Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Pom Poko (The Racoon War, Isao Takahata, 1994)

Tribute to Isao Takahata (1935 - 2018)

Guerrilla warfare

Isao Takahata's Pom Poko (The Raccoon War, 1994) begins with a little song where children call on the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) to come play and the tanuki reply that they can't--they're too busy eating pickled plums. The film goes on to outline the dogs' plight: land developers want to convert the forest of Tama Hills into suburbs--the same forest the tanukis have lived in for countless generations.

Takahata gives us the story straight and brisk, presumably because he has so much ground to cover. He has scenes of tanukis discussing strategy then scenes of the tanukis carrying out that strategy--scare tactics, sabotage, assault on construction workers or folks who live near the forest. Tanukis aren't as helpless as you might imagine: according to Japanese folklore they can change their appearance much like the fox; they even have the bizarre power to expand their testicles into different guises--area rugs, paragliders, felled oldgrowth trees, in one extreme example a small steel bridge.

Woven through these scenes are sobering precisely sketched assessments of the tanukis' chance for success--as told in an old folktale, tanukis are too easygoing and goodnatured to win extended military campaigns; their acts of resistance often end in bickering or are sidelined by the endlessly distracting allure of food. In one war council a discussion is interrupted when the elders are served a platter of hamburgers; later a television set is smuggled home ostensibly to help learn more about humans, though the temptation to binge-watch is too strong (cooking shows with tempura shrimp sizzling in oil are a particular hit). The sight of entire communities sitting silently before a flickering video screen recalls stories I've heard from far-flung Filipino provinces, where villages gathered to listen to drama programs on radio with all the solemnity of Sunday mass.

These scenes, plus the progression of seasons and their effect on mood on priorities (the need to save food for winter, the need to keep the population down by suppressing the mating urge in spring) can't help but make us think how similar the tanukis' plight is to that of aborigines. It's Takahata's way of realizing the tanukis for us in a palpable and familiar manner; it's also his way of casting a pall over the comedy. Think of the Maoris, the Native Americans, the Moros of Mindanao among others--how they stood proud before the arriving conquerors and how they've fared since--and you can't help feeling a chill while chuckling over cute antics.

You saw this unflinching level gaze when Takahata released his World War 2 drama Grave of the Fireflies (1988). The tanukis focus on construction trucks--waylay them or drive them into ditches and rivers. The tanukis ecstatic with their success celebrate with dance food drink; only later do they learn from the news that three men were killed (something never mentioned in a Disney or Pixar film) which raises an important if rarely debated question: how far are the tanukis willing to go? They've committed murder--are they willing to commit genocide?

On one side stand militant Gonta who wants to do just that: wipe out all humans or at least most of them (a few will be retained to cook tempura, burgers, fried chicken, and similar indispensable fare). On another is Oroku who urges patience (call attention to themselves she warns and the humans will wipe them out instead) and the aforementioned moratorium on mating; on yet another is Kincho who, thanks to advice from a fox, presents a startling proposal--use their transforming powers to turn themselves into human lookalikes and blend into human society. 

Stranded in the middle is Shokichi, a young, relatively easygoing tanuki who isn't a big fan of humans but doesn't feel he has to exterminate them. His viewpoint we can assume represents the majority of tanuki youths. 

There are no easy answers and Takahata doesn't help out by recommending one over the other--he's not the kind of filmmaker who tells you what to think. Certainly Shokichi is the most sympathetic character being the handsome young male people look up to in heroic adventures, but again and again throughout the film he proves irresolute and powerless. Gonta is a charming buffoon but unapologetically bloodthirsty. Oroku gives the most sensible advice but also the most unpopular and difficult to follow (they obey the command not to mate for at most a year). The issues are the same issues aborigines struggle with in the face of an encroaching foreign power: do we fight or protest peacefully? Resist all offers or negotiate for best terms? Remain the same or adapt to changing circumstances? Submit and live or die defiant? 

What follows (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) is about as inevitable as what followed in Grave of the Fireflies and almost as harrowing, albeit in a broader more multi-layered way. Eventually you realize that what you're seeing is the end of a people a culture an entire civilization--not without heartbreak or struggle--and that all that's left by film's conclusion are a handful of survivors in hiding, and the memory of a passing-strange dream. Pom Poko starts out as an amusing magical-animal animation feature that (like the raccoon dogs' pouches) expand in scope and complexity to become tragedy on an epic scale. It's perhaps one of the finest films from Takahata (colleague Hayao Miyazaki's equal if not superior), one of producing outfit Studio Ghibli's most ambitious (and underseen) works, and one of the greatest animated films ever made.

8.17.06 edited 4.20.18

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