Castles in the Sky: Pom Poko, by Aaron Pinkston
By this point, we’ve seen many different stories of man vs. nature, but Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko might be the most clear, satirical take from Studio Ghibli. While films like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind are wild fantasies, Pom Poko is a much more realistic film with added fantasy elements. When a group of raccoons are evicted from an abandoned house, they begin to realize that humans are setting up construction to turn their forest dwellings into shopping mall and real estate developments. In this world, the raccoons choose to fight back.
These aren’t any ordinary raccoons, however. As the opening narration describes, “it’s a little known fact, but when humans aren’t around, raccoons walk on two legs, just as you see here.” The film is steeped in Japanese folklore surrounding these creatures, giving them them a language, social structure and mystical abilities. In the world of Pom Poko, raccoons and foxes are able to shapeshift into any object, from natural elements like rocks and wood to human beings. They are also able to impersonate specific humans, change their voices and manipulate their environments allowing them to create wind, fly, etc. Basically, they seem to be able to do whatever they want.
Maybe it’s just me, but one would think a story of shape-shifting animals trying to stop humans from driving them out of the homes could get a bit gruesome, but these raccoons are much more mischievous. Instead of attacking humans, they change into natural objects which fool them, destroying their construction. Many of their interactions with humans are meant to scare them away. Still, the film doesn’t ignore the fact that these disasters can cause accidents and even deaths, and actually takes on a pretty spiritual take. After the first “attack” on a construction site, the raccoons take a silent prayer for their “unfortunate” victims.
But as their mischievous pranks and scares don’t get the desired results, different factions form within the raccoon colony. A leader starts running on a platform of a more aggressive battle plan, actually fighting and killing human beings. Another, inspired by a meeting with a shape-shifting fox, decides it may be best to live among the humans in their form, leaving behind their raccoon culture and those that cannot transform. Though not political, the film shows how a group of people with a common goal can break apart along the lines of different ideologies. Not surprisingly, the raccoons cannot be successful until they are working together. The film’s conclusion is bittersweet and a bit tragic, but there is a lot to take away as a human damaging the environment and from the raccoons’ mistakes in fighting for themselves.
Pom Poko uses a narrative device that typically drives film critics up the walls: narration. There are probably ways to tell this story without the use of narration, and there are certainly times where the technique feels like lazy exposition, but overall I liked the film’s use. At times, the near-constant voice-over narration gives the film a strange feeling of a nature documentary, explaining the characteristics and actions of the shape-shifting raccoons. The technique also ties it into its nature as folklore as the narrators literally tell us this story.
This is the last of Isao Takahata’s films in the Castles in the Sky series. He certainly (and rightly) takes a backseat to Miyazaki, but his contributions to Ghibli definitely helped fully shape the themes and tones of the studio’s work. Takahata only had three films in the series, Pom Poko along with Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas — and while these three films would certainly be considered “minor” Ghibli films, they are among my favorites of the series. All three balanced a great humor with a sweetness that Miyasaki’s more complicated narratives usually didn’t have. Sadly, his most popular work, Grave of the Fireflies, was not part of the Castles in the Sky retrospective. Though it is a Studio Ghibli film (as was pointed out to me when I said otherwise), it was not distributed by Disney in the US, and thus left out. With my newfound experiences with Ghibli and Takahata’s work, it has worked its way into my queue.