Pom Poko feels different than the usual Studio Ghibli taste - specifically in how serious it is.
When I was young, I spent a lot of time watching animated movies on video, and it was especially easy to find new titles from the small Japanese video store a few blocks away from my house. Ever since my father had brought home My Neighbor Totoro, I was enchanted with Studio Ghibli, and I wanted to watch everything that they’d put out so far. The Ghibli ga Ippai Collection had just been released, so I could stock up on titles, with one of those titles being Pom Poko. I remember sitting down, expecting to see something in the vein of Laputa: Castle in the Sky or Kiki's Delivery Service and getting something far different.
I enjoyed the movie, no question about it, but it didn’t make me feel good the way the other Ghibli films did. It didn’t make me feel miserable (that honor would go straight to Dog of the Flanders) but I didn’t experience the magical feeling of wonder that usually comes from finishing a Ghibli film. It was overall a very perplexing experience. It’s been 25 years since the movie’s release, and now that I’m an adult that can rewatch the film with a fresh perspective, I realize that getting a complicated feeling is entirely the point.
Pom Poko tells the story of a tribe of tanuki, shapeshifting raccoons, who realize that their mountain is slowly being taken over by humans. It’s the 1960s, and the Japanese economy is starting to recover post-war, resulting in Tokyo becoming a business hub. Since Tokyo is still pretty small, real estate turns to the rural areas surrounding the city, which ends up marking the forest that the tanuki live on for demolition.
Hurt and confused by the sudden intrusion into their land, the tanuki start contemplating what to do; some turn to extremism and vow to kill all humans, some try to reach out with their side of the story, some look to the art of transformation to aid them. It becomes a story of survival; how to save one's home from a threat that's slowly coming closer, and how groups function in the face of despair. It's also a very harsh look at human intrusion on natural habitats and how urban development fails to take into account the harm it does to the environment.
As with every Ghibli film, the message of humanity interacting with the natural world is a strong one. The thing is, despite the tanuki’s struggle, the story doesn’t end well. The movie finishes on a somber note, with the shapeshifting tanuki forced into assimilating into the human world. Only the tanuki that are able to shapeshift have the qualifications to keep living in this new society, all the tanuki that are unable to do so all sail to their deaths, and those that wish to fight back against the humans all end up being killed in their final attack. No matter their hard work, the humans never end up being driven away.
The housing complex is built, and the tanuki are forced out of their homes. This is something that even the original audience would have known going in; the story takes place in the 1960s, while the movie was released in the 1990s. The urbanization of Tokyo and the land surrounding it had already succeeded by that point, which meant that the tanuki have lost. It's uncomfortable when the characters that you've come to empathize with over the course of the movie are bound to fail, and you know their failure from the get-go.
There is still a small silver lining to it all; even though the tanuki end up having to integrate into a society that will never truly accept them, their efforts weren’t entirely in vain. Their plight did eventually reach humanity, which ended up creating a push for parks and the need for some wildlife in urban spaces. The urbanization, while foreign, isn’t something that’s completely hostile to the tanuki, and they are still able to survive. As upsetting as the movie is, it isn’t a hopeless one. The ending, where Shoukichi reunites with his friends that couldn't make it into the human world, shows that the tanuki spirit will continue to live on. It isn't dismal, but bittersweet.
Many Ghibli films encourage the audience to think of the environment and the impact that humanity has upon it, and Pom Poko is no exception. But while most of the films end with a quiet but still positive note, this film is different. There’s been a tragedy, and the story never posits that things can ever go back to the way they were before. The past has been lost, but that doesn’t mean that there is no future for the tanuki. They continue to adapt and live on, and even the tanuki that can’t shapeshift have found a place to live, too, in the sparse parks and few patches of greenery left in the town. They haven’t been wiped out, but have endured.
This message feels a lot more grounded, despite its fantasy elements. Unlike the post-apocalyptic future of Nausicaa or the spirit bathhouses of Spirited Away, this story is much closer to reality, and much closer to events that really happened. It’s something that affects our world, even to this day, as modern industry continues to grow and threaten natural habitats. It’s a reminder that there aren’t always happy endings, and sometimes things don’t end up as clean-cut as we’d like them to. Sometimes for those disenfranchised, there’s no choice but to continue existing in another form.
Twenty-five years later, and the lessons from Pom Poko continues to ring true. It's a harsh look at the damage that humanity can do to its environment, wrapped up in the comical antics of shapeshifting raccoons. It leaves you feeling complicated, disappointed, but also more aware. It may have a different flavor than most Ghibli films, but it's still a strong one, and it urges you to not look away.