Pom Poko

Studio: GKIDS

Feb 05, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Japan, the Pom Poko era. (Circa the late 1960s.) Two tribes of tanuki – a foraging mammal similar in appearance to North American raccoons – have gone to war in the Tama Hills outside of Tokyo. Their battle for territory is ended by an elder, who draws their attention to a frightening truth: the forest they call home is shrinking, as developers clear the land to build housing for the city’s rapidly growing human population. If they don’t put aside their differences and unite against the human threat, their colonies will be totally wiped out.  

Despite their small size, the tanuki are well-equipped to fight back. Long the subjects of Japanese folk tales, the mischievous tanuki have the ability to shape-shift and create illusions that could easily fool any human eyes. Those with the ability to transform are able to disguise themselves easily; the most talented of their kind can pass for human. The tanuki of Tama Hills strategize and begin executing a variety of plans to scare away the workers who are leveling their forest. As their territory continues to shrink and starvation sets in, the tanuki grow desperate – and realize that simply frightening the humans may not be enough.

Released in 1994, Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko also had the informal English title The Raccoon War, which is perhaps a far more fitting title for the movie, tonally and content-wise. Much of it is an ecological cautionary tale, but the grand scale of the story – the film stretches over numerous years, covering nearly an entire generation of tanuki – and the way it’s told (in unsentimental voiceover) make it feel like something much bigger, similar to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics. Rather than being a children’s film that adults can enjoy, the situation seems flipped: it’s a film for adults, but with colorful animals and a steady stream of visual gags that should appeal to kids.

To Western audiences, Pom Poko isn’t regarded as one of the tent poles of the Studio Ghibli canon, though it deserves to be. There’s one obvious reason for this that’s a bit embarrassing to discuss, but it’s also what the movie is perhaps most famous for in the West. The tanuki in Pom Poko possess – ahem – huge, magical balls. We can try to approach it like adults: huge, shape-shifting testicles are indeed part of the tanuki’s popular folklore in Japan.  The English dub euphemizes them as “raccoon pouches,” but that doesn’t hide the fact that they’re nuts. (When they aren’t being used for magic, they’re dangling quite prominently from the male tanukis’ crotches.) If you’re planning to watch this with your kids, be prepared to answer questions when raccoon soldiers inflate their testicles and use them to crush police officers, or when a particularly powerful raccoon stretches out his scrotum and uses it as a sail for a ship.

Color-wise, the film looks magnificent on Blu-ray. The extra features on this edition are light, but it does offer multiple language tracks. (The English dub has an outstanding voice cast, including Clancy Brown, J.K. Simmons, and Maurice LaMarche.) Pom Poko is a minor masterpiece of animation; just try not to let the massive raccoon balls distract you from that.



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