Isao Takahata returns to Japanese folklore in Pom Poko (1994) to cope with the changing Japan

Surprisingly enough,  Pom Poko is the Isao Takahata film that broke me rather than his most acclaimed film – Grave of the Fireflies. Pom Poko, which is steeped in Japanese folklore from head-to-toe, dressed with every legend tied to the forest and the all powerful Tanuki, uniquely uses this to tell a story about the changing Japan. 

It’s a modern story of suburban housing developments and the loss of natural forest in Japan. It’s the Tanuki doing what they do best in terrifying the general populace as a means to dissuade them from building future developments. At its core, the idea itself is cute, but it’s more dire than that in Takahata’s urgent approach. 

Takahata genuinely uses every imaginable story from Japanese mythology to convey the dying culture of contemporary Japan. It’s used to charm, but also used maliciously and even results in the death of some humans. However, it’s expressed as a battle for their survival and the story carefully relates the trouble inflicted on the Tanuki, foxes, and all the creatures of the forest to express the message. A message that each new development takes valuable resources away from all those who depend on them.

Conversely, the moments that lean fully into the spiritual and surreal elements of the story are so wonderfully constructed and build the world so thoroughly. There’s not enough space to cover all the mythological references in the film, as almost every scene has a number of them (some have four or five in one shot). There are few films that engage as deeply with a culture’s sacred superstition as Pom Poko. And even Pom Poko develops the universe as an onomatopoeia for the Tanuki banging on their bulging stomachs. It’s a beautiful ode to the stories passed down throughout Japan’s history.

Hand-drawn animation

The hand-drawn animation is stunning and rife with vibrancy. The look of the forest is marvelous and Takahata uses a wide variety of Japanese art styles to tell a larger story than what’s simply in the text. The layers of storytelling within the script will force me to revisit this film time and time again. There’s so much to take in on any given frame and so many distinct characters to engage with.

Ghibli, as a film studio, is rare to find a film that doesn’t have a legion of fans. Pom Poko does have its share of admirers, but this is an animated film that should be higher regarded. It uses the medium to best tell this historical story, while relaying the themes in a way that builds upon the well established universe of Pom Poko. It’s certainly one of the more underappreciated Ghibli films and one that deserves a second look.


★★★★/ Out of 5★s (86)

(90-88-85-87-85-93-90-87-85-85-89-80-90-90: 87.42)

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