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Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: July 16, 1994
Rating: ★★★

To start this film is not about raccoons, but about raccoon dogs, which, despite their similarity, are only distantly related to raccoon, being more akin to foxes. The story tells about a population of raccoon dogs living on the Tama hills in Southwest Tokyo. The raccoon dogs see their own environment giving way rapidly to the ever growing metropolis, and decide to fight back in order to save their homes, by reviving their old shape-shifting skills…

Apparently, the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) or Tanuki, as the Japanese call him, has been a subject of a long folkloristic tradition. In this folklore the Tanuki has magical powers, being able to shape-shift, but he’s often too lazy, and too distracted to use them. Another peculiarity of this folklore is the focus on the raccoon dog’s testicles, which have magical powers themselves.


These character traits are clearly visible in ‘Pom Poko’: the raccoon dogs are depicted as carefree, fun-loving characters, their testicles are clearly visible, and used in some shape-shift transformations. For example, in one scene an elderly raccoon dog transforms his testicles into a giant carpet, in another a group of raccoon dogs use their inflated testicles as parachutes.


The shape-shifting scenes lead to some remarkable sequences, some of which are very close to pure horror, like a scene in which a cop meets all kinds of people without faces. This would have been a very frightening scene, indeed, if it were not depicted rather playfully, focusing on the police officer’s rather silly-looking panic, instead of the horror of the visions.

Most impressive of the shape-shifting sequences, and the undisputed highlight of the film, is the goblin parade. Here, too, some of the images are genuinely scary, but again, the depiction remains on the light side. For example, there’s a long scene with two men discussing the supernatural at a bar, completely oblivious of the mayhem occurring behind them.


It’s interesting to compare ‘Pom Poko’ to other environmentalist film of the era, like ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ (1992). Compared to the earlier film, ‘Pom Poko’ is remarkably mature. There’s nothing of FernGully’s magical ‘healing power’, nor does the film need a supervillain. In ‘Pom Poko’ ordinary men, none of them intrinsically mean, form a threat enough to the little forest creatures.


Soon it becomes clear that the raccoon dogs cannot win, and we have to witness several tragic deaths of these critters. Some die in one desperate last fight, others disappear on a mythical ship to the netherworld, some blend in into human society, and still others keep on living in an urban environment, scavenging the suburbs. In the end, the raccoon dogs must admit that man’s ability to transform the environment is much greater than their own shape-shifting abilities. Yet, this conclusion comes with a feeling of sadness of what’s been lost. Like many other Studio Ghibli films, there’s a longing to earlier times in this film, and especially the raccoon dogs’ last trick, reviving the landscape of old, is one of pure nostalgia.


‘Pom Poko’ is a mature film, but it’s not without its flaws. The film is told by using the weak voice over device, and it has a rather episodic nature, covering several years. Thus the story moves on a leisurely speed, not really building up to a grand finale. Moreover, there are a lot of characters in this film, and we don’t follow one in particular, which scatters the viewer’s focus.

Another peculiarity is that the film uses three styles to depict the raccoon dogs: first, a very realistic one, which accounts for some very impressive naturalistic animation. Second, the most dominant one, in which the raccoon dogs are depicted as clothed anthropomorphic characters. And third, a highly simplified one, in which the raccoon dogs suddenly become flat comic book characters, especially when celebrating. To me, it’s completely unclear why this third style is even present, and during these scenes the animation is often crude and repetitive, relying on reused animation cycles.


What doesn’t help is that the film is very, very Japanese: the behavior and rites of the raccoon dogs are sometimes enigmatic, and there are a lot of Buddhist and Shintoist references that are completely lost on the Western viewer. In that respect it’s a surprise that foxes have the same character traits in Japanese folklore as in Western tradition: in ‘Pom Poko’ the foxes are sly tricksters, too.


‘Pom Poko’ may not be perfect, it still is a very interesting film on human-animal relationships, it provides a small window into Japanese folklore, and it certainly is a very humane and mature film, showing us that one doesn’t need villains for destruction, and that some very valuable things are getting lost in the march of progress.

Watch the trailer for ‘Pom Poko’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Pom Poko’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Grave of the Fireflies © Studio GhibliBased on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a strong, emotional and immensely sad film. It kicks in right away, when we hear Seita say “September 12, 1945. That was the night I died”.

What follows is Seita’s story: this boy, about fourteen, first loses his mother in the fire raid of Kobe, which destroys the wooden town completely. Then he and his little sister Setsuko try to live at their aunt’s place, but the initially kind woman grows increasingly hostile to them. So Seita decides to find his own living space for him and his sister in an abandoned shelter, first trying to get food by buying it, then by stealing. Unfortunately, Setsuko sickens from malnutrition, and while he finally has a real meal for her, she dies. Seita manages to build her funeral, but although not shown, the film suggests Setsuko’s death has broken his will, leading to his own death as depicted in the first scene.

The rather straightforward story is told with several flashbacks and flash-forwards and with a unique focus on details of everyday life, which really makes the two children come to life. The realism of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is unprecedented, the animation of Setsuko in particular being very lifelike, despite a less fluent animation technique. Never before has such a realistic and endearing child entered the animated screen.

The film’s subject matter, which confronts the Japanese viewer with the lowest point in their recent history, is daring and so is its execution, with its concise focus on human suffering, instead of heroism or action. The film makes the viewer really feel the impact of war on innocent civilians: the agony of shortages, hunger and despair, while the rest of the war remains at the background.  Takahata focuses on Seita’s love for his little sister, and his struggle to shield her from the effects of war. Seita is a sympathetic character, but not without flaws. His struggle to survive and to nurture his sister is heroic, but his decision to leave his aunt is also iinduced by pride, and it’s partly his own stubbornness that prevents him from reconciling with his aunt, which may have prevented Setsuko’s death. It’s hard to blame him, though, for he’s a child himself, after all.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the most serious animation features ever made, dealing with war and death. It’s also very sad, bringing tears to the eyes of almost every viewer. Like ‘Animal Farm‘ (1954), ‘Le planète sauvage‘ (1973) or ‘Watership Down’ (1978), ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the few truly serious animation features, expanding the medium’s subject matter, and it’s a cinematic masterpiece by any standard.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ was released as a double bill with ‘My Neighbour Totoro‘, which is equally classic, but very different in tone, indeed.

Watch the trailer for ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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