An iconic part of Japanese folklore is the Tanuki. These raccoon dog type animals are steeped in myth which details their ability to shapeshift and cheeky nature. Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata draw on this vast well of material to craft Pom Poko, a movie with tanukis galore!
Pom Poko (an onomatopoeic word derived from the tanuki pounding their own bellies like drums) details the struggles of the tanuki in 1990s Japan when there was aggressive urban development throughout the country, and particularly in Tokyo. With their forest threatened by construction sites, the mischievous animals seek to disrupt building wherever possible using their illusion magic to scare away workers. But when every worker they chase off gets replaced, they resolve to summon the grand masters of illusion to help them up their game before it is too late.
As ever, Takahata doesn’t miss the opportunity to make a point here about environmental conservation. Buried not too subtly under the fun and bickering animals are themes that criticise how humans tear down nature around them without a thought as to the after effects of their destruction. Mostly this is bubbling under the surface but at times the pace does grind to a halt so that Takahata can get on his pulpit.
Pom Poko is a frustrating film because it showcases both the best and worst of having a director with tons of ideas. Where this pays huge dividends is the creativity of the animation. The gleeful abandon in which the tanuki transform is always delightful and even bordering on horror movie material at times. A poor builder terrified due to being surrounded by tanuki’s disguised as faceless humans is a lot of fun to watch, as is when they assume the form of two ghostly twins who run shrieking around the men’s cabin. When focused on the ‘scare away the humans’ part, the movie works very well.
Yet, there are chunks here that could just have been cut. When several tanuki are set out to summon the grand masters they get promptly forgotten about for a good half an hour of run time, yet when we do cut to them reaching their destinations these sections bring little to the movie. Similarly, the last act suddenly brings in devious humans and shapeshifting foxes (‘kitsune’) which adds another 20 minutes of plot to little effect. You feel the length of this movie as narratively it never recovers from the incredible peak of the ghost parade.
Oh my, the ghost parade. Not only is this the highlight of the movie, it’s also possibly a top 5 highlight of all Studio Ghibli movies. The tanuki decide to put on a huge illusion parade to scare and / or impress the humans to their existence and cause. This involves a lengthy scene where the animators just go all out. Dragons, goblins, darumas, one legged lamps, figures with rotating heads, giant cats and frogs: if it features at all in Japanese mythology then then it will be here. Clearly these figures will mean more to the Japanese or a scholar of such things, but even with western eyes the whole section is a delight.
You might notice I haven’t mentioned any characters. That’s because whilst there are some key tanuki, for the most part they are interchangeable. The exception is aggressive chief Gonta who always advocates violence and to attack with murderous intent. It’s clear that such an attitude is doomed to fail, but his representation of bloody minded singular intent most likely nods to Takahata’s view that going all in rarely works.
There is an arguable lead in Shoukichi, a character who advocates moderate responses, but he acts more as a proxy for the everyman rather than a self-realised character. The story is the collective tanuki (nature) versus humanity (industry), not the story of individuals within it.
Pom Poko is a one of a kind experience and definitely worth a watch. It’s laid back attitude makes it a fun movie even during the finger-wagging and certainly you won’t see another film with magical testicles. Oh, didn’t I mention that? The tanukis’ power derives from their genitalia which frequently inflate, transform, or (on one notable occasion) get used as space hopper like weapons. The English dub referring to these as ‘pouches’ isn’t fooling anyone. Top that, Disney.
Words by Michael Record