Japanese Cinema Blogathon: Pom Poko (1994)

Image Source: Webry

Synopsis: On the edge of the forest of the Tokyo suburbs, a clan of wild raccoon-dogs (known in Japanese as tanuki) feel their habitat being increasingly encroached upon by the construction of human dwellings. Realizing that they will soon run out of food and places to raise their families, the good-natured but concerned tanuki band together to find a way to drive the humans out of their territory. Summoning their long-forgotten powers of shape-shifting and transformation, the tanuki begin a guerrilla campaign to scare the humans away by impersonating every deity, demon and ghost under the sun. But when it soon becomes clear that the humans won’t be chased off that easily, a militant male by the name of Gonta lobbies for more violent tactics to rid the tanuki of the human presence. Can the wise elders Tsurugame and Oruku and the rest of the clan stop Gonta and his militia before they get themselves killed? Or is resorting to violence really the animals’ last plausible hope for peace?

This is an official entry in the week-long Japanese Cinema Blogathon for disaster relief, co-hosted by CinemaFanatic and Japan Cinema. As we all know, Japan was struck with a 9.0 earthquake on March 11, resulting in devastating tsunamis and widespread destruction. Please CLICK HERE to make a donation to the represented charity of your choice to aid Japanese disaster victims, and be sure to click the banner at left to view the other contributions to the blogathon.

My third review of this blogathon/mini-Ghiblithon focuses on the most kid-friendly film discussed so far, an escapist tale (like Porco Rosso) with an environmentalist message (like Nausicaä – isn’t it nice when everything ties together like that?). Released in 1994, Pom Poko was directed by studio co-head Isao Takahata, his third directorial effort for Ghibli following 1988’s anti-war masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies and 1991’s coming-of-age tale Only Yesterday, reviewed here by Clara of Via Margutta 51. (And in case you’re wondering, I did end up watching Fireflies, but I’ve decided not to review it for this particular blogathon. It’s kind of hard to criticize a film’s technique when you’re too busy crying your eyes out.)

The humans are devouring the tanuki’s world. (Those are teeny construction vehicles.)

While I say Pom Poko is kid-friendly due to its broad comedy and talking animals, it’s also probably one of the most difficult of the Ghibli films for non-Japanese viewers to relate to, due to its ingrained references to Japanese folklore. The English-dubbed version of the film tries to simplify some details in an effort to make it easier to understand, but actually makes it more confusing by doing so. For one, the creatures depicted in the film are referred to as raccoons in both the English dub and subtitles; however in the dub they are also referred to as having pouches, despite the fact that the only animals that have pouches are marsupials (opossums, kangaroos, etc.), which raccoons are not. (When I’m not busy being a film nerd I’m an animal nerd, so it really bugs me that the English dub would seek to misguide children in such a way.) The animals depicted in the film are, in fact, tanuki, which are known as raccoon-dogs, but are not related to raccoons. They are, at least, dogs, so the English name isn’t a complete misnomer; but in behavior and biology they’re more like foxes which just so happen to look a bit like raccoons. And those “pouches” they occasionally use to transform things? They’re, well, testicles. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie about talking not-raccoons who perform magic tricks with their testicles. Tanuki are the “sly foxes” of Japanese mythology, using their powers of shape-shifting and mischief-making to play cunning tricks on hapless humans. They are a prominent fixture in decorative sculpture, usually depicted as fat jolly figures wearing a straw hat, carrying a bottle of sake in one hand and an IOU in the other, and always – or nearly-always – possessing comically-large testicles. It’s just a Japanese thing.

But enough about testicles – let’s get to the meat of this review. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Pom Poko is funny and cute whilst bringing to light important ecological issues about human development encroaching into the territories of native species. I feel the tanuki are very accurately depicted based on their established mythology; they try to come up with schemes to drive the humans away, but keep getting distracted by material pleasures and use any small victory as an excuse to party. The animation is interesting in that the tanuki are rendered in three different forms: realistically when they might be seen by humans, anthropomorphically (including walking on two legs) when around each other, and in a super-simplistic manga style when they are especially happy or functioning as a group. The transition in animation style kept the creatures visually dynamic, though the third form was the hardest to pin down and interpret. I think we are meant to realize that the tanuki face the same problems when trying to mobilize for a political cause as humans do: they get distracted, they start thinking about their own needs over the needs of the group, and they find it easier to not think about anything at all rather than try to work out a strategy for solving a problem which may end up being unsolvable. The tanuki are also conflicted because, while they want the humans to leave their land so that they may live in peace, they have also come to rely on humans for entertainment and food – including television and McDonald’s hamburgers. (Although where they ever got that “mouse tempura” they keep going on about I have no idea.)

Can you spot the “real” tanuki?

However, I feel the film goes too far in showing the tanuki’s absent-mindedness and itself becomes absent-minded, meandering, and hard to pin down. The conflict flits from one problem to another, characters come and go, and it becomes hard to feel like the tanuki or the film really even know what exactly it is they are trying to achieve. While the tanuki are dealing with a serious and potentially deadly problem, the film maintains a relatively upbeat attitude, until the last twenty minutes or so when things really start to get desperate. The real and supernatural worlds combine in a confusing and depressing swirl of hopelessness, and the ending is fairly bleak and uncertain. I also feel like it goes on for too long, and the ending is really stretching to make its point, as if Takahata felt guilty for not taking his subject matter more seriously in the preceding ninety minutes of the film. While I like the comedy and the animation, I got frustrated with the pacing, and at one point near the end had to give up completely on understanding what was going on. I love the references to and depictions of Japanese folklore and mythology, but ultimately Pom Poko isn’t one of my favorites and doesn’t strike as much of a chord with me as some of Studio Ghibli’s other films do.


Pom Poko (1994) – 3.5/5 stars

Don’t forget to CLICK HERE to make your donation! Need more incentive? Molly (of Pikachu Rope fame) is giving away FREE animal paintings in exchange for a minimum donation of ¥1000 (about $13) to ARK, a Japanese animal rescue organization located outside of the affected region but preparing to take in pets left homeless, injured and traumatized by the disaster. Please visit her blog for more information.

6 Comments

  1. I liked your review! It’s good to hear opinions of these films not from die-hard fans like me. Pom Poko is actually one of my favorites, but while re-watching it I do agree with your comments about it meandering and being a little difficult to follow. But out of Takahata’s Ghibli movies I’ve seen this is probably the one I like best.

    • I feel bad for not giving everything a billion stars, but I JUST GOTSTA BE HONEST. Thank you for not hating me. (:

  2. Kim

     /  March 18, 2011

    Come for the classic movies, stay for the testicle jokes.
    .
    .
    .
    That’s all.

  3. “And in case you’re wondering, I did end up watching Fireflies, but I’ve decided not to review it for this particular blogathon. It’s kind of hard to criticize a film’s technique when you’re too busy crying your eyes out” = LOL. Uhm, I haven’t seen “Pom Poko” yet (because sometimes I’m weird and judge the movie by the cover), but I’d probably think like you about it. Thanks for the link to my blog, Caroline!

    • Sometimes it makes sense to judge a movie by its cover, especially with animation — you don’t want to get stuck with something that’s going to hurt your eyes for two hours! I watched Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko back to back, and even though they have the same director they feel completely different. I don’t know what the directing on Only Yesterday is like, but I am looking forward to finding out once I get my hands on a copy!

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