Disney's 1996 deal with Studio Ghibli directors Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Isao Takahata (Grave Of The Fireflies) included the American distribution rights to virtually all of the studio's uncommitted output. But given Disney's nervousness over the content of Miyazaki mega-hits like Princess Mononoke, fans generally doubted that Ghibli's odder, less accessible fare would ever see the light of day here. So it's surprising that Disney is putting Takahata's animated features My Neighbors The Yamadas and Pom Poko into stores. But it's just as surprising that Disney's making no effort to contextualize these films for Americans, who are likely to find them both baffling in spite of their inherent charm.
Takahata and Miyazaki often produce and collaborate on each other's features, which are visually and textually similar. But Takahata's most recent film, 1999's My Neighbors The Yamadas, departed completely both from the "Ghibli look" and from the feel of his previous movies. Based on a popular Japanese four-panel newspaper comic about a fractious family, Yamadas feels more like an early Peanuts TV special than a Ghibli feature. With a sketchy, immediate, dashed-off visual style taken directly from the comic strip, Yamadas is far more stylized and cartoony than any previous Ghibli feature, and its choppy vignettes and low-key punch lines perpetuate the comic-strip feel. The domestic humor is often too culture-specific to play for a non-Japanese audience, but Yamadas does have its accessible moments, particularly in the sweet extended opening flight of fantasy. Humor often doesn't cross linguistic barriers, but Ghibli's films have long proved that playful imagery and simple joy come across just fine.
Takahata's 1994 feature Pom Poko looks and feels far more like a Ghibli production. When construction devastates the forests around Tokyo, the local tanuki—raccoon-like Japanese canines, associated in folklore with gluttony, virility, and mischief—struggle to save their homes. Like foxes, tanuki have been mythologized as tricky shape-shifters, and like Miyazaki in Howl's Moving Castle, Takahata uses his protagonists' physical mutability to express their mental states: Depending on the context and mood, they morph from chubby teddy bears to photorealistic animals. The film's tone similarly morphs from giddy, gleeful silliness to deadly sorrow, as Takahata follows the adventures of playful cartoon critters one moment, then shows their real-world equivalents getting slaughtered or starving the next. Throughout the episodic film, the tanuki try various tacks to preserve their homes, but find humanity mostly oblivious. For all its goodhearted cheer, Pom Poko is a glum indictment of modern Japan's disjunction from the natural and spiritual world. But it strikes a positive final note by implying that those worlds still exist, just out of sight, waiting and flourishing.
Both films center on sweet, lively humor and contentious but enriching relationships between individuals, but their many traditional references and cultural assumptions are likely to lose American audiences—who, if nothing else, may boggle over the tanukis' visible dangling testicles, and their tendency to shape-shift them into offensive weaponry. And Disney's halfhearted extras (a featurette on the English dub on Yamadas, an entire extra DVD for the storyboards of Pom Poko) are no help. Through its sweet, funny, and terrifically executed films, Studio Ghibli has been acting as a cultural ambassador for decades. But some of its communiqués still get a bit lost in translation.