Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 3: Jungle

Something else just occurred to me that must have contributed to the sense of awe I got out of the natural settings of the Yucatan.

The distinction between ‘old growth’ and ‘new growth’ that exists elsewhere in the Americas–that phenomenon which causes nature lovers of the pacific coast to scorn us easterners and our baby forests where none of the trees are any more than seventy years old–is completely inapplicable in the Yucatan. The soil here is so porous and so thin that the only time you ever see a tree older than fifty or sixty years is when it was cultivated to grow that way.

I had been, until I arrived in the Yucatan, perhaps mildly unclear on the distinction between rainforest and jungle. Rainforests are old-growth. When you come in with the gas-powered buzzsaws and cut down the glorious mahogany to make tables for the wealthy imperialist, that shit doesn’t just grow back. The trees are hundreds of feet high, and the canopy so thick it blocks out most of the light and limits the types and the density of undergrowth capable of surviving beneath it. I’ve hiked in a rainforest before in Hawaii, and while bushwhacking one’s way around might not be the wisest idea, it could certainly be done.

A jungle is nothing but undergrowth. The trees don’t grow taller than 25 feet. I considered a few times, while traveling in Yucatan, the possibility of exploring some of the jungle on my own, the way I would in a woods in New England. Considered it for about twenty seconds, from the safety of a nice, cleared path, before giving the notion up as insane. Foot travel in a trackless jungle is well nigh impossible. Cutting a path through jungle with a machete would be like snipping a path through a cornfield with a pair of swiss-army scissors. Nobody cuts down a jungle, except to make space for farming, or maybe to construct a shamanic temple, or to clear off one that was already there so you can invite white people to it and swindle them. And when you do cut it down, you better not look away for twenty years or it’ll all grow back just the way it was.

The result of all this is that when you are walking around in the jungles of the Yucatan, they look exactly the same as they did a thousand years ago.

Except for, you know, the occasional corrugated metal cerveza shack.

Pom Poko Makes Me Cry

Completely by accident, I just had the astonishing, hilarious and soul-wrenching experience of seeing Isao Takahata’s 1994 anime film Pom Poko. Takahata is the lesser-known of the two creative forces behind Studio Ghibli (the other being Hayao Miyazaki). Google tells me Pom Poko was the number one grossing film in Japan the year it was released. That doesn’t surprise me, given how much everybody loves Ghibli over there. What does surprise me is that the only time I ever heard of this film before now, the best description the party in question could provide was “wierd”, that in fact more than half the reviews of it I can find online pretty much just dismiss it with that same assessment, “wierd”, and that the Amazon review actually calls it a “broad comedy”.

I mean yes, it’s funny. It’s damn funny. But that’s not… I mean, what the hell do they… Did they even… ::exasperated groan and throwing up of hands::

I don’t know where to begin.

Let me begin by making it my personal goal to convince everyone who reads this to see the movie. Turner Classic Movies is running it in both English dub and Japanese sub versions, starting on Thursday, January 26th at 8 PM. That’s 2 1/2 weeks’ notice. Leaves you no excuse, whether you be anime purist or japanimation philistine. No excuse!

And now, allow me to sweeten the deal by expounding on the degree to which this movie has blown my mind.

Pom Poko is about tanuki. If you think you don’t know what a tanuki is, think back to Super Mario Bros. 3, to that kickass outfit Mario picks up in world 6–the one you always thought was a teddy bear suit with a raccoon tail sewn on the back. What’s this whacked-out Japanese Famicom wierdness, you probably said to yourself when you first saw it. Damn thing’s just a trumped-up raccoon tail. Waste of programming space. Only then one day you happened to be stumbling about level 6-3 in the very same crazy bear suit, perhaps chasing after the elusive Wind-Up Boot of Super Stompy-Stomp, when you happened, just by accident, to hit up and then down on the d-pad in rapid succession. Mario was likely mid-jump. There was a little poof. He dropped from the air like a stone, passed straight through a koopa and hit the ground unscathed, which all made perfect sense, because for a bare split-second, Mario had magically transformed into a potbellied, mustachioed buddha statue! In a state of utter easter-egg-finding ecstasy, you fumbled for Nintendo Power, and there you discovered that indeed, it wasn’t a bear suit at all. It was a tanuki suit.

And if that little stroll down 8-bit nostalgia lane hasn’t already reminded you how you have always loved tanuki, I advise you to go read Villa Incognito, in which Tom Robbins waxes rhapsodic on the subject of the tanuki’s giant scrotum, libido, and penchant for mischief.

Tanuki are adorable, raccoon-like creatures with unusually large balls, which Japanese folklore has endowed with a mischievous and fun-loving temperament and magical shapeshifting powers. A trickster-god figure, like the kitsune, or Loki of Norse myth, or Coyote of Native American, or Anansi of African. Which goes a long way towards explaining why I like them so much. There is in the soul of the tanuki an almost infinite capacity for jubilant, good-natured silliness. They drink, they dance, they have wild sex, they play the drums on their bellies. On top of that, a scrotum joke awaits around every corner. And it’s Studio Ghibli at the helm, as flabbergastingly innovative and different as with everything they do (except Castle in the Sky…but I’m rambling enough as it is here).

Pom Poko is funny. It’s hilarious. The tanuki are insane little furry forces of nature. I have no idea what they’re going to do next, except that it’s going to make me love them all the more. But if you watch this film and come away from it thinking “broad comedy”, well, you’ll only have bewildered and pissed me off further. If you come away from it thinking “wierd”, you’ll be right, but if that’s the only thing you can muster you’ll be a dismissive, emotionally numb flake on a stick without the capacity for critical thought, and I will bludgeon you upside the head with my scrotum.

Because the tanuki in Pom Poko aren’t just funny, they’re real. Their very shapeshifting nature allows them to appear not only as cuddly teddy bears with stripey tails and inexplicably large genitalia, but as uberstylized Japanese high pop bear archetypes in the vein of Hello Kitty, and also as actual, naturalistic, garbage-rutting, everyday tanuki, so humble and fragile and utterly un-cartoonish that when they get hit by a car they actually crumple to the ground and bleed to death. They’re a widly joyful, uncannily wise and unsettlingly endearing people whose home, whose livelihood, whose very means of understanding themselves and their place in the world is being shredded out from under them.

I knew I couldn’t avoid talking about it forever: yes, like so many other Ghibli films, this is an environmentalist work. As a matter of fact it approaches the subject at a level of realism and complexity I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere, in fiction or otherwise. Yes, realism. From shapeshifting balls of fuzz with genetalia the size of canteloupes. As a matter of fact, it’s the “broad comedy” aspects of Pom Poko that make this level of complexity accessible, that allow it to become the backing theme of a wonderful movie with wide emotional appeal. And that’s exactly what makes me so mad when I read the internet hacks lamenting the fact that Pom Poko will never appeal to a US audience because of its unDisnifiable themes: because I can’t help thinking they’re not talking about testicles and fart jokes, but about the fact that everybody here in Boosh country suddenly starts singing with their fingers in their ears anytime anybody brings up the rape of the natural world for which we are more and more glaringly responsible.

But getting back to the tanuki.

After all the lovable, lowbrow comedy is stripped away (and it isn’t hard to do, no matter how how many thousand Amazon reviews you try to brainwash yourself with before Thursday, January 26th at 8:00 PM), Pom Poko is a movie about the lover of nature’s attempt to come to terms with its destruction. For me, a lover, lamenter, and worshipper-at-the-feet of nature, it was an object lesson in the five stages of grief. Not even Princess Mononoke, which uses the naturalistic style, the sweeping, epic scenes of mindwrenching beauty and destruction, the compromised ending, manages to achieve this level of depth. The movie is under two hours long, but at the end I still felt exhausted, as though I’d been running a marathon or fighting a war. The plot spans five years, during which time the tanuki exhaust every strategy, every line of thinking they or I could come up with, from tree-hugging political protest to guerilla terrorism to fantasist escapism, in the effort to save their mountain home from development. They suffer, and in ways that you would have thought it impossible for cute little teddy bears with raccoon tails and giant balls to suffer. And yet they just keep on throwing outrageous parties and joyous sex romps, gathering around their stolen tv on saturday nights to drink sake by the gallon and cheer on the sumo wrestlers.

I’m trying not to give anything away here. Suffice it to say that this movie left me devastated. Grasping at straws, at ashes. And yet astonished at the resilience of the human spirit. Yes, I’m saying human, because unlike I am capable of recognizing metaphor. Look, I’ll admit it: I love raccoons. They have been my favorite animal ever since I was a little kid, because they are smart and resourceful, they run around at night wreaking mischievous havoc, and they’re damn dashing in their little masks and ninja camo. I also love trees and woods and mountains. I have fantasized many, many times about the moral plausibility of ecoterrorism, of siding with the trees and the beasts against humankind, of getting my hands on some kind of shoulder-fired missles and blowing some goddamn McMansions off the ravaged, charred corpse of my beloved wilderness. So there was pretty much no way in hell I could have been prevented from crying at the end of this movie.

Which isn’t to say any of you aren’t going to cry just as hard. Or that any of you aren’t going to watch it on TCM on January 26th, 2006, at 8:00 PM.

And when you’ve seen it, you come back here and let me know, and then we can get into the spoilers, and talk about exactly what makes Pom Poko the most profound and affecting piece of environmentalist fantasy I’ve ever encountered, from Ferngully to The Lord of the Rings.

I kind of needed to vent for a little bit there. Thanks for listening.