As the human city development encroaches on the raccoon dog population's forest and meadow habitat, the raccoon dogs find themselves faced with the very real possibility of extinction. In response, the raccoon dogs engage in a desperate struggle to stop the construction and preserve their home.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Isao Takahata, the man who brought us the good Only Yesterday and the masterful Grave of the Fireflies, is at his most bizarre here. This is essentially the same story about anthropomorphic animals being distressed that humans are destroying their home that has been told countless times before, but there's precious little here that will be tiresomely familiar. The movie is overflowing with creativity, humour, and invention; and in the end, that's probably why it's ultimately less than a masterpiece. There's so much here that too little attention seems to have gone into tying it all together coherently.
The first half is definitely the best, since the movie treads more carefully while establishing itself. The raccoons living in a forest that's scheduled to be destroyed to make way for a new Tokyo suburb unite to develop their shapeshifting powers and use them to save their home. The problem, however, is that these are not professional guerrillas or revolutionaries or anything of the sort. They are raccoons, and as such, equally concerned with partying and scavenging in the humans' trash as with getting rid of them. There's also a priceless plot point about the need to keep the population down by stopping all mating in spring -- a policy with obvious enforcement problems. The tone is kept mostly light, and things move briskly, making the movie a fun experience thus far. Particularly ingenious is how the raccoons are shown differently according to the dramatic needs of the scene/ sometimes they're drawn completely realistically, walking on four legs and with totally inexpressive faces; sometimes they're drawn like traditional bipedal cartoon characters; and other times they take on human form.
However, its two-hour running time may have been a bit much. There's no concrete point where it stops working, but somehow the second hour works less well than the first. Plot points become more and more dubious and underdeveloped. What kind of Spook War could so easily be mistaken for a parade? Why were they initially so reticent about talking to the TV reporter? Shouldn't they have tried to do something with that million dollars they stole? Also, the "turn back the clock" illusion at the climax is maybe too ambiguous for its own good. It's not that it couldn't have been effective -- Hayao Miyazaki fine-tuned it to be devastatingly effective in Princess Mononoke -- but it just seems a bit incongruous here. The very end tries to be bittersweet in its admission of defeat but continuance of hope, but with only nominal success.
Still, this one is definitely worth seeing. As with all Studio Ghibli films, it's more concerned with real emotions and issues rather than the spraying blood and female nudity of so much other anime, and the level of wit and invention is some of the highest ever. It's a textbook example of how to handle anthropomorphism of animals with a maximum realism and a minimum of sentimentality. And where else are you going to see balls used so effectively as weapons?
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