Monday, September 24, 2012

two (very different) animated tales of animal survival

I recently watched two animated films about how society and other pressures have adversely affected animal colonies. One was a Japanese film from 1994, Pom Poko, and the other a British film, Watership Down, from 1978, based on Richard Adams's popular novel.

Pom Poko

Written and directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Only YesterdayPom Poko was animated by Studio Ghibli and has become one of my daughter's and my favorite animated films. Its environmental message is as strong as ever. As the suburbs of Tokyo grow, they are sprawling and destroying the countryside, specifically the Tama Hills, the habitat of the tanuki, or raccoon dogs, mischievous shape-shifters who just want their home and their carefree lifestyle to stay the same as it always has. But that is not to be. The tanuki band together to try and fight the encroaching humans. They utilize their shape-shifting abilities to both frighten and blend in. Pom Poko mixes different animation styles — realistic, anthropomorphic, and cartoony drawings. One of the highlights of the film is a monster parade, where the raccoon dogs try to scare their human neighbors by transforming themselves into a number of fantastic creatures, including different ghosts and spirits, goblins, other animals like monkeys and tigers, and giant skeletons.

The three styles of Pom Poko
Watership Down

John Hurt is the voice of Hazel, the leader of a small group of rabbits who have fleed their unsafe warren and are in search of a better, safer life elsewhere. As they journey across the countryside they encounter dangerous animals, traps, rabbits kept in cages, and other threats to their survival. The impressive British voice cast includes Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson, Zero Mostel, Denholm Elliot, Nigel Hawthorne, and Joss Ackland. Not exactly a film for the kiddies, Watership Down includes scenes of violence and many of the rabbits are bloodied on their journey to find a new home. The film is frankly a horror movie. It has a wonderful opening animated sequence, outlining the mythology of the rabbits' world, done in a different, more graphic style, which was directed by original director John Hubley, who died in 1977. Martin Rosen was hired to replace him.

Watership Down was very well made, but it's a bit of a downer, and I doubt we would ever want to see it again. We have already watched Pom Poko numerous times and I know will see it again (and again). Although its story is also poignant, and some of the tanuki come to unfortunate ends, there is still something uplifting about the film. Pom Poko is one of those movies that is hard to describe, except to insist that it is so great that you really just have to see it. Its humor is goofy and unlike any other movie out there. Its characters are at times annoying, touching, and lovable. It's just good and highly recommended. Check it out.

Note re anime styles (big thanks to Mario for putting this so succinctly):
It might help those readers who are not familiar with anime and manga conventions to know that the childish, or "chibi", style is a convention used by some artists to show the character is behaving childishly and thus improperly. The other convention commonly seen in both anime and manga is the "large-eyed" look — if a character has over-sized eyes, it means innocence: a boy younger than about 15 or 16, or a girl younger than about 21 or so. This last can be a very useful marker: in a work that uses this convention, a character who should have the large eyes but doesn't bears watching, because something is very wrong about him or her.

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