Pom Poko
(Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko) (1994)
Directed by Isao Takahata

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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A community of tanuki (an East Asian mammal resembling a raccoon) learn that the forest in which they live is going to be razed to make way for a housing project. Instead of meekly giving in to the humans threatening them, however, the tanuki decide to wage war against mankind.

Taken as a whole, Isao Takahata's animated Pom Poko is not entirely satisfying, but it does include numerous intriguing themes and appealing visual elements that do make watching it a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

The story the director tells is, for the most part, well crafted, inventive, and genuinely fascinating. Takahata's depictions of the tanuki's society are skilfully done and both allow the viewer to rejoice in their eccentricities and to notice the similarities of their faults and virtues to those of human beings. The moviegoer thus sees how some of the tanuki are able to adjust to change while others are not, how some, despite their dwindling resources, are incapable of restraining themselves and continue to produce large families, and how many of them want to do hurt to those hurting them. The viewer is even presented with depictions of their joyous, drunken festivals and, after significant numbers of the tanuki have begun to despair, of messianic religious movements that lead many of the poor creatures to their deaths.

We are not, however, simply made to see ourselves in the tanuki, but, thanks to a variety of fantastic and magical elements, which suffuse the film with feelings of wonder, we are also frequently transported into a delightfully different reality. Over the course of his movie, Takahata makes this otherworldly universe manifest by revealing how the tanuki are able to transform into human beings, how the males are able to use their enormous testicles as parachutes or trampolines, and, in Pom Poko's single most marvellous sequence, how the mischievous beasts are able to conjure up a truly astonishing parade of diverse spirits to frighten the human beings living near their forest.

The film's characters and their numerous adventures, most of which either revolve around the tanuki's disputes with one another or their efforts to drive the humans from their woodlands, not only add to the quality of the elements noted above, but are themselves frequently both exciting and infused with a pleasant sense of humor. The various attempts the tanuki make to scare construction workers are eerie and clever, and the depictions of the animals striving to learn how to transform themselves are funny and endearing.

Sadly, as intriguing as many of Pom Poko's details are, they often fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole. The movie is, as a result, sometimes a little tiresome, and does occasionally allow the viewer's interest to waver. What is more, the director has incorporated into his film a number of irksome elements which, while they will rouse the viewer from his lethargy, are unlikely to please him.

Pom Poko is particularly burdened by Takahata's almost incessant preaching. I do sympathize with his sentiments. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with them, but, be that as it may, his battering me with one crude lecture on man's destruction of the environment after another merely distracts me from appreciating his film. The director does, admittedly, use this theme to increase the feelings of tragedy his story arouses, and he does often show skill in doing so, but he frequently fails to restrain himself. Had he been more subtle, had he allowed the movie's didactic content to serve its emotive effect rather than enslaving that effect to its purported message, he would have created a far more affecting artistic work.

The visual quality of the film is as uneven as are its narrative virtues. While Takahata does deserve credit for his willingness to experiment with different styles of animation, I am sad to say that he is not always as discriminating as he could have been when doing so. The director generally employs a style like that found in the majority of films which have been produced at Studio Ghibli, and most of Pom Poko is, consequently, visually appealing. Unfortunately, whenever he depicts the tanuki as having anthropomorphic personalities and a culture, as opposed to being animals, he uses designs which resemble those that can be found in children's cartoons. The cuddly, chubby Teddy bear-like tanuki populating these sequences are, frankly, often annoyingly saccharine and are never pleasing. The even cruder designs Takahata employs to present the creatures when they are inebriated or depressed are even worse. Although there is much in the film that is fascinating and attractively realized, the presence of such unappealing elements is often a distraction.

Pom Poko is certainly worth seeing for its accomplished, insightful, and occasionally even numinous moments, but its various faults do keep the whole from being nearly as good as are some of its parts.

Review by Keith Allen

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