Pom Poko was within the first ten or twenty anime movies I ever watched, many, many moons ago. And, one I have loved ever since.
It’s one of those slightly underrated Studio Ghibli movies that don’t get talked about all that often, or that is to say, nowhere near the level that the others do; those such as Spirited Away, and My Neighbour Totoro. Nevertheless, Pom Poko is a gem. Not to mention the meaning that lay behind it seems pertinent in today’s society – maybe even more so than when it first released.
Pom Poko is a 1994 Studio Ghibli film directed by Isao Takahata.
“Faced with the destruction of their habitat due to the growth of Tokyo, a group of tanuki try to defend their homes. They decide to use their transforming talents to try to hold back the new development. Two of them, especially skilled at transforming, are sent to Shikoku to enlist the help of three sages. Meanwhile, the rest of them do their best to disrupt the construction site, at first causing accidents, and then actually haunting the site. However, the humans are very persistent, and soon the tanuki are forced to use more and more extreme measures to save their home.” (Source: ANN)
You could say Pom Poko certainly fits within Ghibli’s signature mindset. It’s surreal, stylish, and has a great narrative – and like others, it conveys a heartfelt message. One that doesn’t hide too far beneath the surface, one that resides in plain sight at the pinnacle of Pom Poko’s storyline and setting. In some ways, it reminds me of an mid-90’s children’s British TV show called The Animals of Farthing Wood, which shared a lot of the same themes and morals regarding the destruction and clearing of natural habitats for the expansion of humans.
Now, Pom Poko is not my favourite Ghibli film, that would be Kiki’s Delivery Service. And yet, while Kiki hangs onto the biggest space in my heart, I cannot help but wonder about the message, and the characters locked within the enigmatic and eccentric world of Pom Poko. And how it manages to strike such a worthwhile set of emotions within me – something which is a grand statement considering my… apathy for many things.
Japanese Tradition – Western Tradition
Japanese culture and traditions are an integral part of Pom Poko. So much so, that as a Western viewer, much of the nuance may become somewhat lost on us. Though, this is not to say we are completely oblivious to all that is happening – some things are, after all, universal.
The West is a far cry in terms of culture and tradition when compared with their Eastern counterparts. Of course, living and growing up in the UK, I have experienced what you might call a… somewhat typical rural upbringing. For the majority of my life, I’ve lived surrounded by fewer than twenty houses – and at times, having no neighbours in sight whatsoever. I couldn’t imagine having lived in a city for twenty-one years. It is never something I would dream and aspire towards. I’m country at heart. I need the hills, and the rivers, and the tiny roads. They’re an integral part of me.
I would say these feelings translate into Japan – though, of course, both here and there, certain people will be dying to get out of the country and into the hustle and bustle of city life. No doubt, its personality that determines this. However, I feel that Western country life – at least here in the UK – is more moderate that its Eastern equivalent. Of course, there is a scale: What one regards ‘rural’ to be. Whether that is a house miles from any other, or part of a small village community.
You might be wondering, what does this have to do with Pom Poko? Well, because the setting exists directly between rural and urban; the clashing of the two, if you like. This intertwines with Japan’s deep religious and spiritual customs, themes of which run throughout Pom Poko’s entire length, and how in the ‘country’ such tradition is far more prevalent than it might be in an urban setting. The characters (raccoons) in Pom Poko rely on this inherently spiritual heritage when conducting efforts in trying to retain their forests and land. You could say that the people have based their religious/spiritual beliefs on the raccoons transforming abilities and actions. Or you might want to believe the raccoons are simple exploiting that which already exists. Either way, it allows them power over the humans in Tama Hills and other places.
Japan’s Rural Depopulation
That brings us on to one of Japan’s big social issues, rural depopulation. This is the process of people – usually those who are younger – leaving the country for more urban areas where there are more chances, both in education and employment.
Naturally, this is not singular to Japan. For obvious reasons, it happens all over the globe. I’ll be moving from a rural area to a semi-urban one in September for university. The problem is with it happening on such a wide and relentless level. Especially when generations aren’t returning to rural areas later in life, leaving behind a hugely aged population that struggles to be self-sufficient. It is this that had led to many small village communities being abandoned entirely. This naturally causes an increase of the population in urban areas, something which has to be supplemented with the development of more residences and workplaces; and the only place this development can happen is outwards into the countryside – just as we witness in Pom Poko.
Urban Development and Expansion
We have all seen the expansion of cities. And, the older amongst you might be aware of this even more so. Living in the Yorkshire Dales – a national park that is protected by a list of laws as long as my arm: Rules governing development and aesthetics, wildlife and the natural environment, and much more.
There are two main aims for National Parks here in England and Wales:
1.Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage.
2. Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks by the public.
With this is mind, it is fair to say any development on the scale of that in Pom Poko would be strictly forbidden. Especially if it were to disrupt local native wildlife. Many cities in the UK are surrounded by ‘Green Belts,’ areas of land where development is restricted – a policy for controlling urban expansion into the countryside. It was formally introduced in 1955, and has been staunchly criticised ever since for stifling development where it may be needed.
In many cases, it is only these conservation policies that stop urban expansion sprawling from coast to coast, as does increased pressure on governments to implement more ways in which the environment and its wildlife can be protected.
National Parks in Japan have much of the same aims as they do over here in the UK – that being to conserve the natural environment and its ecosystems, and to preserve it for future generations. The protection state varies under the policy set by the Ministry of the Environment. Tourism must also be mentioned. Few people want to holiday/visit an endless metropolis. And tourism is big business, just as development is. Therefore National Parks play a huge role in the general attractiveness of the area.
Tama Hills on the other hand, seems to be free of these jurisdictions.
Pom Poko’s Clear Message
Humans and nature have to exist in balance; without this, there isn’t a chance we’ll be able to stick around for any significant length of time – destroy nature, and you inherently destroy human existence. This is a notion that many fail to understand, or simply at stubborn odds with. Nevertheless, I struggle to find how you can have a defensible opinion against outright fact.
Pom Poko instructs us how balance is everything – how you cannot take too much from one side to benefit the other, without destabilising and causing suffering to the one you are taking from. Nature gives us so much, but what it offers is finite, a boundary we seem to be approaching all too quickly..
Ultimately, while Pom Poko is sad, what it conveys is positive: That change is possible, and that it can happen, no matter how stacked against it the odds might be. Change is after all, a hard concept for us to grasp in general – not a single person enjoys sudden change. Much like raccoons, we prefer to be sedentary creatures. Attempting not to do too little, while figuring out how not to do too much. Pom Poko allows us to understand this, and through its characters’ quests on learning how to be ‘human,’ we gain insight into both our strengths, and our weaknesses. Those weaknesses being – in Pom Poko’s case – how we are failing this planet we take for granted.
In the Shoes of raccoons
Pom Poko conveys the idea that nature, and it’s wildlife is to be treasured. It does this by constructing solid narrative and character around a troupe of… raccoons – it’s a sentence that seems silly to say. However, through this we attribute human feelings and empathy to what would otherwise be completely unrelatable. It helps us realise they are not just ‘raccoons,’ but sentient animals that feel both pain and loss, and love. By observing this, we learn things about ourselves, and the often destructive care-free lives we are all so accustomed to thoughtlessly living. Implanting us with an idea that maybe we should enter deep thought before rash decision making.
We put ourselves on the top of the ladder; on top of all else that exists. It’s a narcissistic idea to think we are all that matters. Pom Poko allows us another perspective to view the world from – one outside and separate from the biased one we experience daily. Often, it’s enlightening to look outside of the box, especially if that box has always lacked windows and an external light source.
After all, is it not the responsibility of ourselves to ensure there is a world for future generations to live in? Imagine being alive in a future when those watching Pom Poko do not recognise the raccoons, and the Foxes, because of habitat destruction gone unchecked led to their – at one time – unforseen extinction. It seems like a mighty price to pay for a few houses.
Who would have thought animated raccoons could teach us so much about what it means to be human?
This notion isn’t relevant to Pom Poko alone. Many important themes run throughout all of Ghibli’s films. Both Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke carry hefty environmental messages with them – even if they are inherently darker than the often well-spirited Pom Poko. Both films which are far ahead of their times.
Ghibli is often regarded as the very best of what anime has to offer – so much so that it has spread its roots far further than any other ever has. And this, when carrying such meaning, can never be a bad thing. After all the media is responsible for, it’s becoming to glimpse the good it has to offer also. So, watch Pom Poko, and do it actively, taking in all the greatness it has to offer!
As always, thank you for reading!