranger to making movies with very strong environmental messages as they made the wildly successful Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 10 years earlier. Despite that, the approach was very different, and that has everything to do with the director being Takahata Isao as opposed to Miyazaki Hayao.
If Takahata’s name sounds familiar, that is because he also directed Grave of the Fireflies. While Pom Poko is mostly really cute and funny, it also got really dark, really quickly, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering Takahata’s earlier work. Expect to see humans falling in the construction vehicles they were driving into ravines and raccoons getting hit by cars. I’m almost tempted to say Pom Poko had a larger onscreen body count than Grave of the Fireflies did. That is one of two reasons (the other being the sheer amount of testicle-related imagery in the movie) I would actually be really hesitant to show this movie to children.
The movie’s story was told in a documentary style, with a voice that sounded like a news anchor narrating. It was really interesting seeing what the raccoons plotted in order to undermine human expansion. The highlight of the movie was the elaborate ghost parade put on in the streets of Tokyo. That scene was just one of many demonstrating how trippy the movie got as the animators unleashed their imaginations in creating that melange of images.
The story (written by Miyazaki) was strong mainly because the raccoons were very effectively used in representing the human condition. That said, I do have a few complaints, namely that I thought there were simply too many characters for me to keep track of, and there were a few dings in pacing. Some characters would actually disappear from the screen for extended periods of time. It didn’t really help that you hear the narrator’s voice for almost the entire movie.
It could be because I was a little tired to begin with and I was catching a late night showing of Pom Poko at the Cornell Cinema, but I thought the ending suffered the opposite problem of that of Nausicaa. While Nausicaa rushed to resolve itself, I thought Pom Poko’s ending dragged. I am aware Pom Poko had a lot of loose ends to tie up by the time it ended, but Pom Poko generally felt like it was the first Ghibli movie I have ever seen that actually outstayed its welcome.
This review may seem harsh, but that has everything to do with the fact that Ghibli’s scale of quality is so horrifically skewed, where almost every one of their movies was a contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Overall, Pom Poko was still a good movie, but “good” is still disappointing when you compare it to “spectacular”, the adjective typically used to describe Ghibli movies. The audio-visual quality was top-notch, as to be expected. I think 1994 was when Studio Ghibli got their hands on some computers as I saw some CG animation used, though thankfully it wasn’t as obtrusive as it was in certain later films.
As Pom Poko is a Ghibli movie, it is still worth seeing, and I would recommend From Up on Poppy Hill as a companion piece to see, even if I regrettably have to say I enjoyed From Up on Poppy Hill much more than this one.