(This review was originally published on June 24, 2018 and has been updated.)
Pom Poko (1994), directed by the late Isao Takahata, is one of the less popular Ghibli films in the West. And after seeing it for the first, and possibly only time, I completely understand why. I don’t how popular it is in Japan, but since it features creatures that are relatively unknown in the U.S. but I imagine there is an appeal in Japan.
At its core, Pom Poko is a fairly cheesy, but entertaining, 1990s talking animal, pro-environmental cartoon. You know exactly the type I’m talking about, but this film adds a nice helping of Japanese folklore, death, violence, and…tanuki testicles. Because that’s what has been missing from children’s films —animal genitals.
It was, pun intended, balls to the walls weird.
Look, I understand that a tanuki’s testicles are a pretty vital part of the folklore – I’m not insulting Japanese culture, but for me, there is a huge mood dissonance between the tanuki trying to prevent their land and culture from being destroyed and smothering humans with their testicles.
I don’t know how to feel and I don’t know where to place this movie on the genre spectrum.
I was aware of this beforehand. But I guess, I didn’t expect it to be quite so prominent.
Japan’s attitude toward nudity is very different from America’s, so I get the changes made in the dub, but I was watching the subtitled version and it’s hilarious watching cartoon animals in a children’s movie talk so gleefully about their balls.
Pom Poko focuses on a clan of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) living in the Tama Hills area outside of Tokyo in the 1960s. They’re happy, carefree and just living their lives like they always have.
Then humans begin moving in. While they are concerned, they embrace certain aspects of human culture. Then 30 years later, with their land and resources dwindling, they are forced to take action despite in-fighting.
In order to do so, the tanuki have to re-learn the art of transformation to trick the humans. After a few unsuccessful attempts, resulting in death, two members of the clan decide to find the old masters for advice.
If this was an American children’s film, the masters would successfully help them and restore balance to the world. Instead, the tanukis’ most public attempt where they disguise themselves as ghosts and yokai is seen as a publicity stunt.
And in fact, nothing really does work. Though some of the tanuki try to go the eco-terrorist route and harm humans in order to drive them away, it takes a few of the tanuki ‘revealing’ themselves to have the humans create wildlife sanctuaries.
But it’s still too late. Many of the tanuki have been killed and the living are forced to split. The ones that can transform choose to live among the humans, those that can’t live in the wild.
It’s far from a happy ending. I apologize for the spoilers, but I should make this clear that despite being a children’s movie, it’s far from being your average Saturday morning cartoon. Both have lost something very important.
And there’s no way to get it back. It’s a surprisingly realistic look at how destructive humans have become to the environment, as well as a tale of how indigenous groups deal with colonization.
In Western cartoons, an impassioned plea or five magical rings plus the spirit of the Earth are all that is needed to save the rainforest, end hunger and bring world peace. But, in reality, it’s really that easy.
Pom Poko shows a more realistic view of the situation.
The movie shows that humans aren’t destroying the environment because they’re inherently evil or are obsessed with profit or get off on destroying the environment, but because they’re also doing what they need to for survive.
And it also shows that not all new things are bad. The tanuki happily adopt energy drinks, television and fast-food into their culture. Can’t blame them really.
But I still couldn’t get used to the rapid changes in tone in the movie. It made the pacing and plot feel very awkward, disjointed and at times a little confusing to follow.
However, the animation is very beautiful as per Ghibli standards, and the ghost parade manages to balance the fine line between scary, entertaining and charming.
I love how the tanuki are drawn in different styles depending on how they’re acting at the moment; the most common being their bipedal, half dressed, classic cartoon look.
Occasionally they turn into really chibi versions of themselves which is awkward but rare. And at times they look like tanuki would look in real life, on all fours with sharp teeth. It’s an interesting way of depicting it, and while at times it was busy and kind of weird, I liked it. I thought it was an interesting creative choice.
The plot wasn’t all that coherent. I didn’t understand the need for the 30-year time skip, other than real world timelines, and I wasn’t sure how long it had been since the tanuki had been able to transform. It seemed like this was something forgotten for more than a few decades and some characters disappear, without explanation.
Because of this, I didn’t get really all that emotional regarding character deaths.
There wasn’t enough time to process it or genuinely get to know the characters in my opinion. The movie does have a few genuinely emotional moments, but not many, and none of them are death related.
Perhaps it’s the cultural gap or perhaps it’s the way this movie has aged, but I just couldn’t really get into it. I will need to watch again at some point, but it’s not a priority.
And that’s the scoop!
Year of release: 1994
Length: 119 minutes
Director/Writer: Isao Takahata
Producer: Toshio Suzuki