Ghibli on Netflix: Pom Poko
Lament for nature8
Nathanael Smith | On 03, Apr 2020
With Studio Ghibli films now available on Netflix UK, we look at what makes them so magical.
Pom Poko is, to put it quite bluntly, an odd film. It’s a film that features a scene were a raccoon dog creates his own funerary ship out of his scrotum. In fact, raccoon dog parts feature far more prominently than you might expect for a PG-rated animation from the studio behind My Neighbour Totoro.
This is a film where every new scene displays something surprising, some visual marvel or alienating image or terrifying spectacle. Far more than most other Ghibli films, Pom Poko is rooted in Japanese folklore and mythology, making it a surreal viewing experience for Western watchers; pity the Ghibli uninitiated who pick this film as their first foray into the studio. It is, however, a real treat for those willing to surrender to its whims and wonders – a truly unusual two hours when other films try too hard to fabricate “kookiness”.
The story follows a group of transforming tanuki, a Japanese animal known in English as raccoon dogs (similar to, but not the same as, raccoons). The “plot” is about them using their magical powers to stop the encroachment of a suburban development on their woods. The trials they face include the unstoppable march of progress, a conflict of ideas about how to treat the humans and the inherent proclivity of raccoons to party. Humans are the villains here; it’s no spoiler to say that many of the raccoons don’t fare as well in the fight against concrete and greed.
Pom Poko’s preoccupation with nature, a common theme throughout Ghibli films, is spiritual as well as ecological. This is an elegy for a bygone era, when Japan better understood that nature was, in some way, sacred. Even these chaotic creatures are revered within Japanese folklore, and the land they inhabit should be too. Tokyo, however, has lost that reverence; it’s forgotten the spiritual in favour of steel and concrete. Much of the tanuki’s campaign is an attempt to reawaken the sense of the numinous and divine within the inhabitants of the city, hoping that they would care more about harming gods than animals. This leads to some of the most inventive and colourful scenes in the Ghibli canon, as demons parade through the air and lanterns bob through the woods at night. At times, Pom Poko shares the same mixture of fear and wonder that made Spirited Away such a hit.
This film is not, however, just a meditation on the loss of the land and faith; it’s also uproariously funny, perhaps one of the silliest stories that the studio has told. The tanuki are lazy, charming, loyal and cantankerous heroes, immediately winsome and funny. The film is full of witty asides and world-building jokes – did you know that energy drinks exist just to help tanuki not get too tired while they’re transformed? There’s an anarchic, chaotic air to the whole film, helped by dynamic animation that allows for wide shots with multiple moving parts. Even while you may not understand every beat of what’s happening, you’re sure to keep smiling.
It’s definitely not one of Ghibli’s most perfectly formed pieces. As ever, director Isao Takahata takes a much more episodic approach than Miyazaki. This is a loose, rambling film that has little interest in narrative drive. While that’s less of an issue with something as elegantly crafted as Only Yesterday, it can leave Pom Poko feeling a little ramshackle at times. The jovial pace is part of the appeal, but several scenes can feel pointless or tiresome. Still, this is Ghibli at its most niche and unusual; definitely an enchanting and hilarious watch for dedicated fans of the studio.
Pom Poko is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.