The wondrous animated films of Hayao Miyazaki were unknown to most American moviegoers until the 1999 U.S. release of Princess Mononoke, which was released in Japan in 1997. Since then Miyazaki has become a household name thanks to the distribution of his Studio Ghibi films by Walt Disney in English-language versions and industry recognition from the Academy Awards which gave Miyazaki an honorary award in 2015. Miyazaki’s features Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises (2014) have all received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Film with Spirited Away capturing the award in 2003. But not all Studio Ghibli films are directed by Miyazaki and one of the least known and most fascinating is Pom Poko (1994). Although Miyazaki served as executive producer on the film, it is directed by Isao Takahata and is highly recommended for those hungering for family-friendly anime that is off the beaten path.
Pom Poko combines satire, tragedy, fantasy and philosophical ponderings in equal measures, resulting in an entertaining, thought-provoking experience for children and adults alike while avoiding a formulaic happy ending that characterizes the typical Disney product. What’s it about? Well, on the surface, it’s the tale of a mythical race of raccoon dogs – called tanuki – whose habitant becomes threatened by urban development. Tanuki are popular figures in Japanese folklore but also real woodland animals in Japan and are not related to raccoons; they are in the Canidae family along with wolves and foxes.
It is also the intention of director Takahata that the human race be observed through the eyes of the tanuki as a way to depict the ever-widening disconnect between man and nature in contemporary Japan and the world.
Despite touching on such diverse topics as eco-terrorism or species eradication, Pom Poko is frequently hilarious and rarely didactic in the way some allegories can be (Watership Down, Animal Farm). On another level the tanuki are all too human in their own behavior, reflecting all the faults of man – selfishness, laziness, procrastination, etc. – but also good qualities as well. By the way, the title refers to the sound the tanuki make when they use their bellies as drums.
As for the animation, the tanuki take different forms throughout the movie morphing from lifelike forest creatures to a more outre version of The Care Bears to pale, unformed bear-like clones to suspicious-looking humans. What might look unimpressive or absurd in a still from the movie takes on a much more compelling and irresistible allure in movement.
Here’s the storyline in a nutshell: As urban sprawl from Tokyo threatens to destroy the woodlands surrounding the city, a group of tanuki band together to fight the human developers. Under the guidance of tanuki matriarch, Oroku Baba, the creatures hinder and frustrate the developers with their tricks and shape-shifting skills but can their magic really create a roadblock to progress?
Takahata is not nearly as well known in the U.S. as Miyazaki though his filmography is just as impressive and a few of his films have been distributed here. The most well known are Grave of the Fireflies (1988, aka Hotaru no haka) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999, aka Hohokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun) and in Japan he is as popular and as revered as Miyazaki. Although some anime fans feel that Pom Poko is a highly personal film for Takahata, he voiced his own opinions about it in an interview on the GhibliWorld.com website, stating, “I really do not regard it as a personal work. Anyway, not more than my other works. However, I had often wondered about the tanuki. They are part of the Japanese ecosystem, but one does not know them anymore in their true biological surroundings. Only the folklore remained. According to traditional Japanese tales tanuki are able to transform into humans. These stories stimulated my imagination. In Japan, a lot of tanuki get killed by cars when passing roads. It was difficult to explain that when they are able to take human form. The easy way was to justify it by a loss of their ability and their knowledge. Like us, they forgot their instincts. Another reason is that the tanuki always lived close to men near the forests, which made it possible for me to approach another topic as well: the relationship between man, nature and his environment. By destroying the forests, the tanuki disappeared, just like what happened with the extension of Tokyo.” Among the many observations made about Pom Poko by fans and critics was the fact that the tanuki resort to eco-terrorism to achieve their goal. To this point, Takahata admitted, “I did not know about this point of view. They consider the tanuki to be terrorists? But they are the victims. The film depicts a drama; it is the end of a world, the end of the tanuki world. I wanted the viewer to look from the point of view of the animals and try to make us perceive how our world appears to us seen from the outside. However, the terrorist label does not disturb me. Today, terrorists are public enemy number 1. But historically, terrorism was sometimes a mean of asking attention of the established society. This state of mind existed until in the seventies. Terrorism sometimes had the capacity to make the world or people reflect on their condition.”
Despite the fact that Pom Poko was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1994 and was even submitted by Japan to the Academy of Arts and Sciences as their Oscar contender (it was not chosen as one of the five finalists in the category of Best Foreign Language Film), it never found a U.S. distributor until recent years in the DVD market.
Part of the reason may be due to the film’s peculiar but oddly endearing protagonists – the tanuki with their big eyes, swollen bellies and fondness for human junk food, especially tempera, popcorn and pepperoni pizza. In Japanese folklore, these woodland creatures are considered harbingers of good fortune with a mischievous side which erupts in playful pranks and the ability to change their appearances; Besides impersonating humans, they can take the form of inanimate objects like iron pots, stone Buddhas and soccer balls. In addition, the male tanuki also possess a secret talent – the ability to alter the size of their testicles which in one strategic scene can function as both a parachute and as a weapon to beat and smother their enemies.
This of one of the many plot details that makes you realize, even in the U.S. dubbed version, that you are not watching a Disney animated film or even one produced in this country. Of course, the shape-shifting testicles, which are referred to as “pouches” in the English language edition, are treated in a whimsical fashion here, more as a fantasy component than an infantile schoolboy joke. But it’s also easy to see why cultural distinctions like this probably prevented Pom Poko from getting a theatrical release in America because of conservative parental groups. Take, for example, the introductory scene of the “pouch” when a tribal elder is instructing a group of young tanuki who are shown in an overhead shot, assembled on a large red square. The elder says, “Notice this fine red blanket that we are all sitting on? Wanna know what it is? My raccoon pouch (laughs). It’s 150 square feet and it retracts quite nicely. Watch.”
Certainly a better understanding of Japanese mythology and pop culture would yield an even greater appreciation of Takahata’s film and some of the details can be puzzling to Westerners. For instance, the scene with the faceless people is based on spirits known as “Nopperabou” who pop up in Japanese tales of the supernatural. The elderly tanuki who transforms into a samurai on horseback was inspired by a 12th century story, “The Tale of Heike,” and some of the creatures that appear in the memorable monster parade sequence are straight out of traditional folklore and will be familiar to horror/fantasy film buffs who have seen the Yokai Monsters series (yes, Karakasa, the one-eyed umbrella creature, makes a brief appearance here).
The finale in which some tanuki depart for Fudaraku (Heaven) is based on the beliefs of an Old Buddhist cult which believed you could reach Nirvana by boarding a ship bound for the shores of Fudaraku. There are also numerous in-jokes involving current fads and snack foods such as the vitamin drinks the tanuki favor which are quite popular in Japan; they are offered in vending machines and offer a needed energy boost (some claim they contain aphrodisiacs) to tired workers.
Having seen the English language version of Pom Poko twice now, I plan to see the original Japanese version with English subtitles to see how it may differ, if at all. One refreshing aspect of the English version is that it isn’t one of those all-star voiceover affairs where you are distracted by the celebrity voices such as Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) in which Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Jean Simmons, Emily Mortimer, Blythe Danner, Jena Malone and others dubbed the original Japanese voices.
The U.S. release version of Pom Poko is a much less grandiose affair in terms of Hollywood superstar vocal talent and features the voices of Jonathan Taylor (as Shokichi, probably the closest thing to a major protagonist), Maurice LaMarche (as the main narrator), Tress MacNeille (as Oroku, the matriarch raccoon), Clancy Brown (as Gonta, the angy tanuki warrior leader) and others. It also makes me wonder if some of the tunes heard in the film by the Okinawan rock group, Shang Shang Typhoon – a mixture of folk music and children’s songs – reflect different lyrics and sentiments than the Japanese version.
Almost every online review of Pom Poko I have read has been exceedingly favorable. Only one felt that the second half suffered from slow pacing as the plot took a more depressing dramatic turn but I have to point out that the second half is the heart of the film and its emotional thrust as much as I love the humor and eccentricity of the first half. I think Tom Mes in his review on http://www.midnighteye.com identified the film’s finest quality: “Although the overall sense one gets for most of the film’s running time is of a somewhat reactionary longing for the indistinct ‘good old days’ when man and nature lived in more harmonious circumstances, this too is offset by a good dose of relativity in the final moments of the film, which paints a not altogether negative image of a compromise between the worlds of old and new. Even the tanuki themselves, though their clan-like structure and solidarity seem like glorified examples of the kind of close-knit bonds that modern humans have lost, are seen in the beginning of the film as an in-fighting bunch leading a far too luxurious life. It’s not until they are faced with the threat of a common enemy that they band together to form a tight unit. Harmony is never an absolute state, Takahata seems to say, and one must change with the times and with the situation in order to make the best out of life.”
So there you have it. If the films of Miyazaki have made you more curious about other Japanese anime you should seek out Pom Poko. If you like what you see, you might consider his much more harrowing but eloquent Grave of the Fireflies. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki, the movie is set in the final days of WWII as Japanese cities were pounded with napalm canisters by American bombers. One critic compared it to Schindler’s List, stating “It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen,” and Roger Ebert wrote, “Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
As of February 2018 Pom Poko is available as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo which includes the English-language version as well as language and subtitle options so you can view it Japanese with English subtitles.
Other websites of interest: