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Tanuki are popular mythological characters in their native Japan: statues and figurines depicting their likeness are almost as common as those of the maneki-neko (“good fortune cat”). Like the Greek god Pan, they represent an earthy, boisterous sensibility. The popular representation emphasizes their hard-partying nature through big bellies and scrotums (too bad this song wasn't included in the English-language version), and they’re often shown carrying sake bottles.
Pom Poko (the title is an onomatopoeic term that refers to the sound made by the creatures’ bellies, which the tanuki sometimes beat like drums) presents these characters as stewards of the forests. Isao Takahata’s script tells the story of a tanuki community inhabiting the woods just outside of Tokyo: when suburban sprawl encroaches on their environment, they use their special powers to fight back against developers. The best known of these powers is shapeshifting: in the folklore, tanuki often assume the form of people or objects (especially statues) in order to trick humans. In the centerpiece of Pom Poko, the creatures attempt to scare the people of Tokyo by besieging the city in the form of yokai, or evil spirits. It’s an exceptional scene, anticipating some of the imaginative crowd shots of Ghibli’s 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away, which also plays at the Film Center this week. (The Wikipedia page on yokai provides a useful overview of that subject too.)Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, which screen later in the Film Center's Ghibli series) place messages of ecological responsibility front and center. Pom Poko belongs to this latter category, depicting the clearing of natural habitats as inherently barbaric.
It’s worth noting that the environmentalist messages of Ghibli releases never comes across as pedantic. The storytellers’ affinity for nature feels primarily aesthetic, the variety of the natural world providing endless inspiration for their detailed hand-drawn designs. In Pom Poko, that affinity takes on a spiritual quality as well. The natural world, the movie reminds us, has inspired not only visual splendor, but age-old myths. What makes the film’s conclusion so devastating (indeed, almost as heartbreaking as that of Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies) is its implication that concomitant with the destruction of nature is the destruction of imaginative thinking, which is no less essential to a thriving culture.