With the increasing need for Tokyo to expand as one of Japan's major cities, inevitable sacrifices must be made so that changes can take place. One of these sacrifices is that the room for nature and wildlife to flourish will decrease significantly over time. As this decline continues, many animal communities experience the brunt of urbanization. One such community known as the "Tanuki," a type of magical shape-shifting mammal, is caught up in a struggle to defend their beloved forest from being absorbed by the looming threat of an expanding Tokyo.
As more and more Tanuki find themselves with nowhere to hide and territorial fights become increasingly regular amongst the different factions of the community, the elder Tanuki Oroku decides that something must be done. For the sake of their home as well as the safety of their future generations, the Tanuki unite as one with the hope that together they may be able to repel mankind's construction projects and scare them away from the forests using their shapeshifting abilities.
But as they begin their first attempts at sabotage, the Tanuki soon realize the operation will be no easy task. Will they reclaim their forest as a united community, or will they be torn apart by a war against humanity, blinded by anger and pain after witnessing nature's destruction?
Stories about anthropomorphic animals behaving like human beings have always been a form of storytelling that different types of authors, narrators and storytellers used to employ back in the old days to convey a message to their audience. This was done by using the animals as some sort of metaphor to represent human society and the flaws that show up within it’s systems. Perhaps the most famous example would be George Orwell's magnificent social commentary on Communism that is the timeless Animal Farm. From there, this form of storytelling would go on to get adopted by many other storytellers that came after the man. Fortunately
enough, one of the storytellers to pick up on Orwell’s unique form of narration was none other than the late and great Isao Takahata, a man I like to nickname as “The great innovator of Ghibli”.
Isao Takahata is a name that needs no introduction whatsoever. The man was studio Ghibli’s greatest asset, and he was the one responsible for some of the greatest movies and TV series to come out of both Ghibli’s discography and the Anime world in general. Though Takahata has had many celebrated works throughout the course of his life, he’s also had works that have somehow managed to slip under the radar when it came to audiences and viewers everywhere. Beneath the eminent and prominent works that were Akage no Anne, Grave of the Fireflies and Omoide Poroporo, there was also a work that was just as thematically rich as those three, yet never got the recognition it deserved. That work is of course none other than the brilliant 1994 Anime movie, Pom Poko.
What is Pom Poko exactly? Pom Poko would be the result of Takahata replacing his cast from his previous works with anthropomorphic animals - as in the characters have all the charm and humanity that the other Takahata characters possess, the only difference here being the fact that they are not human. Just like Takahata’s other movies, this movie was ahead of it’s time in the way it handled it’s narrative and used it to convey it’s central theme to it’s audience -- which was environmentalism -- unlike any other Ghibli movie that came before and after it. While Princess Mononoke was a great experience both in terms of visuals and direction, it didn’t quite hit the mark with it’s environmentalism theme, and it delivered the theme quite poorly might I add. It was an excellent film both narratively and visually, but Miyazaki became overindulged with those aspects of his work that he forgot to deliver the message that he preached about in a quality fashion. Unlike Princess Mononoke however, Pom Poko never concerned itself with a grand story nor did it explore the various political factions or the many landscapes and mythical creatures within it’s narrative. Pom Poko focused narrowly on a small, select group of raccoon dogs called the Tanuki species, where these Tanuki would shapeshift endlessly to take the form of humans and use those shapeshifting abilities to stop housing construction on their homeland. This was of course brilliant in reinforcing Takahata’s message regarding environmentalism. By focusing solely on his central theme and giving it more importance than other aspects of the work, he managed to deliver that theme quite perfectly in the end.
The comedy is pretty spot-on as well. Almost every shapeshifting scene was fun and hit the mark in terms of making me laugh, and never did a scene go to waste. The comedic timing is almost perfect here, from the lady Tanuki shapeshifting into a malicious fox to instruct the young, juvenile Tanuki to use that specific transformation to scare off the pesky humans when their identity is discovered, to the elder Tanuki stretching his testicles to form a mattress so that the other Tanuki can sit on them. They were all lighthearted gags that never ceased to amaze me. Though the comedy managed to hit the nail on the head at most times, the testicles gag did become old and stale halfway through the movie, and it lost it’s charm due to the overuse of the gag, which is a shame since it was pretty hysterical when it hadn’t become an overused trope. It is pretty ironic though that the funniest thing about this movie is not the various creative transformations that the Tanuki made use of, rather the fact that Disney renamed the term “testicles” to "pouches". It is a pretty bizarre and awkward stance, and it gets even funnier the more one thinks about it. It was not an unnecessary change though, since most Ghibli movies are directed and are made for children at the end of the day, and western audiences are cultured differently from Japanese audiences, so it makes sense.
The animation here is pretty consistent just like most other Ghibli movies. It does the job and it does it well enough to assert itself among it’s contemporaries. It has many well animated scenes, but my favorite one has to be the parade sequence the Tanuki perform near the middle of the movie’s run, where even by Ghibli’s standards it looks quite excellent and stands out from the rest of the scenes. Although the animation was pretty consistent for the most part, my biggest gripe with this movie was the absence of any originality or creativity when it came to the character designs. It looked like Takahata never placed any thought into making his characters as uniquely looking as possible, rather, it looked like he churned out the same character design over and over again until he got the main and supporting casts ready for use. Every character here looks like the typically animated raccoon that you would see everywhere on animated television, and all the characters look like they were copied and pasted off of one another, which makes matters even worse since the characters were well written in their own right. Now granted, this is a movie about raccoons and not humans, but it still isn’t a valid excuse for the vapid character designs. Many anthropomorphic animals are drawn in a very distinguishable and unique way in other media, so why should there be a problem here? In addition to the trite character designs, the soundtrack was pretty forgettable as well, which is a shame since most Ghibli movies are recognized by their main themes – Spirited Away had the hauntingly beautiful “The Name of Life”, Princess Mononoke had the haunting yet so ever-present “Legend of Ashitaka” and Kiki’s Delivery Service entranced it’s viewers with the beautiful orchestral melody that is “A Town With An Ocean View”. It seems here, with Pom Poko, not one track stands out from the rest. All of them are uncreative Japanese folk music tracks, they flow smoothly with one another and do well at being a coherent and cohesive soundtrack for the film, but fail to make an everlasting impression on the viewer.
Not going to lie, the characters were pretty charming and were all full of wit and personality, and the creative dialogue between them was ever present. It just felt weird watching this movie and knowing that it was produced by Studio Ghibli, since there was no female protagonist to save the day in this one. Regardless, the most interesting aspect about this movie is the fact that it’s so focused in Japanese folklore, and it’s a pretty great introduction for anyone who would like to know more about Japanese mythology as a whole. This movie is a well-known representation of Tanukis in their fairy tales/mythology. For Japanese children, this is just a normal depiction of one of the many animals from their fairy tales. It is a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about them in their famous Japanese stories.
Overall, it’s not that hard to see why Pom Poko is pretty obscure and niche compared to the other Ghibli titles. It does not have a standout heroine, it is underproduced in terms of audiovisuals compared to some of it’s contemporaries, and it focuses solely on it’s main theme - which is environmentalism - rather than focusing on developing a compelling narrative. However, I also think that this is what makes it the most unique work out of all of them. If you want to vicariously experience the theme of environmentalism, then no other movie does the theme justice more than Pom Poko. In it’s thematic exploration, it is rather excellent, and unlike Princess Mononoke, the message never felt forced whatsoever. Don’t expect this to be on the same level as other Ghibli movies in terms of anything else though, it delivers it’s central message quite perfectly, but that’s about it.
Pom Poko is one of my favorite anime movies, although that's not to say it's a perfect movie. The documentary-style opening , complete with uninspired narration, will lull most people into a false sense of security before the second half. If you can stay awake for the second half, prepare to be blown away.
The Tanuki's transformation prowess here makes for some of the of the most imaginative and unrestrained animation I've ever seen. A careful eye will notice Kiki, Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Galaxy Express 999 during the parade sequence. The tanuki themselves fluidly turn without restraint into hyperrealistic, humanistic, and charicature forms.
(the third being a homage to a classic manga-ka)
The characters for the most part aren't very notable, more important is the interactions in the community.
Pom Poko is easily the most misunderstood movie put out by Studio Ghibli. While there is some environmentalist message there, I feel this movie is more about adapting. In fact, while the main characters are raccoons, they represent the Japanese society, and how it has to cope with tradition being overtaken by technology. The older raccoons wear traditional kimonos and plan to wipe out the humans developing on their land. The grand masters apparently inspired Japanese deities-(the oldest master being 999 years old.)
Eventually the tanuki learn to hide among the humans (modernize) but, not before one last battle. Most people view the battle as humorous, and it is indeed the most commented part of the movie (because of what, exactly the tanukis transform.) But I see it as an act of desperation, putting their very manhood on the line for one last hopeless push. The aftermath of the battle is all the warriors' dead bodies being dumped in a huge pile, more reminiscent of Auschwitz than a Disney movie.
Because of the overwhelming circumstances the main characters must fight against, I found this movie to be sadder than Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata's much more famous work. This isn't Fern Gully or Avatar however, the tanuki are full of flaws. When they steal a TV to learn more about humans, they become couch potatoes instead. In another scene, they feast upon stolen McDonalds hamburgers.
This is a very Japanese movie, it is filled with references to Japanese culture, mythology, yokai, folklore, and culture. This can make it dense and unappealing to some. They say that a truly good film is universal, but after seeing this film I disagree.
Truly a great movie, one of the best. However, it might take a little patience on the viewer's part to fully enjoy. One of the best- but you might want to watch it in two parts.
Another Studio Ghibli masterpiece, and produced by anime genius Hayao Miyazaki, Pom Poko brings something new to the table: Animals who, instead of fleeing from the deforestation that threatens them, choose to resort to a different method by turning the tables on the humans that shamelessly and thoughtlessly tear away at their homes. Based on the Japanese Tanuki folklore, many of the raccoons featured in Pom Poko have magical shape shifting powers, some a little more rusty than others. These creatures begin to notice their food and shelter becoming scarce after the invasion of their land by the crew of new housing construction, and must
call on their elders, the masters of transformation, to teach them how to change their shapes. They hope to use these abilities in many different ways, but all for one sole purpose: to reclaim the land that is being stolen from them.
Though in the film they are introduced as raccoons, the Tanuki folklore is centered around a very different breed, known as the raccoon dog. In either case, the creatures in this movie are far too plump to be easily identified, doubly so with the fact that in the movie, the raccoons do not possess the famous ringed-tail that raccoons are known for. Studio Ghibli's depictions of the Tanuki are nonetheless charming and adorable. Even the mean and stuffy raccoons are hard characters to hate.
Also featured briefly in the film is another creature of folklore known at the Kitsune, a transforming fox, which in the film tries to convince the raccoons to stop their personal war with the humans and instead use their shape shifting abilities to change into humans and begin new lives. This decision is widely argued over in the film, partly because of the raccoons' inability to transform into convincing humans.
I think a child would thoroughly enjoy this movie, however, here's where the warnings begin to come in. I had not been familiar with the Tanuki folklore before I watched this movie, so was surprised to discover that until about an hour through the movie, I had not noticed the raccoons' exposed genitalia. I later learn that this exposure is a prominent detail of the Tanuki in folklore, representing good luck financially. Though it may seem overly risque to the unknowing, their exposure is never, in the lore or the film, intended as sexual, and the film does not illustrate them sexually either. Rather, in the film they use what is referred to in the English dub as their "Pouches" to contribute to their shifting, such as parachutes which are seen later in the film.
Other material in the film include the deaths of humans and several raccoons, and though there is occasionally blood, it is never graphic. Additionally, there is a short scene narrated by one of the raccoons talking about how, because of lack of food and sheltering, they must halt breeding. While the raccoon talks about the female raccoons making sure this rule is kept, we see male raccoons charging at female raccoons, some seemingly drunk, and the female raccoons using karate moves to fight back, which implies their attempts to cease reproduction. Some female raccoons also have exaggerated breast size with occasional cleavage.
This movie I predict would otherwise be a delightful watch for children, even if they have to watch for 2 hours waiting for the conclusion. I extend yet another ovation for Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki.
Isao Takahata’s ‘Pom Poko’ is far from one of Studio Ghibli’s most popular films (at least outside Japan, for reasons I’ll address below). Nonetheless, it’s quickly becoming one of my favourites of the Ghibli filmography, and perhaps one of my favourite anime films overall.
Pom Poko is the story of a community of tanuki whose home is under threat by the increasing urban expansion surrounding Tokyo. Forced to evacuate their deforested habitat, they take an abandoned shack as their new home. As the film progresses, we witness Tokyo’s expansion project relentlessly continuing, along with the various reactions of the tanuki community – some embrace a sentiment
of revenge against the humans, others wish to integrate themselves into human society, others even see dance as the only way to get through the chaos.
I should probably elaborate a bit on the idea of tanuki. Tanuki (often mistaken for racoons) are a significant creature in Japanese folklore. A common theme in Japanese art, tanuki are mischievous and jolly shapeshifting creatures. An important detail is that tanuki in pre-Buddhist Japanese society were commonly deified. In Buddhist Japan, the once deified tanuki became seen as a bumbling trickster, a humorous monster. Oh, and another thing, strangely they’re traditionally depicted as having huge testicles (and yes, there’s A LOT of testicles in this film).
The greatest strength of the film lies in its multi-layered themes. The themes of Pom Poko are centred around two important ideas, co-existence and survival. There’s an ecological message on the survival of nature in the face of urbanisation. There’s a message on the survival of tradition in the face of modernisation. These are concepts which need to co-exist, just like our mourning of the past must co-exist with our living in the present. Ultimately, this film can be interpreted as an allegory for post-WWII Japanese society, which was a period characterised by growing Westernisation, urbanisation and depopulation of the countryside.
The art and animation of this film are of course superb, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli. This is best exemplified in the iconic parade sequence midway through the film, packed with fluid animation and colourful art, along with plenty of folkloric references. The soundtrack isn’t anything that will blow you away, but the music of the film complements its themes perfectly, with a blend of traditional and modern instrumentation reflecting the survival of tradition in an increasingly modernising society.
One potential problem with this film is its lack of accessibility for a Western audience. Pom Poko is first and foremost a commentary on Japanese society with a Japanese audience in mind (it was the number one Japanese film on the domestic market in 1994). It’s packed full of folklore that the audience wouldn’t recognise without a bit of research (of course there’s the tanuki, but also kitsune, yokai, etc). Without understanding the association between tanuki and testicles, this association may be a bit confusing at first (after all, testicles aren’t a big topic of conversation in western kid’s films). Don’t let this put you off watching the film though, as you don’t need to be an expert in Japanese mythology to find enjoyment in this film.
However, the main criticism I have of this film is its lack of subtlety at times. For the most part, the visual storytelling of this film is phenomenal. For example, my favourite scene of the film is the ending sequence, where the field the tanuki are dancing on is revealed to be a golf course. This on its own powerfully emphasises the themes of coexistence I mention previously. But then, as if this isn’t enough, one of the tanuki, breaking the fourth wall, turns to the camera to drill the message of the film into the audience’s head. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that this is foremost a kid’s film, so a bit of exposition is necessary, but there are a couple of times it takes it too far.
Overall, this film is a tragic, yet optimistic representation of post-war Japanese society, an enjoyable film for both children and adults alike, and an essential watch for anyone interested in Japanese folklore and society.
Let's take a quick jog around memory lane and remember those anime you used to watch and enjoy as kids. Feel the nostalgia and see if your favorites made the list and discover more that other children enjoyed.