Where have all the shape-shifting raccoon dogs gone?

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Where have all the shape-shifting raccoon dogs gone?


Isao Takahata looks at the bulldozers flattening the suburbs of Seoul, the same bulldozers that rolled across his native Japan decades ago, and he sees the urban homogenization of the countryside ― the death not just of trees and wild animals, but of tradition and magic.
Mr. Takahata, one of the most influential animation directors in Japanese history, visited the Seoul Cartoon and Animation Festival last week in Seoul, speaking to viewers at a screening of “Pom Poko,” his 1994 animated film about the destruction of a forest to make way for a Tokyo suburb, and the resistance movement of a group of tanuki ― Japanese raccoon dogs ― who have the ability to produce illusions and shape shift.
A co-founder of Studio Ghibli with the Academy Award-winner Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animation director’s breakout film was “The Prince of the Sun,” a 1968 adventure from Toei studio and the beginning of a generational shift in Japanese animation. Takahata was the director ― Miyazaki, his protege, was still just an animator. Since then, Mr. Takahata has created more landmark films, including, in 1988, “Grave of the Fireflies,” a drama about two siblings orphaned in World War II that Roger Ebert said “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
Creating “Pom Poko” was a matter of looking back to Japan’s mythology. “From the Edo Period ― from about 300 years ago ― there are various stories about these tanuki. In these stories, they had the ability to shape shift and disguise themselves as people, but they often made mistakes. So we put together real tanuki and their appearances in stories.”
“For about 30 years in Japan, there was quite a bit of construction going on. Coming to Seoul, I see there’s a lot of construction here, so I think you will understand,” Mr. Takahata said. “This kind of construction removes the homes not just of the tanuki, but of many animals. So we thought, what would these tanuki do after losing their home, if they really were able to transform?”
“Then we started thinking, if tanuki really could transform today, why do they get hit by cars so often? Perhaps some of them have lost that ability.”
Mr. Takahata’s films have found moderate success overseas ― many were recently shown on American television ― though not as much as those of his student, Miyazaki. Still, the two have similar perspectives on filmmaking and foreign markets, and Mr. Takahata had advice for Korean animators trying to export their work.
“If you trust in the rest of the world and make a film your fellow Koreans will think is interesting, that you think is interesting, then that feeling will spread,” he explained.
There are obstacles, however. “To make animation takes money, so if your country doesn’t have a large population of viewers, it will be difficult. But I do feel that if you make a film that Koreans will all want to see, then people overseas will definitely also want to see it.” Nostalgia for the past and a love of the simple family life are common motifs in Takahata’s films, which Seoulites will have the chance to discover next month, when a retrospective of the director screens at CGV Yongsan, CGV Gangbyeon and CGV Sangam. In addition to “Pom Poko” and “Grave of the Fireflies,” the cinema chain will screen “Only Yesterday,” about a woman who discovers love in the countryside while reminiscing about her childhood in postwar Japan, and “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” a series of family vignettes based on a comic strip and animated in a unique ink painting style. The films will be in Japanese with Korean subtitles. For more details see www.cgv.co.kr.

by Ben Applegate
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