Written by Evelyn the Marxist Owl
Editor’s Note: Alexius is taking another weekend break and allowing yet another humanlike animal to take up his pen and write. Evelyn blogs here on tumblr, posting all sorts of ephemera related to Marxism, politics, and art. He is an owl, but he’s not as special as he thinks he is.
Last week, I took a talon stab at a Marxist reading of the animated film from Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke. This post will serve as an epilogue to that reading, in which I’ll be showing how the two films relate to each other in terms of their depiction of labour relations, the supernatural, and Japanese history and folklore. Though Pom Poko is widely acknowledged to be the lesser film of the two, with Mononoke being accredited as a modern masterpiece and the former dismissed by many as mediocre, they share a number of key similarities that serve to illuminate the significance of both films. Engaging in this re-reading of the film altered my opinion of Isao Takahata’s nostalgic, didactic take on this subject, and I hope that this will at least open the reader up to new insights.
Pom Poko deviates from established family film storytelling conventions in two significant ways. First, it features a great deal of voiceover narration, roughly similar to the type found in a typical nature documentary. Picture a Japanese David Attenborough speaking pleasant exposition of fantastical animals’ strange behaviour. Second, its narrative focus is not on individual people or animals but collectives of them. Most of the tanuki or raccoon dogs who form, as a group, our main protagonist, are unnamed and most of those who are named are identified purely by their role within the tribe. The plot can be summarized as follows: a group of tanuki, animals with the gift of transformation and illusion, come out of hiding to combat a massive development project sprawling around Tokyo that threatens their ancient forest homes. Though punctuated by numerous successes and scenes of festivity and celebration, they are finally defeated and subsumed into the new housing project, forced to scavenge and struggle for sustenance. Japan’s modernization, whose embryonic stage we saw in Mononoke, has reached its apogee, disenchanting the world and forcing nature to conform to human designs.
Takahata uses the tanuki as just one of many visual representatives for a broadly defined “traditional” Japanese culture, defined by human reverence for nature, an enchanted worldview, observance of seasonal festivals, and traditional clothing. Tonally, the film is elegiac and melancholy, concerned with a community’s endurance and ingenuity in the face of genuinely impossible odds. It is, in effect, a cinematic lament for the passing of an entire world, not into annihilation, but into the status just another commodity among a million others, components of the sleek edifice of modern capitalist society. A scene at the end of the film solidifies this perception: a human girl and one of the tanuki meet while she is standing on the balcony of her family’s new dwelling. They lock eyes, and the animal, whom we have seen has extraordinary powers to amaze and transform, stays still before scampering back to its home. Human perception of the natural world has become alienated and utilitarian, and Takahata seems to invest the possibility for a new relationship in a childlike reappraisal of nature as the site of wonder and imagination. His film is certainly visually inventive enough to back up such a claim. The tanuki who can transform live as humans, and, like those who cannot, forage for the scraps from the capitalist table. It’s just that the ones who can transform wear suits. Many times throughout the film, the tanuki lose their anthropomorphic appearance and take on a far more naturalistic look, which is rendered permanent for many at the end.
While the film implicitly prefers the more “traditional” communal structure held by the tanuki, with matriarchs and patriarchs dictating policy while the young and resourceful lead courageous sabotage missions against the development, it also depicts, from afar, the relationship between labour and capital in human society. In one sequence, the tanuki impishly haunt the workers’ workplaces and living quarters, assuming ghastly or playful shapes to cause psychological distress. Some of the frightened construction labourers quit their jobs and flee in terror, causing celebration among the tanuki. The next day, however, they are replaced by a new batch, turning their festive attitude into one of despair. Human work, in this situation, is shown as easily replaceable. Japan’s postwar recovery and economic “miracle” created a massive construction boom, with huge numbers of Japanese taking jobs building roads, housing, bridges, and other projects. Ultimately, they are captive to wage labour and, in the case of Japan, a centralized, state-sponsored capitalist ethos dedicated to “catching up” to the West. Recall this quotation from Marx used in the last post:
“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground…” (Communist Manifesto 17).
To this, Marx later adds:
“But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour” (23).
What we see in Pom Poko is human workers building homes they will likely never own on behalf of firms and a state that is committed to ever-increasing development at any cost. They work for a wage, far from equal to their contribution to the enterprise (or else how would the capitalists earn their profits?), and thus deprived of the actual value of their labour through domination. In their more primitive state, the mass of tanuki are not free since they are subjugated by tribal warrior lords and religious figures, but their lifestyle, while simpler, is certainly more carefree and expressive than that of the humans. Another factor to consider is the context of global competition that has driven Japanese history, and thus the events of Pom Poko. Connected to a first-world alliance of liberal capitalist powers, Japan was under enormous pressure to modernize and transform its country into an engine for the global economy. In fact, as a country without a proper military, Japan has been a nation that has exerted its late twentieth century superpower status almost purely through economic means. Extraordinary growth and technological innovation, accelerating around the time the film is set, led to the disastrous financial crisis that has dragged on far longer there than in any other developed country. Given that the film was produced in 1994, just a few years after the collapse of the bubble economy, I cannot help but think that the stagnation and national soul-searching fed into the narrative here. Therefore, another potential reading of the film could be as a critique of the wasteful development policies that the country took on during the postwar era that led to the catastrophes of the early 90s.
The animators at one point give us a vivid mythological spectacle in the form of a carnival of gods and monsters put on by the tanuki to remind the humans of what they have forgotten. In a cruel twist, their stunt is appropriated by the proprietor of a new amusement park nearby. Capitalism commodifies even the glories of the past, and through marketing our sense of awe is dulled to a vague and unfocused drive to consume and be entertained. This is further reinforced by scenes featuring an assimilated fox, whose shrewdness and capability for illusion has made him uniquely suited for the role of capitalist lackey. Sitting in his plush Tokyo quarters, devouring fine meats, he is still an ally to the tanuki but only in order to enable their absorption into the human workforce. Deprived of their homes and their ability to practice their traditional culture, the tanuki–the “lucky” ones, at any rate–become yet more cogs in an exploitative system. What they possess that other humanlike creatures do not is a strong connection to those premodern times and a real awareness of the cultural and aesthetic poverty of modern life.
While the film is apt at showing the tension between the premodern, idyllic ideology of tanuki and the hard, capitalistic ethos of modern human society, it does not go a step further to ask why the Japanese, who were supposedly so “in touch” with nature, are now cutting down all the trees. This is unfortunate, and robs the film of some of its critical power. Though the humans are not demonized and actually serve as the potential redemption out of the film’s dour ending, they are also not properly understood or realized as historically rooted and ever-changing. The humans, just as much as the tanuki, are transforming and transformative creatures. To Pom Poko’s credit, there is a thread in the film that looks at this commonality between the two sides, but it is never brought to the surface in a meaningful way. This lack of historical perspective, which could have meshed well into the narrative given the communal focus of the film and its critical posture toward modernity, is one of the film’s many flaws which makes it at times more annoyingly nostalgic than clear-eyed and melancholic. Takahata’s film does not harbour illusions: the time of magic tanuki and the gods has passed. Without this realization, the story might well have fallen into insufferable fantasy. As it is, it, like Mononoke, stands above your typical environmental fable. Where it suffers in comparison to that greater Miyazaki work is its failure to live up to its potential. At the very end, Shoukichi, one of the better-developed raccoon characters and the closest we get to an individual protagonist, turns to the audience and implores them to recognize the remnants of nature all around them. This, like the reliance of televised exposition, is a narrative failing, though not a fatal one. Rather than trusting in the inherent melancholy of the story the film makes its call to arms directly. This could have worked, but its execution and placement in the story makes it ineffective.
Despite these shortcomings, Pom Poko gives its audience a rough critical glance at the state of modern society, both in terms of environmental degradation and the inherent alienation and competitive drives of capitalism. I would argue that it stands as a strong aesthetic work and one that can furnish a number of productive readings, of which I have attempted but one. I know that Takahata’s new film, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, is due for release in Japan this year, and hopefully be granted a North American release not too far from now. Watch on, readers, and Alexius will be back soon with another post on Christian Kitsch. Evelyn out!
Addendum: Evelyn back! I came upon another thought, though I could not integrate it into the structure of the main post. Let it hang here naked and exposed, but I feel compelled to articulate it. Another point on which the film could be justly criticized is its sense of inevitability, as its characters ultimately have no agency over their fate. The triumph of Japanese capitalism appears to be set in stone, forever etched into the landscape and the people living within it without recourse to reimagine or construct a new society. There is a scene near the end where, convinced of their doom, the tanuki join forces to stage a final grand illusion. For a brief moment, the land around them is restored to its former agrarian/forested glory before it vanishes. Is this moment an admission of cinematic illusion to the audience by the film or an expression of the film’s genuine wish for an illusory, ultimately romanticized and empty, vision of the past to be revived? Probably both, but if it is the latter there is still a sense in which this futile and romantic gesture shows us the power of film to revive the past and allow us to see what we have lost. In that way, Pom Poko establishes itself as a vessel of memory, an imperfect and prosthetic apparatus by which the Japanese audience might catch a glimpse into their alienated past.