a.k.a. Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko
With humans transforming their forests into Tokyo suburbs, two tanuki clans unite and ponder a plan to sabotage the ongoing construction project. Learning more about humans and perfecting their unique ability to transform themselves into pretty much anything is a must and will require years of preparation. As the forest grows smaller, these Eastern raccoons will need to face food shortage, impetuosity and assimilation before standing a chance against the human threat.
summary by Kjeldoran
Highs: Sparks interest in Japanese folklore; various possible conceptions; hilarious moments
Lows: Story dawdles occasionally; oodles of references unknown to non-Japanese viewers
We have here a brilliant example of how a family film can have different levels of interpretation, pleasing both adults and children alike. The “Animal Farm” of animated features can represent the failures of liberal movements in postwar Japan… or tell a charming story about tanuki.
Japan’s entry for the 1995 Academy Awards for best foreign film is said by its director Takahata Isao to be more of a documentary than a fictional story. A slapstick core is used as a decoy to display serious themes such as environmentalism and rebellion. Neither children nor adults will feel patronized by the ways such matters are discussed since a typical Ghibli poise eases the air. Pom Poko is one cultural and religious reference after another; everything that seems out of the ordinary most likely has a long story or legend behind it. This can be confusing, yes, but undeniably cultivating. A more concise unfolding would have made this tale more exciting but it is not far off the mark.
Pom Poko graces us with three types of art: tanuki will sometimes have a realistic look to symbolize how humans see them, a caricatured one with more appeal representing how they act while humans are not looking and a third very simplistic and distorted one in homage to Shigeru Sugiura’s art style in his manga 808 Tanuki. The artwork therefore swings from sober to playful with the blink of an eye. You can additionally spot three scenes in which computer graphics are used which was a first for Studio Ghibli at the time. Music also sports a folkloric and frisky tone as it includes many traditional children songs about tanuki.
Depending on your background, certain details and scenes (for instance, the tanuki beating on their testicles as drums) may rub your sensibilities the wrong way. Try to understand there is no sexual connotation in the way they are shown; it is again based on traditional legends and, of course, all in good fun. Your inner child, if alive, should be most pleased.
Highs: Strong undertones; humorous when it needs to be; dramatic when it needs to be
Lows: Not for those without a strong background in Japanese culture
Here’s a warning for those interested in watching this movie: unless you are well-versed in Japanese lore, folk tales and history, you will not get nearly as much out of this anime as director Takahata Isao intended. Not even close.
With that said, there is still plenty for the rest to enjoy. If you can get past a certain cultural in-joke concerning tanuki and their genitalia, there are laughs, tears and suspense in generous proportions. And while the tanuki and their shenanigans are often hilarious and irresistibly charming, the realistic depiction of their plight is shocking and forces the viewer to become personally involved in the story. The traditional Japanese songs and music give the atmosphere a folksy, down-to-earth flair.
Here is where, unfortunately, the differences between Japanese and Western culture make themselves apparent… and pretty much prevents this movie from being an international hit. Others I have talked to like to compare this anime with Miyazaki‘s Nausicaä and Mononoke because of the man versus nature overtones. What isn’t so obvious to many is that Pom Poko is actually a very sobering anti-tribute to the post-World War II Showa era, which isn’t surprising since this period of Japanese history dominated Takahata’s life. Vitamin drinks and dark circles beneath the eyes are denigrating metaphors for oyaji (a slanderous term for salarymen, modern-day corporate samurai who ended up scapegoats for Japan’s recent economic hardships) and the karoshi (death from overwork) phenomenon.
If you are somewhat familiar with Japan, you’ll likely love this great movie. If you can relate to its profound and relevant message, then you’ll likely live this great movie.
Pom Poko can be downloaded legally in the United States HERE.