#1 Heavy-handed environmentalism
I never got around to watching any of the Ghibli movies until about a year ago when I discovered my love for Nausicaä. Recently I’ve been watching through Ghibli’s entire library with a friend and I found many movies that were absolutely great. However, others I had high expectations for ended up being very underwhelming, see also my recent review of My Neighbor Totoro. Then, I remembered I was once told that Pom Poko is the Ghibli movie for the pretentious crowd. So, does me not liking this film make me double-pretentious or absolve me?
The story of Pom Poko is not very revolutionary. It stars a cast of raccoons who all lived together in a rural area with old farms and lots of forests, until the Humans decided to start a development project to create a new city. This started a civil war between the displaced raccoons until they came to realize that the Humans were the true villains here. Now united under a common cause, the various raccoons start a long-term plan to save their woods from the encroaching menace of urban development.
It’s a basic “Nature Good, City Bad” setup with sympathetic heroes and scummy bad guys, which chronicles the raccoon’s struggles, achievements, and setbacks. It has scenes that feel too much like preaching to the audience and, as a whole, it feels too bland and unchallenging in its themes. I don’t even think environmentalists would like it, because the movie makes some very sudden twists towards the end and has a major change of mind about its entire premise. I wasn’t even that invested and I was still ticked off by how easily the entire dilemma was “resolved”.
#2 Nausicaä exists
Call me biased here, but the fact that Pom Poko is such a preachy and dull environmentalist story is doubly tragic because Ghibli themselves made Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which is arguably the best animated movie to ever tackle environmentalism as a central theme.
I don’t want to suddenly turn this into a review for Nausicaä, but watching Pom Poko made me really appreciate how gracefully Nausicaä handled itself. How skillfully it establishes and explores an interesting world with strong characters and competing factions, or how the themes about taking care of the world and coexisting with nature are so well-integrated into an exciting story about warfare and survival.
Sure, Nausicaä was a Miyazaki movie and Pom Poko a Takahata one, but it’s a shame to see how two films that share such a central theme end up being so far apart in how well that theme is used.
#3 The hopelessness
As the raccoons begin their battle to stop the Humans from expanding their city, there are different factions that want to do different things. Some want to wage all-out war, but the majority wants to use transformation powers to begin haunting the Humans and make them believe spirits are protecting the forest. As the story nears a conclusion, the tactics become ever-more desperate, but a consistent issue is that none of it ever seems to stick.
At first, this made some sense. When the raccoons begin scaring local workers and infiltrating human society, those who become their victims are discarded as publicity-seekers or deranged. However, even their bigger efforts that would seem impossible to deny are easily dismissed through story conveniences that stretch believability. Towards the end of the movie, raccoons literally appear and perform magic on camera, even speak directly to reporters who can clearly understand them, and the movie moves on as if that entire scene never happened. There is even a big battle between the raccoons using their powers and police, which nobody questions afterward.
Many scenes appear like victories for the heroes, like one where a guy cancels his plans to sell his land after the raccoons turn into religious statues, making him believe the land has spiritual importance. These successes are then just ignored, which paints the fight that the protagonists are waging as so unreasonably hopeless that the movie just feels depressing to watch. If it came out today I would expect the joke to be that people are missing all these obviously-magical events happening because they are focussed on their smartphones, but here, in a story set in the 1990s, it’s just ignored because the script demands it.
Honestly, an ending where people learn just how intelligent and powerful raccoons are and choose to coexist with them wouldn’t just feel better emotionally, it’s the only ending that would make sense after raccoons literally bombarded a SWAT team, stood up on two legs, and fought back against them with their own equipment.
Big fans of Japanese folklore might disagree with me here, but a concerning point about Pom Poko is a how absolutely fond it is of ballsacks. I have been made to understand that these hold some significance in how the traditional, Japanese Tanuki is seen in their country, but the way Pom Poko keeps bringing it up is very uncomfortable.
The English dub refers to them as “pouches” in an attempt to clean it up a little; a nice attempt, even if you are still spending a lot of time watching these raccoons expand their testicles to ridiculous sizes. They will literally inflate their balls and bounce around them, or even use them to fly around like they are playing Super Mario World. It’s weird and makes this an awkward movie to watch with any potential kids, or perhaps a very good one if you want to make sure you’ll never have to babysit again.
#5 2 looooooooooong hours
I would have been okay with Pom Poko if it was significantly shorter. The reason I rarely review anime movies and put off watching any Ghibli stuff at all for years, is because I don’t like having to dedicate a huge chunk of time to one activity. Clocking in at just under 2 hours, Pom Poko really felt like a giant pill I had to somehow swallow.
The movie started off well, but once it gets into the story proper it’s so vulnerable to distractions that keep extending the runtime. There is this severely unfunny bit where you watch two salarymen ramble on about nonsense for a few minutes, and shorter, less egregious examples are found all throughout the movie. For example, twice does it take time out of advancing the story to let us know that spring has come and all the raccoons are horny now.
Castle in the Sky was longer than this and never felt boring. Heck, Nausicaä is about the same length and constantly had me intrigued. These were movies I didn’t even realize took up two hours of my life because I was so engrossed with them. Pom Poko just felt like an absolute slog by comparison, though I will admit some scenes like the battles and the parade were highlights that were an exception to this.