You’d need a heart of stone to grow up in the ‘90s and come out without some environmentalist tendencies. You’d go to the movies and watch as cute rainforest animals had their home imperilled by oncoming bulldozers (in Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest) or cringe at the cruelty inflicted upon an innocent orca (in Free Willy). Then you’d get home from school and switch on the TV to see Captain Planet and the Planeteers; you could be one too! And, really, when it comes down to the unfeeling progress of industry or the suffering of poor little animals, why wouldn’t you be?
Much in the same vein is Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, which executes roughly the same premise as Fern Gully – a community of animals, in this case raccoons, tries to oppose land developers levelling their land – with infinitely more creativity (though, it must be said, much less Robin Williams). It’s deeply embedded in Japanese traditions; much of its narrative revolving around the mythical shapeshifting powers of the raccoons, along with a host of religious traditions and, uh, tanuki testicles. Those shapeshifting powers give Takahata free reign to create gloriously imaginative sequences, in particular a spectacular parade where dragons, fairies and spirits transmute forms as quick as the eye can see; it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. Like many of Studio Ghibli’s environmentally-minded films, Pom Poko is imbued with a melancholy sense of fatalism. The efforts mounted by the raccoons in their attempts to delay the devastation of their forest home are presented in intricate detail – including both strategic violence (of the type you’d never have seen in Fern Gully) and elaborate charades designed to convince the general public that their woods are protected by ancient spirits – yet there’s this lingering sense of impending failure overhanging the proceedings. The raccoon community is divided, often bitterly. There are failed mutinies! And weird cults! Pom Poko proves to be a remarkably robust portrait of a revolution in progress … but it is a doomed revolution. None of the false optimism of the Planeteers, here.
The conclusion of Pom Poko is bittersweet; neither happy nor entirely unhappy. But in many ways, the film’s ‘resolution’ to the raccoons’ dilemma – to assume human form, abandoning their traditional lifestyle along with the last vestiges of their forest – is the film’s most poignant piece of commentary. It’s a paradoxically empathetic indictment of those of us simply swept along with the relentless, unfeeling progress of industrialisation and globalisation. Pom Poko might argue that saving our planet is the thing to do, but it also understands why one’s dreams of becoming Planeteers can fade away as adulthood looms, environmentalist impulses eroded by work and family commitments.