Pom Poko is a film often overlooked in Studio Ghibli's impressive catalogue, but it is one of the few films worked on jointly by both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, with the latter taking on directorial duties.
The film is interesting to say the least.
In the late 1960's the beautiful countryside and hills near to the Tokyo suburb
of Tama fell victim to the biggest civil engineering project in history, as
nature was ruthlessly swept aside by the ever expanding metropolis.
Farmers were evicted from their land, mountains were levelled, valleys filled
and forests felled to make way for the pristine apartments of 'New Tama Hills'.
However, the residents are not going to let their home be taken away from them
without a fight, and from their headquarters in an abandoned temple they begin a
campaign to drive away the construction workers.
Now, if by the above you think that the film is going to focus on a group of embittered farmers fighting against progress then you have it all wrong. Pom Poko focuses not on the humans evicted from their homes but on the true natives of the Tama Hills - the tanuki. Tanuki - a type of raccoon native to Japan - appear frequently in Japanese folklore, where they are often depicted as tricksters able to cast illusions and transform into any shape, something the film takes full advantage of. Desperate to protect their way of life, but not wanting to kill humans (they like leftover human food too much), the tanuki wage a psychological war using their transformation
and illusionary powers. Their plan is to scare the workers away by making them think the hills are haunted, and in order to generate the biggest scare humanity has ever seen they enlist the help of a trio of powerful tanuki from far away islands to train them.
Pom Poko is a strange film. It
is certainly more surreal than any of Studio Ghibli's other films, and
the fact that it draws heavily on Japanese folklore and mythology makes it even
more bizarre. Japanese mythology is somewhat inscrutable - there must be
some explanation for the tanuki's ability to inflate and stretch their
testicles to use them as weapons, but I'm damned if I know what it is - it is so
unusual that though that it adds a kind of otherworldly charm to proceedings.
It is largely because of the mythological powers that Pom Poko contains a
lot of comedy and slapstick, but it also tempers it with enough seriousness to
convey its message.
Despite all of the magic and weirdness the film does manage to explain an awful lot about the life cycle and habitat of tanuki, and the affect the construction has on them. It also occasionally reverts from the cartoony representation of the tanuki to a realistic one to illustrate the reality of their situation, and the excellent narration keeps things moving well. However, it must be said that whilst Pom Poko is pretty good it is only in the last third that it has the spark that makes a good film great. The procession of ghosts and monsters the tanuki conjure on the suburb is stunningly executed, but it is their final - and surprisingly moving - illusion that cements the film's main
message, beautifully getting across in a few minutes the poignant statement the previous 90 minutes fell just short of delivering.
Pom Poko is not Studio Ghibli's best film, but by any standards it is still highly enjoyable and very effective. It manages to balance realism and fantasy well enough to be accessible but believable, and by the end of the film you really empathise with the tanuki and their plight. Whilst it gets a bit too weird on occasion it never strays too far from the point it is trying to make, and delivers it in impressive fashion at the end. Although many people scoff at the idea of cartoons delivering meaningful messages, Pom Poko is a genuinely thought-provoking ecological drama that is definitely worth checking out.
Pretty much all of the extras are trailers, with a Pom Poko trailer reel accompanied by a Ghibli Collection trailer reel and, somewhat inexplicably, the trailer for Howl's Moving Castle. Other than this the disc carries full storyboards for the film which are viewable as an alternative angle as well as through the extras menu.