The best things in any medium are always gloriously polyfaceted. Cowboy Bebop didn't rocket to the top of many peoples' all-time-greatest lists just because it was any one thing, but because it was many things at once — hilarious, gritty, tragic, visionary, memorable — and because it was all of those things at once with no contradiction between them. The same goes for Pom Poko, which racks up its own list of adjectives: bawdy, funny, angry, satirical, thought-provoking, and elegiac -- all at the same time, and all without stepping on its own toes. Miracles do happen.
Under the skin of this film, one of the funniest and most charming of Studio Ghibli’s productions, is a movie that asks such tough and troubling questions about modern life that it’s amazing the movie doesn’t tear itself apart. What is ostensibly a comic fable about clans of shapeshifting raccoons determined to protect their homeland at all costs also works as allegory for any number of real-world conditions. And again, all of this comes in the form of a sprightly, spirited animated story, one so effortlessly entertaining that it never feels like we're on a guided tour of some of the most troubling aspects of our time. Who would have expected something so thought-provoking and ultimately moving to come from a wickedly comic story about magical beasts that fight with their scrotums? (Anyone new to anime, I suppose, but even many veterans are likely to be taken aback.)
Born to be wild
Among the animals that figure prominently in Japanese mythology are the tanuki, shapeshifting raccoons with a playful sense of humor. Sometimes they take on human form and play pranks, and any number of legends are told about how human greed, vanity, and stupidity are unmasked or shown up by tanuki in human form.
Pom Poko opens with a cadre of tanuki in the post-WWII world, eking out a living in a wilderness that has already been encroached upon by human civilization. A little encroachment is not bad. The raccoons depend to a degree on the presence of humans to provide them (inadvertently) with food and occasionally a place to live — like the run-down temple that forms their home. As long as they can live and nibble on the margins, the tanuki are happy.
Unfortunately, humanity isn’t satisfied with just a little encroachment. Work has started on a new housing development that will cover the countryside and reduce what land the tanuki have to a pittance. Rather than take this lying down, though, they band together and decide to take the fight to the humans. Their nominal leaders, the matronly Madam Oroku and the old sage Osho, help draft a five-year plan to take back the forest, but discipline and long-term planning aren't tanuki traits. They live for the moment; they're more interested in throwing parties or getting sloshed than learning how to infiltrate human society.
But a few of them with the best shapeshifting skills, demonstrated in a sidesplitting montage, do manage to apply themselves long enough to take human form and make forays into civilization — to spy on human behavior, heist food from the trash, and even steal a TV from which they glean news about the progress of the housing project (as long as they don't end up narcotizing themselves with it). The more immediate use of their shapeshifting power, though, is to scare the human population into abandoning the development, and they use a whole barrage of different freak-out tactics to accomplish this end. Among the funniest is a sustained sequence where a policeman on night duty keeps running into what he thinks are human beings with blank faces. Even better is a slew of scenes where construction workers, passers-by, etc. are haunted by voices telling them "Take your tools/selves away!" The one exception: a picnicking family, which they implore to not take their leftovers with them.
If you can't beat 'em, imitate 'em
It's through humor and sly moments like that the movie reveals one of its central struggles — the way the tanuki have always been dependent on the human race for the best of their well-being. Consider a scene when the raccoons are urged to observe a moment of silent prayer for the humans killed in this resistance effort (as if that’s going to make any difference). They pray for a moment, then burst out laughing and head outside to party. Then, in another comic gearshift, one of the few who speaks out against murder appeals to the rest of the raccoons through their stomachs: “Kill off the humans and you’ll never eat tempura again! Or fried chicken! Or hamburgers!” They ruefully see his point.
By this point the tanuki have started to divide against themselves. On one side are the extremists like the buff bruiser Gonta, see no better course of action than to drive away the humans or kill them outright. On the other are the strategists, like the younger Shokichi, who see careful intimidation and subversion as being the best path. Torn between those two poles, the tanuki shift tactics again and again, using everything from appeals to superstition to wild displays of power. I mentioned them haunting the construction site; at another point, they pretend to be artifacts from a local shrine, thus encouraging the landowner to think twice about selling off such historic property. They send several of their own to bring back three wizened tanuki sages, experts in shapeshifting who might be able to give them the power to shift (pun intended) things in their favor. This they use to stage a gargantuan, hallucinatory public spectacle — but they don’t count on the human race to be able to rationalize everything they see. (Evidently they never read Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.)
Aside from either killing the encroaching humans or driving them off, a third course of action slowly reveals itself. This comes by way of another trickster spirit, a fox, who has assimilated into human society, and who offers the tanuki a deal of sorts: Work for him and a human business partner at a theme park that's being built, where their powers of illusion can be put to use. They don't take the deal — although they walk away with a suitcase full of cash after another one of the movie's hilarious and bravura animated sequences — but by then enough seeds of doubt have been planted. Is it really better to live briefly and gloriously as a tanuki, than to live long but harried and uncomfortable as a human? (Shokichi, married and with kids by that point, leans towards assimilation) Worse, not every tanuki has the luxury of choosing that option, since many of them can't transform, leaving them with a non-choice between a quick death and a slow one.
Comedy and tragedy, intertwined
I started watching anime after I already had extensive experience with Japanese live-action movies, but one aesthetic constant I saw in both of them was a facility for changing tones within the same piece without it being jarring or derailing. A comedy could turn dark without being any less funny; a drama could contain side-splitting scenes without being any less serious. Pom Poko is a masterclass of that kind of management of tone. The goofiest moments in the movie don't ever derail its larger and more serious purpose, because both the comic and tragic parts of the story all come from the same place.
Even when it’s intended for kids, Japanese animation is often earthier (and sometimes downright bawdier) than its homogenized American counterparts, something I imagine must have given someone at Disney pause when Pom Poko came up for a vote. Tanuki legends often feature the various creative uses the creatures have for their testicles, and one of the more unforgettable shots in Pom Poko has a platoon of tanuki parachuting into action with said organs stretched out over their backs like windsails. Most of the great feats of animation through the film involve the tanuki's tricks, whether successful or not — e.g., the sequence where a whole platoon of them engage in an exercise where throw themselves off a cliff and transform into an iron kettle on the way down to keep from denting their heads. Unfortunately, the most dazzling and lovingly-created sequence in the film — a tanuki-engineered parade of surreal happenings, patterned after any number of classical Japanese mythological motifs — runs so long and to such excess it becomes distracting.
One could run down an entire encyclopedia of all the ways the movie's imagery name- and concept-check Japan's history of the fantastic. So much of the movie is populated with this stuff, in fact, that I worried about how Western audiences with no connection to any of that material might feel about it — something like watching a foreign version of one of those spoof-anthology movies, where the laughs draw on the audience's knowledge of what's being mocked or referenced. I don't think the film is going to be weaker for an audience that isn't in the know about Japanese culture, but I do think it's going to feel less rewarding — that while what they are getting is very good indeed, there's so much more that's out of their grasp. I admit being in a privileged position, not just because I did understand a lot of what was being referenced, but also because I've always taken such things as a challenge for me to rise to the level of the material, and not a sign that I should look somewhere else. If nothing else, take all this as a sign that Pom Poko doesn't have to be your first Ghibli film or your first anime feature, but don't take it as a sign that it's "too difficult" and should be left off the list.
What is always accessible, though, is the way the movie juggles and navigates tricky thematic and conceptual territory all the way through. The director was Isao Takahata, whose somber and sorrowful Grave of the Fireflies is a polar counterpart to this film. In some ways, Pom Poko might be the more sophisticated and complex of the two movies. since it has to manage the trick of being funny and profound at the same time. But despite Takahata being both screenwriter and director, the eco-parable side of the story was clearly informed by Studio Ghibli's head, Hayao Miyazaki, as he gets a story concept credit. I suspect having Miyazaki direct would have resulted in a more purportedly serious movie, perhaps in the vein of something like the animated adapation of Richard Adams's Watership Down. That Takahata brought a light touch to such potentially heavy material makes it engaging, not superficial; a Miyazaki-directed version of this story would have been overly sodden with his disgust for the way Japan considers "progress" to be synonymous with pouring cement over everything.
That light touch makes it possible to see what the movie gives us in many more lights. I could easily fill a page with all the themes the movie touches on, brings up, or suggests indirectly: the Arab-Israeli conflict; the ethical problems of ecoterrorism; the growing concerns expressed about the consequences of globalism and mass consumer culture; the dilemmas of displaced peoples and immigrant populations; the pressure to conform versus the compulsion to not. Under it all, though, I sense a theme that is as great and troubling as any: that the more the human race assumes there is only one mode of life for all — and not just all humans, either — the more it will fracture at its fringes.
When you have a story that tries to keep a line between laughter and tears in every single scene, it almost always ends up on one side or the other. Pom Poko's genius is in how it keeps walking that tightrope all the way up into and through the very last scene. There, Shokichi, now a harried salaryman riding the trains, stumbles across the remnants of his fellow tanuki making merry in a field. Overjoyed, he rips off his clothes, and joins them in their revelry. Then we pull back and see what exactly is that field they're standing in. It's a golf course.