Pom Poko is a very strange, very sad and oddly exhilarating ecological fable.
Released by Japan’s fabled Studio Ghibli, this film tells the story of a group of raccoons who have their natural home imperiled by a gigantic development taking place in the woods and forests. Because the creatures have amazing magical powers, they can fight back against the construction using some incredible tricks, but in the end (no real spoilers here), human progress gets its way and the forests are destroyed.
Secondly, this movie is deeply, thoroughly Japanese. It’s deeply embedded in the philosophy and iconography of Japan, and that makes most of this presentation a bit hard to relate to. In fact, the central conceit of raccoons who can transform themselves to human forms is a very specific and strong trope in Japan but is bizarre and confusing for us in the US. In Japan, the tanukis (or raccoons) are magical creatures who can do almost anything. I was able to grok many of the allusions and icons that are used– recurring images of sensei and of the “lucky cat”, for instance — but I’m sure that the vast majority of the references went right past me.
Though the raccoons often look like Care Bears, their culture and unity was interesting. There are wonderful scenes showing the passion and friendship that the creatures feel for each other, and lots of jokes and play about their transformations and roles in their collective society. There’s a delightful surreal sequence, meant to scare people into abandoning the subdivision, that achieves a magical transcendence on the screen as it parades one odd image after the next. I loved it when the creators followed their silly imaginations and just delivered delightfully arbitrary strangeness on the screen.
Pom Poko is a forgettable and ultimately disappointing Ghibli film. It’s been said by many that Miyazaki produced the best of their releases. This movie backs up that point.