For their 28th annual KidFilm Festival, USA Film Festival paid tribute to Studio Ghibli by screening 10 of its films, plus Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind which was made before the studio’s founding. Since The Secret World of Arrietty was sold out, I decided to catch Pom Poko with some friends. I had heard some odd things about the film and wasn’t sure what to expect.
Pom Poko , directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies), revolves around a group of tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dogs (incorrectly called “racoons” in the dub), who have banded together to face the transformation of their forest in Tama Hills into a suburban neighborhood. They cook up various ideas to reclaim their homes, ranging from sabotaging construction sites to tracking down legendary tanuki for assistance. Eventually the fun-loving tanuki have to come to terms with the harsh reality and learn to adapt to the changes around them.
The tanuki in the film appear in various forms: animal, mythical creature, and cartoon. In the presence of humans, they look much like their real-life counterparts. Amongst one another, they assume anthropomorphic forms with personality traits based on the lazy shape-shifting tricksters of Japanese folklore. When they get carried away with their emotions and behave ridiculously, they become even less realistic with their appearance based on characters of manga artist Shigeru Sugiura. The audience gets to see the tanuki in all its forms: animal, myth, and cartoon.
One aspect of the mythical tanuki that never escapes commentary is their giant testicles. Yes, you read correctly; the tanuki in Pom Poko give a whole new meaning to the slang term, “teabag”. Concerned parents should not worry though. The testicles are never featured during the mating season scenes (which mostly involve harmless chasing) are rarely mentioned; when they are, they’re referred to as “pouches”.
To distinguish the main players from the masses, the tanuki with prominent roles usually wear an article of clothing and/or have unique physical traits, like a dark patch or a resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt (an observation made by a fellow viewer). Each character represents a different point of view in the conflict. The matriarch Oroku (Tress MacNeille) remains wary of revealing their existence and abilities to the humans while hot-headed Gonta (Clancy Brown) wishes to destroy the enemy at all costs. With his clever ideas and desire to coexist with humans, young Shokichi (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) rises among the ranks, and the story becomes his coming-of-age tale. It is through Shokichi’s eyes that the futility of their resistance is realized.
Pom Poko is also a great introduction to Japanese folklore, as the tanuki transform themselves into various monsters in an attempt at intimidation.
Pom Poko is mostly lighthearted due to the multitude of jokes and the tanuki’s silly nature. However, there is an ominous undertone, as the humans will obviously win the war. The last stand may be a tearjerker for anybody who has cried when Bambi’s mom is shot, but the human finally get the message and there is a touching epilogue for the remaining tanuki. The parting environmentalist message is rather redundant, as Takahata has already evoked our sympathy for the animals. Nevertheless, eight years after Pom Poko‘s release, the message remains relevant to audiences around the world.
Listening to: “Shiny Gate” by Shoko Nakagawa