The Burden of Change:

Mourning the Pastoral in Pom Poko

Japanese tales are burdened with loss, especially modern ones. Modern Japanese fiction, produced by such writers as Natsume Soseki, is conscious about the loss of innocence and the disintegration of Eastern culture against the Western influences of the late 19th century. And while the youth at the time embraced the individualism of the European elite, including French existential philosophy, the conservative backlash that would precipitate the development of Axis Japan was on the horizon. (Yukio Mishima develops this frustration between traditionalism and westernization in superb detail in his book Spring Snow, as illustrated by the fraught relationship between Kiyoaki and Satoko.)  But just like in English poetry on the cusp of the industrial revolution, the mourning of the pastoral preoccupies this era of prose as a feudal nation emerges a major diplomatic power at the turn of the 20th century.

Studio Ghibli, influenced by Walt Disney’s animation empire (and distributed by Disney in the US), maintains the somber edge of modern Japanese fiction, despite being closely linked with Western animation tradition. A close analogue to Ghibli in the West, most are familiar with Pixar, now a studio under the wing of Disney. Pixar’s filmography boasts a wide array of films preoccupied with larger issues that Americans face on a daily basis, yet maintains a positive and mostly altruistic outlook. A film never features it’s characters “losing” in the plainest sense, but always emerging in a state qualitatively, if not superficially, better than before the beginning of the film’s events. The defining factor of Studio Ghibli, however, is that their films leave room for a bittersweet ending. Pom Poko is an example of a film that features such a torn conclusion.

The dialogue and narrative style of Pom Poko is similar to a documentary, only without the subversive pretension that most auteur documentaries possess. The film’s tone is neutral and similar to that of a nature film produced by David  Attenborough. Before the BBC produced the widely acclaimed Planet Earth miniseries, a lesser known series called Living Planet was developed, this time with Attenborough in his naturalistic mode, walking through the frame and interacting with the wildlife in focus. It is an innocuous program in comparison to its spiritual successor, without the undertones of global warming, rapid urbanization, and the disappearance of hundreds of species due to human interference. Ghibli’s raccoon dogs, which are hardly on the verge of extinction in reality, are given little concession in Pom Poko. And the varieties of narrators that interject are intentionally casual. This alone is meritorious of a longer, thoughtful essay on the difference between English dubbing and original Japanese language audio. (Consider the socio-cultural norms transmitted through inflection, word choice, idiomatic slang, and word economy.[1]) In the first moments of the film, the narrative style is similar to historical accounts of major events in world history, where the subject was alive during the time in which the events took place. Later on in the film, the style switches to its dominant naturalist tone. Regardless the film is schizophrenic, boasting a Japanese consciousness transmitted through English language dubbing. The only, arguably, universal aspect between the two language presentations is contained in the audio-visual aesthetics, which convince the viewer that they are being related personal stories not subjected to artificial conventions of plot and narrative. Rather, the viewer is listening to the first hand eyewitness account of a survivor, both which Japanese and American cultures are familiar with.

The anthropomorphic raccoon dogs featured in the film, also known as Tanuki, are too developed to be simply animals caught in the throes of human expansion. They are presented instead as lifeforms occupying the same space as humans, though their lifespans are significantly longer. Furthermore, they are creatures of habit, too familiar with their own way of life to adapt to change, much like children or adolescents undergoing a period of rapid development. From the beginning credits of the film, it is clear that its bumbling protagonists are not going to “win” in the traditional sense. Far greater is the challenge of facing an unstoppable event that forces the protagonists to make the best of a bad situation, which the raccoon dogs face in the inevitable destruction of their habitat. (Such is the things of life.) The greater message presented here is the modern Japanese cultural problem of the westernization of Japan. The struggles of the tanuki represent the forceful confrontation between western society/economics and eastern traditionalism. Like a steamroller (embodied literally in the form of construction equipment that the raccoon dogs sabotage), westernization sweeps over Japan, crushing ancestral traditions and places critical to the Japanese cultural identity. The moral thus emerges at the end of the film:  coping with change does not entail dishonoring the past, but keeping the memory of the past at the forefront of our minds as a reminder of who we are as a people.

Therefore, the film presents the viewer with two diametric conclusions: to sympathize with the struggles of the raccoon dogs or to recognize that, like all life, the raccoon dogs must evolve or succumb to obscurity and death. (Here, their survival is thematically infused with the survival of traditionalism, namely Japanese Shinto and Animism practices that suggest the forest and nature play an important role in the wholeness of creation.) But it is clear that survival of the fittest isn’t meant to be the reading of this film. The affectionate treatment of the forest and its devastation incurred by rapid urbanization both emphasize the spiritual quality of the land. Humanity, once tied to the land, now abdicates her connection to the land resulting in disillusionment. Generally, our attempt to return to a simpler way of life is embodied in the concept of the Pastoral, which is thematic of English poetry during the Romantic era which was on the cusp of the industrial revolution.  Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is such a work that tragically mourns the loss of the pastoral, embodied in the increasing complexity of Tess’s life after she is raped by an uncouth impostor. Though she dies at the end of the book, on the run from the law after killing the man that ruined her life in a heat of passion, she remains the product of her life experiences. It is not her third degree murder that defines her, but her lifetime of making the best of a poor situation into which she was born. In Pom Poko, the raccoon dogs are far from perfect, just like Tess, who themselves are sloth and irresponsible and incapable of seeing themselves living within a broader ecosystem. They rejoice when they find out that their efforts have stayed the hands of the humans developing on their land, even when they find out that they have killed some humans in the process. Ultimately some of them resort to frenzied violence in desperation to face off the humans, becoming little more than eco-terrorists. This is clearly not a movie about anthropomorphic toys or sympathetic automatons, but about desperate, hopeless animals unwilling to let go of their land.

This all comes back to the bomb of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the lasting punctuation on the Meji-Showa Era traditionalism and ultra-conservatism of the final years of the Empire of Japan. The synergistic period of rapid development seeing the merging of technology and bushido become one, resulting in Japanese fascism, was the beginning of the end of traditional Japanese politics. Rather than surrender to Western influence, the Japanese unified under the banner of nationalism and bitterly fought to expand their empire over the Pacific. The death of hundreds of thousands in nuclear fire proved enough to make Emperor Hirohito speak only a few days later of surrender, but at a terrible cost:

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
–August 15th, 1945

It was the first time the commoners of Japan had heard the emperor speak to them, and those who understood what it meant to hear his voice wept in bitterness. The militaristic Gonta, who dons a kamikaze inspired hachimaki and pointlessly dies before facing the inevitability of change, symbolizes Japan’s fatalistic attitude against western influence. He would rather die than change his ways, thus resulting in the deaths of his peers that he swayed to action. In this context, Pom Poko then is a story about the identity of Japan as a modern state, a feudal people faced with momentous and sudden change within the span of a hundred years. (Or perhaps a story consciously aware of the history of Japan and the product of spiritual anguish against the begrudged acceptance of Westernization.) Ultimately Japan westernized and reconciled with the United States, but how Japan coped with their defeat is chronicled elsewhere through covert means of expression in popular culture. Pom Poko is one such product of expression. The plot finds resolution in the raccoon dogs celebrating as they did before the destruction of their forest on a golf course and one of the leading characters, Shoukichi, breaks the fourth wall to assuage the audience of any doubt that things will be alright. The scene is richly cathartic, accompanied by a playful score that rings bittersweet in the ears of the hearer. Ultimately, Pom Poko can be summed up completely in this final bow as a film preoccupied with the burden of change.

[1] The English version of the film, replaces the references to the mystical (and hilarious) scrotum that Tanuki use to crush their foes in combat, instead using the word “pouch” to describe it.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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