That’s right, raccoon balls are everywhere!
Written By: Isao Takahata
Directed By: Isao Takahata
When watching movies we often look for universal themes or connectors. The desire is for every movie to relate to us or our cultures in some way. It’s considered a necessity that a truly great movie be universal, but is that really the case? It’s obviously a necessity that a great movie connect with its viewer, but movies are at their core a very personal experience. A movie is like a conversation between the viewer and the filmmaker. With that being the case why then does a movie have to be universal in its theme and messages? The easy answer is that it doesn’t, but a movie that is specific to a certain culture or place won’t appeal to everyone. Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko is a very ethnocentric movie, in every way possible it is a Japanese movie for the Japanese people. From tiny side jokes to the huge moral issues, every facet of Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko ties into the Japanese way of life and history, and it refuses to broaden its scope. This can create a disconnect with a lot of viewers, and it’s understandable that someone who doesn’t know much about Japanese culture or history will walk away less than satisfied with what they have just seen. But, that doesn’t make Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko a less than great film, it simply makes it a film that requires a certain knowledge to appreciate. Keep in mind, this isn’t like the tired, “I get it and you don’t” argument, because that argument never washes. Rather Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko does appeal to a very specific culture, and if you are not attuned to that culture then it is understandable that the film may be lost on you, but that’s not a put down in any way.
In my case the cultural nuances of Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko aren’t lost. I don’t claim to be an expert on Japanese culture by any means, but from a very young age I was fascinated by certain facets of Japanese culture and throughout my school years spent a good deal of time studying their culture. I also spent some time learning as much as I could specifically to enhance my anime viewing experience, trying to get as many cultural jokes and references as I could. Because of this I didn’t have any problem with Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko and its ethnocentric nature, but as I said earlier, it’s understandable if some did.
The movie itself is typical Isao Takahata, and by typical I mean completely different than anything else he has done. Worm@Work, a very astute member of the Filmspotting message board recently pointed out how Takahata makes a different type of movie every time but somehow always grounds his movies in realism. Even in a movie about supernatural raccoons this couldn’t be more truthful. The true power of Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko came in the way it serves as a parable of the Japanese way of life. Through a supernatural lens Takahata takes a long hard look at the urbanization of Japan and how that impacted Japanese culture. Not only do we physically see the urbanization take place, but the raccoons represent certain old mindsets and newer mindsets within Japan. Through them we see the archetypes of Japanese culture that we have become accustomed to pushed to the side for newer and more forward thinking raccoons. A person can watch Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko and just see a cool raccoon movie, but there is a statement on Japanese society to be found as well.
The only real problem I had with Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko was its reliance on narration. Too often Takahata fell into the pitfall of having the narration tell us more than we needed to know, or undercut the visuals by telling us something we have already seen or are about to see. But, when all I can complain about is the narration then obviously the rest of the movie hits its mark. The animation is beautiful, raccoon balls have never been displayed in more epic fashion. Joe Hisaishi delivers yet again with his score, creating a main theme that will get stuck in your head. There aren’t any areas where Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko disappoints, but that is to be expected from a Takahata film.
As has been discussed Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko is a very Japanese centric film. If you’ve never had any interest in Japanese culture and haven’t taken the time to learn about it then it might not be the movie for you. However if you have an appreciation for Japanese culture/history and want to delve deeper into the wonderful career of Isao Takahata then by all means give Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko a go. If you can get past the ethnocentrism, or if it isn’t a problem for you, then there’s no reason why raccoons using their giant balls to beat up cops shouldn’t be a part of your movie watching life.