Racoons with big balls or the facts?

Could an animated film about mischievous racoon dogs with big balls that shapeshift to survive achieve something that no amount of non-fiction publications on the environment ever could?

Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko is one of its wackier Japanese animated films (called ‘anime’). The shapeshifting racoon dogs have large, expandable scrotums which help them do nifty tricks, like covering the windshield screen on a truck so the driver can’t see and crashes.

Why the big balls? Racoon dogs, or ‘Tanuki’, have a long history in Japanese folklore and legends. They are said to have eight traits, one of which is large scrotums, which represent wealth.

Like many Studio Ghibli films it has a strong environmental theme. The racoon dogs’ habitat is slowly encroached upon by an expanding city – and they have to find ways to cope with this new reality. Some become eco-warriors and are wiped out, and some change into humans, and even work in the city to get by.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke is about a battle between the humans in an iron town and the gods in the lush mountain forest that the town is slowly encroaching upon. The message is clear: a balance between civilization and nature needs to be achieved or everyone will lose out.

This princess doesn’t wait for Prince Charming to show up like many Disney animations – she rides a giant wolf and basically kicks ass. We deeply care about what happens to Princess Mononke as she battles to protect the ‘kodama’ or tree spirits, and the Shishigami, or deer-like forest spirit (which becomes a tentacle-covered Nightwalker when the sun goes down).

“Character emotions are promptings to our own emotions”, says Keith Oatley in his fascinating book The Passionate Muse. “Although the emotions of fiction seem to happen to characters in a story, really, all the important emotions happen to us as we read or watch.”

Watching these films with my kids I’ve started to wonder why so much time is spent producing non-fiction publications on the environment or on documentary films, and so little spent on fiction or film.

Of the top 50 green reads compiled by academics in 2010 for a sustainability leadership course offered at University of Cambridge none were fiction. Leo Hickman asks “…should fiction be allowed onto the list, too? How about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Or Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang?”

Could fiction or films be a more effective way of reaching people?

Fiction writer Christopher Meeks talks about our need for fictional stories in this recent blog:

…why deal with fiction at all? After all, isn’t nonfiction and instruction manuals all we need? No. We are built for stories. I once lived in Denmark, and I visited a recreated Viking village. Vikings lived in huts with their animals, and they spent their dark, cold winters huddled around a fire where they told and retold stories. That’s how the Viking sagas were passed down.”

I agree. We’re not moved by facts, we’re moved by stories – and if they’re about playful racoon dogs with big balls, or a tough wolf-riding princess, then so much the better.

2 thoughts on “Racoons with big balls or the facts?

  1. Certainly such feature films as Bambi and Avatar have played strongly on emotional calls to sell their moral points of view. The list of books that engage readers with anthropocentric animal characters (everything from Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Jack London’s The Call of the Wild or Richard Adams’ Watership Down) is vast and many of them have strong environmental themes. Admiitedly few of them target adults with “high-brow” concepts, such as climate change, as their underlying theme. There’s no real reason they couldn’t, but they will need to compete in a market that recognises it is vastly easier to sell stories about people because humans are hard wired to engage empathically with their own species (and will only pick creatures with big eyes as the next most acceptable alternative).

    • It’s interesting that this anthropocentric approach seems to work better with entertaining children than adults, as we all have the same brains (some are just less mature than others)! This has become a sort of cultural norm of sorts that this approach works for children’s movies, and not adults… perhaps because somehow along the line we change and can only relate to adults? Or buy into the cultural norm?

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