Tonight's feature was Japan's nomination for the 1994 Oscar Best Foreign Film award. An animated film? Yes, albeit one from Studio Ghibli - arguably the finest animation studio in the world throughout the last decade. Their films are used as teaching aids in Disney's training school, and specialists in the field continually refer to them as the pinnacle of their art. Ghibli's beloved mascot, Totoro, is well known to the Japanese public, young and old... and, unlike much of the rather otaku-oriented anime produced today, Ghibli anime is very much a mainstream attraction.
Ponpoko is the third-highest-grossing animation film ever in Japan, following in the wake of Porco Rosso (also from Ghibli) and Disney's Aladdin. Ponpoko is also the latest film to come from the hands of Isao Takahata. All too often, people consider legendary director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as being synonymous. While Miyazaki's works - an impressive roster which includes Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbor Totoro - are usually more popular than Takahata's, the latter has also directed some fine films. The two other Takahata films from this Ghibli era are Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday; the first one is characterized by raw - even frightening - emotion and the latter (while flawed) has a poetic quality that is rare even in live-action films.
With Takahata's previous works in mind, Ponpoko comes across as a pleasant surprise. As might be expected from a film that bears the Studio Ghibli name, it is visually and technically stunning. Despite its environmental twist, Ponpoko is a playful film - much like the raccoons it portrays. It romps through with (un)healthy doses of cultural catches and references to folklore. No wonder, then, that it was chosen as Japan's representative at the Oscars.
∑ tanuki = raccoon
∑ A major folk reference has to do with the raccoon's ability to transform into anything... and, well, the animals soon get caught up with their, uh, somewhat excessive demonstration of their skills.:)
∑ While Takahata is actually Miyazaki's senior, it is most accurate to view them as contemporaries.
∑ Have you ever wondered why Takahata's films are visually similar to those of Miyazaki? Takahata used to direct TV series (Heidi of the Alps, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Anne of Green Gables) and films (Sun Prince Horus, Panda Kopanda) on which Miyazaki worked as an animator. Takahata doesn't draw; he directs.
∑ Ponpoko may also be the last film to be directed by Takahata in this century. He is currently the head of a director's school which Ghibli/Tokuma recently set up, and he is not working on any project for the "foreseeable" future.