Headline: Studio Ghibli Reviews 4
Originally posted May 16th, 2015
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One of the things that makes Studio Ghibli so successful – in my opinion – is the way they use creative storytelling to express universal morals. Sometimes these morals are obvious and other times they’re more obscure. But in the case of ‘Pom Poko’, it’s clear throughout the film what message they’re trying to tell. Much like ‘Valley of the Wind’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’, the story talks about the environment. Specifically, how land development and deforestation ruins the lives of animals. Ultimately, the aim is to raise awareness of these damaging effects, by showing them from the animals’ perspective and what they have to do to survive. This alone could be what made ‘Pom Poko’ the number one domestic-selling Japanese film in 1994.
The story begins in 1960s Japan on the outskirts of Tokyo. Major suburban development has been cutting into large sections of the forest, forcing many animals from their homes. By the early 1990s, tribes of shape-shifting raccoons are fighting each other in a war over food and territory. But when they see just how much of their land has been lost, they agree to join forces fight the common enemy. Now they have to try and find a way to stop the construction project and save their homeland.
On the surface, the story seems pretty straight-forward and generic; a forest is being destroyed and the animals want retribution. But like most Ghibli films, what sets it apart is the fantasy elements. While it’s not uncommon for movies to blend magic and nature, ‘Pom Poko’ does it in a way that reflects Japanese culture and history – the idea of shape-shifting raccoons comes from Japanese folklore. Plus, the story ties in with several real-life events that took place in Japan, such as the New Tama project – the largest urban land development project in history.
Another aspect that makes this story believable is the portrayal of its human characters. Unlike most environmental films, they’re not stereotyped as being evil. Instead, they’re just doing what’s best for their community, without considering the damage their causing. We do hear about some humans mistreating raccoons (e.g. killing them for their fur), but others are shown to be more caring. What’s good about this representation is how it shows both sides of the argument and allows audiences to make their own judgment – rather than having one opinion forced on them.
But the thing that makes ‘Pom Poko’ stand out the most is its emphasis on sacrifice and inevitability. We know that New Tama was eventually built, so the plot is somewhat predictable and it’s no surprise to see the raccoons’ situation getting worse. In the end, they’re forced to accept that only the strongest can survive and nothing they do can stop the land development.
So with all I have to say about the story, what about its characters? Well, honestly, they’re not that memorable. I won’t deny there are some great voice actors involved in the English Dub, like Clancy Brown as Gonta, Maurice LaMarche as the narrator and Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Shoukishi. Some have even provided their talents in other Ghibli films like Tress MacNeille (‘My Neighbours the Yamadas’), Kevin Michael Richardson (‘Porco Rosso’ and ‘Tales from Earthsea’) and John DiMaggio (‘Princess Mononoke’). The problem with the characters is their quantity. Even if you somehow manage to remember all their names, the narrative never focuses on one or two of them for long, and there’s nobody who stands out as the main protagonist. As a result the narrative contains numerous side-plots, and the audience doesn’t know who to relate to. So the voice acting is great, but the characters themselves needed better handling.
Overall ‘Pom Poko’ appeals well to both children and adults. The song ‘Mr. Racoon’ is catchy and memorable for children, while the history lessons and depictions of death are more in the adult territory. The story doesn’t have much of a climax, but there are a few memorable moments (e.g. the classic ‘it’s behind you’ gag).
In conclusion, I wouldn’t say ‘Pom Poko’ is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films, but it does have a strong message behind it. I would recommend this to any Ghibli fans, young or old, and those who believe in preserving the environment. This film would make the World Wildlife Fund proud.
My next Studio Ghibli review will be ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. Hopefully there won’t be as much of a delay on that review as there was this one (7 months). I’m planning to release these on a monthly basis. Stay tuned.
‘Pom Poko’ was my first time reviewing a Studio Ghibli film since finishing University. I was glad to be writing my own pieces again, but I still had much to learn about finding my own style. ‘Dork Diaries’ came out perfectly because it was written differently to anything I’d done before. It was just a matter of applying that uniqueness to other reviews – instead of writing them all like essays.
For the most part, ‘Pom Poko’ suffered the same problems as my ‘Martial Hearts’ review. I structured the paragraphs well, but the sentences came out long and confusing because I crammed them with too much information. Plus, they were hastily written without much editing. For this repost, I’ve cut down many of the longer sentences and removed some sections altogether.
The only paragraph that felt too short was the synopsis. And for good reason. Although the movie had a basic premise, the story was padded out with numerous side-plots – all of which were unengaging and didn’t warrant further description. That’s why I spent most of the review talking about themes and others aspects, rather than the plot and its characters.
I also learnt a couple of valuable lessons from writing this piece. First of all, if you reference something from the story, don’t just tell readers to watch it themselves in order to understand it – I said this in the review at one point before editing. It’s lazy and impractical, because most people won’t bother. Second, I realised that my writing schedule needed changing. ‘Dork Diaries’ was only successful because I took time planning, writing and editing it over several days. If I wanted more reviews to turn like that well, I had to spend more than a day working on them. ‘Pom Poko’ might’ve been another let-down, but it gave me the knowledge I needed to make the next review work better.