As Justin Jagoe and I recently recorded a forthcoming podcast about animated films, this is the first in a series of essays that will focus on outstanding or overlooked animation, as well as Blind Spots.
Pom Poko is a delight from start to finish. It is one of those movies that puts a smile on your face within the first few minutes, and the damn smile just stays there throughout most of the rest of the film. It is a film of endless visual delights, stunning emotional depth. It creates a world so vivid and inviting, you may well wish the running time were infinite. It is clearly and indisputably one of the masterworks of Isao Takahada.
Click on pictures for a more detailed view.
If the name Isao Takahata is unfamiliar to you, I hope this essay will put him on your must-see list. When we think of ‘Studio Ghibli,’ our first thought might rightly be the oeuvre of the masterful Hayao Miyazaki, but he is not the only great director working for the venerable studio. Takahata is every bit the master Miyazaki is: their artistry is unparalleled, and their work attains a psychological richness that would make most directors of live-action drama salivate. Pom Poko may be less metaphorical than Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, but it is every bit as bewitching and affecting. It is, simply, one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen.
Obligatory spoiler warning: this essay discusses important plot points including the end of the movie.
For the uninitiated, Pom Poko deals with a tribe of tanuki living in the hills just outside Tokyo. As humans’ population grows and their technology advances, they begin to develop the area surrounding the animals’ forest and making inroads into tanuki land. The creatures try with all their might to ward off the humans and save their environs—but, ultimately, the humans win, and the number of tanuki near Tokyo dwindle.
So let’s just start with the big elephant in the room—the huge, near-fatal flaw in the entire enterprise: The characters in the movie are not raccoons. You could easily be forgiven for thinking they are raccoons; after all, that is exclusively how they are referred to in the (otherwise flawless) English dub. Even the subtitles to the Japanese audio refer to them as nothing but ‘raccoons.’ When the film was chosen as Japan’s entry for 1994’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (criminally not scoring a nomination), it was submitted under the title The Raccoon War, for crying out loud. But raccoons they emphatically are NOT. They are tanuki, a type of raccoon dog native to Japan—dog being the operative word. Same Order, different Family.
Why is this distinction so important to me? Because the tanuki have a special, historical, folkloric place in Japanese culture. Legend has it that tanuki have shapeshifting ability and malleable testicles that give them special powers. Without knowing this cultural information, Pom Poko loses a bit of its magic; it won’t be immediately apparent that the creatures in the film are stand-ins for capital-N Nature, and it is easier to write some moments off as fantasy for children.
I understand that international distributors are not permitted to change a single frame of a Studio Ghibli film, and rightly so; still, I feel perhaps a title card explaining tanuki before the start of Pom Poko would have been just fine. Plus, it’s not like American audiences are completely unfamiliar. Remember in Super Mario Bros 3, level 5? After you beat 5-2, you slip into one of Toad’s mushroom houses and he gives you the special Tanooki Suit! Now, admittedly, that suit is basically the Raccoon Suit, but by pressing 🅱️+⬇️ the plucky plumber would temporarily transmogrify into an invincible stone statue. Co-incidentally, you could first play as Tanooki Mario on level 5-3, which was the only appearance of Kuribo’s Shoe, the little green bootie thing that allowed you to hop onto normally dangerous baddies like Spinies and Munchers…
Um, okay, I’ve swerved in an unanticipated direction. Sorry. But frequently, as certain anime make the transition to a Western audience, I’m alternately fascinated and flummoxed by some of the translation decisions. Let’s talk about the second biggest thing in Pom Poko that gets lost in translation: testicles.
I already mentioned that tanuki have extra special balls. In art, the creatures are often pictured with oversized goolies, sometimes flung over their backs like knapsacks, and sometimes even used as drums. In fact, ‘Pom Poko’ can be described as the sound made when tanuki beat on their testicles in this musical way—though, in Takahata’s film, it’s from the tanuki drumming on their bellies.
Well, the subtitles to the Japanese language version of the film don’t shy away from the magical abilities of the male tanuki’s scrota: you see frequent mention of ‘testicles’ and ‘balls.’ But in the English-language dub, the little danglers have been christened as ‘racoon pouches.’ If you’ll permit me: 🙄. I understand that Americans are quite prudish when it comes to body parts, but it seems fairly ridiculous to try to reframe what is happening in Pom Poko, because the audience can see with its own eyes that these ‘raccoon pouches’ are just plain old balls. Supernatural, enchanted balls, but balls nonetheless. I honestly can’t tell if Disney thought that this testicle talk would embarrass parents, or would cause young boys to experience feelings of inadequacy with their own cojones, since human bollocks can’t do most of the wild and wonderful things tanuki nuts accomplish in the film.
Incidentally, Pom Poko has been rated PG by the MPAA, in part for ‘Thematic Elements’; it’s not unreasonable to believe that some of these ‘elements’ may be gonadal in nature. However, the BBFC also rated it PG, but specifically for ‘mild fantasy violence and horror.’ No ‘thematic elements’ in sight. For what it’s worth, I believe the PG rating to be appropriate; the film is too scary for the youngest of children.
Er, let me apologise again, because I’ve gone into another unanticipated tangent. Such is the trap with a ‘THOUGHTS ON’ essay. Now, when I said this was one of the most beautiful films I had ever seen, this was not hyperbole. Consider the sequence where the tanuki begin Operation Goblin (or Operation Spectre, depending on which version you are watching.) This is an organised Hyakki yagyō, meant to teach the humans near Tokyo to respect the supernatural again. It has some of the most fanciful daemon imagery I’ve seen since the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia:
The film shares some superficial similarities to Bambi: the changing of the seasons and its effect on the animals, twitterpation, the destructive nature of Man. But where it differs with so many ‘children’s films’ is its willingness to fulfil its own premise. Of course the humans are going to win; they have the numbers, they have the technology (and if you live near Tokyo, you can plainly see the landscape). As Pom Poko arrives at its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion, large swaths of the tanuki have died, and some have even had to transmogrify into humans and live among them.It’s a very downbeat ending, but unfortunately realistic. It is likely to have a more positive impact on a child than a Disney-fied happy ending, where the mutts managed to outwit the humans. What kind of a call to action would that precipitate? It is a much more impactful dramatisation of an environmentalist message than, say, Pocahontas or Ferngully.
Let me take a moment to express how powerful an ending Pom Poko has. After admitting defeat, and making the decision to adapt to the changing landscape the humans are forcing upon them, the tanuki decide to make one last display of their supernatural powers.
They overlay a vision of the old landscape onto the new development. All of the Tanuki, as well as the humans, can see the stark contrast between what is and what was. It doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings—it yanks them up through your tear ducts.
Now, I do have some very minor complaints about the film. It covers a lot of ground (it really is an epic—large cast, spanning several dog-years) and resorts too often to voiceover exposition. Maybe they were trying to keep the running time short, but I would have appreciated a bit less exposition, and a bit more exploration of the world. Having said this, I’m perfectly willing to admit that this may not be the best narrative choice, and that my wish might just be a selfish one. I loved those little tanuki and their forest so much, the film could have been three hours without my complaining.
Also, why does the character talk directly to the camera at the end? Since that was the first instance of this happening throughout the entire film, it just felt…jarring, unnecessary. The point had been made. Which isn’t to say you don’t want to reach through the screen and hug the little bastard, but still…
When thinking back on the film as a whole… well, these complaints seem a bit stupid. I’ve been lavishing Pom Poko with superlatives throughout this essay, and won’t repeat them now that I’m wrapping up. But I will add one: this is one of the best films of the 1990s. If you love great family films, great animated films, great Ghibli films, or or just plain incredible filmmaking in general, you must see Pom Poko.
And remember the name Isao Takahata! You’ll see it again on this site.