I just had the opportunity to finally see Pom Poko, thanks to Disney’s stateside DVD release. Fortunately, the dub is fantastic! The story is simple yet effective: humans are destroying a community of Tanukis, and the Tanukis do everything they can to help preserve their home in way of transformation. It’s often funny and adorable, but what’s somewhat unexpected is the amount you’ll be moved by their struggle. In fact, most of the action in the story is narrated, which elevates the overall effect of the movie to that of a semi-documentary. Pom Poko is directed by another studio Ghibli genious Isao Takahata who happens to be Hayao Miyazaki’s long time friend and his senior. Pom Poko remains studio Ghibli’s most strange film till date which is in no way lesser rich and intense than any other Ghibli films but few contents in the movie may put some viewers off.
There are any number of scenes in this movie that many would consider inappropriate for younger children – but one must bear in mind that what is appropriate for children varies widely from country to country. In Japanese folklore, cats, foxes, and tanuki are powerful shapeshifting tricksters, and Pom Poko relies heavily on these old tales. Characters are killed by cars, transform themselves into demons, and use their pronounced scrotums as weapons. And yet it all flows together perfectly, and even the testicles are hardly a bother once one has become engrossed in the story. That’s right and you read correctly, about their testicles, because in Japanese myth, tanuki are said to have giant testicles with magical properties. This is shown in Pom Poko – although the English-language version euphemistically refers to the scrotum as a raccoon pouch. Aside from the American translations ruining Japanese folklore, this is a great film about survival told from the viewpoint of the Tanukis.
Do not think however that everything will make sense – as mentioned, the film draws heavily on eastern folklore and has bhuddist/shinto symbolism everywhere. The English dub is pretty good given the subject matter but there are a couple of bits that probably will confuse people simply because of the culture clash. But the story of envirornmental devastation being told is very real, and there are real consequences in the movie: both raccoons and humans sometimes meet with unfortunate fates. Eventually a breed of foxes who have given up their ‘fox status’ and shapeshifted to survive by permanently living as humans enters the fray, along with some very old, very powerful, magical raccoons. Through all the hardships and crazy parties the racoons soon reach the conclusion that in a constantly changing world they have to figure out ways to evolve with all their surroundings in order to remain alive.
The animation style of the Tanuki looks at times photorealistic to goofy Care Bear minimalism. Backgrounds are lovely and evocative, particularly those that showcase traditional Japanese architecture. There are many cultural elements: traditional clothing, temples and shrines, and traditional songs and folktales make up a good deal of the story, but will be unfamiliar for Western audiences. The film’s ending is slightly one of despair, but also of hope and reconciliation. It’s inevitable that humans will reproduce and populate and expand and the best we can do for the earth is respect it and its creatures, giving them as much freedom as we can. I would probably not recommend this film for really young children as there is quite a bit of death and violence associated with the raccoon struggle, and a tiny bit of implied birds-and-bees stuff. The English dub creatively skirts around a sensitive issue related to the raccoons’ reproductive organs. If your children are old enough to understand the larger environmental message, however, I would have no reservations showing them this magical film.