Thoughts On: Pom Poko - Whimsical Deception

20/11/2017

Pom Poko - Whimsical Deception

Thoughts On: Pom Poko (成狸合戦ぽんぽこ, 1994)


A group of transforming raccoon dogs decide to fight back against the developers that are destroying their lands.


Pom Poko is an intriguingly multi-layered narrative, one that isn't an out-right cry against deforestation and industrial development, instead, is, in a way, a humble tragedy about failure and inevitability. Thus, when confronting ecological or 'green' themes, Pom Poko is reserved and more so focused on Japanese folklore and mythology than social critique. But, in mentioning folklore, we have to jump straight into the raccoons, or, more accurately, the Japanese raccoon dogs/tanuki, that form our group of main characters.

All mythology seems to have a dual purpose; one side that is practical and one that is more enchanting. A very common combination of purposes seen in myths is that of fear and a lesson. Thus, many ghost stories warn children not to do certain things (wander into a forest, bully, steal, lie, etc.) whilst making them scream and then giggle. We see this in Pom Poko with the tanuki warning humans of their destruction whilst, in the parade sequence for instance, providing awe and wonder. More traditionally, however, the tanuki are depicted as quite similar to the fox. Japanese folklore adapted the idea and symbol of a fox from Chinese folklore, which saw the creature - as is known quite universally - as cunning, evil and sly. To different degrees, various stories will utilise the fox's traits to either portray evil or just smarts across cultures - we of course see an example of this in Pom Poko with the fox being cunning but also slightly cowardly. However, whilst the fox is cunning, the tanuki, which appears in Japanese folklore centuries after the fox, is often more clumsy and silly (as we see in the film). So, though tanuki are presented as having greater power than foxes, they suffer from their love of food and joy which mutes their abilities.

If you have seen Pom Poko there's not much more to be said about the tanuki without delving deep into Japanese history with many specific examples - which, for the sake of staying on track, we won't do. However, there may still be the question of: What is going on with their 'pouches'?  In certain dubbed versions of Pom Poko the tanuki's testicles are just called pouches, sacks or some other euphemism, but, there are no illusions in the original, nor in Japanese folklore. Real tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dogs, have very large testicles in proportion to their body size. Their pelts - specifically their scrotums - were also used by goldsmiths to shape jewellery (they were used as pouches and wallets, too). And so because of the lingual connection between "gold nugget" and testicles (which, on the tanuki, are naturally large) in Japanese, the animals became increasingly more humorous. Over time, this expressed itself in the shape of the tanuki; they were often drawn as fat with large bellies that, when they weren't beating their testicles, they would play like drums. And this is all depicted in Pom Poko with the creatures' three facades: the realistic, the anthropomorphic and the cartoonish. These three forms reflect the the evolution of tanuki depictions whilst acting as a device that the is used to characterise and contextualise the story.

However, it is difficult to know how to react to the tanuki and their testicles as, for one, they're a strange sight, and two, the context around sexuality in Japan is a little confounding. In Japan, whilst pornography and sexual obscenity are censored, there are numerous genital festivals that celebrate penises and vaginas as signs of fertility and/or peace and unity between the sexes with disembodied representations of seemingly obscene imagery; from an outsider's perspective, and as we would think of our own cultures, there is a general rift and disharmony that follows no real rule or pattern in regards to such an intimate social topic. Taking the tanuki as they are, it may then be best to define them primarily by their humorous facade without looking too deeply into this. However, looking beyond the facades of the tanuki and questioning the crux of their amusing abilities and mischievousness, we can easily find the lesson that these folkloric creatures embody to concern caution. The tanuki, a little like the fox and even the snake, represents the dangers of deception. However, whilst the fox and snake are often portrayed as deeply insidious, the tanuki generally lead their victims astray as a kind of game. Thus, they will transform landscapes or beat their stomachs to signal thunder, all to disorient travellers. So, whilst tanuki hold whimsical attributes, the flip-side to their dual purpose is that of warning wanders that nature can lead them astray; and such is the purpose of the fox and snake, too.

Takahata embraces this idea of the cunning, but silly, tanuki brilliantly in his exploration of industrial development. Instead of painting developers as evil and snake-like, waging a war against nature, humans are shown to be self-indulgent and pig-headed - at least, this is what is reflected with the confrontation with the tanuki. We can then think of legends such as King Arthur where one 'dragon' confronts another and see a similar paradigm map onto Pom Poko's narrative structure. With one tanuki in nature confronting another tanuki in the humans we see the naive and indulgent side of humanity confronted by its natural counterpart: the group of raccoon dogs. This thematic tone of conflict is where Takahata's layered narrative becomes apparent: everything that the tanuki are can be seen as a metaphor for humanity. Just like the tanuki have family, so does humanity; just as they find refuge in pre-existing structures, so do humans; we share a need to survive, thrive and enjoy life. The humanisation of the tanuki then makes Pom Poko a tragedy as we are shown to be destroying apart of ourselves by destroying nature.

This element of Pom Poko is its most abstract - though tangible - side. This is where a thematic connection is stressed and why there is this constant tension between the humans worshipping and destroying the tanuki. This abstract connection between human and tanuki is never articulated or broken down - we are only made to feel some kind of connection between ourselves and the folkloric idols - and this is because there is no reconciliation between the tanuki and humans: there is no understanding found. Stuck in this strange space between humanisation, legend and metaphorical projection and reflection, we then come to the end of the narrative where we are asked to think of the animals that aren't so integral to folklore and that cannot 'transform'.


This final commentary is ingenious as it seems that Takahata sets this narrative up to humanise one animal and show their struggle as to shame his audience into changing their views. However, this is just a subversion; a tragedy plays out, but is then nullified by a joyous ending. This basic attempt at commentary through humanisation (the likes of which can be seen in a film such as Okja) is then subverted by the fact that we are made to recognise the stories that aren't told; those of the non-anthropomorphised, non-mythologised and forgotten animals. Thus, Takahata becomes a tenuki; he leads us astray and leaves us lost with cunning trickery dressed up whimsically.

Re-watching Pom Poko after seeing its structural brilliance makes this such a strange treat that is both empty and pointlessly manipulative, but also sharp and impactful. To end, all I can ask are: What are your thoughts on the Pom Poko and all we've covered today?

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