“Mister Raccoon, Mister Raccoon
Can’t you play with me somehow?
No, I can’t I’m eating dinner now.
What’s for dinner? I want some!
I am eating pickled plum.
Can I have a little crumb?
Don’t be such a greedy bum. Get your own!”
What a lovable and weird movie, maybe the strangest in the Ghibli canon. It’s a delightfully childlike story, a comedy ensemble, a fantasy-history, an extrapolation of superstition, a folkloric curiosity, and the poster child for pessimistic environmentalism. Yet even the way it approaches Ghibli’s favorite subject of living in harmony with the natural world is unusual, since the story is told from the perspective not of humans but of animals who act like humans with all of our vices.
It isn’t the best movie by Ghibli but it has its own definitive charm. Is it funny? Obscene? Inappropriate? Crude? Bizarre? It’s just Pom Poko.
Pom Poko was directed by Isao Takahata and is a major departure from the Ghibli films we’ve seen from him before. It is absolutely nothing like Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. Yes, it is still set in Japan but it is reliant on myth rather than realism. The central characters of its large cast are all tanuki, or raccoons in the English Disney dub.
Almost everything in the movie needs explaining. Okay, here goes. Tanuki are real life animals:
They’re not badgers, ‘coons, hedgehogs, foxes, or dogs. In Japanese myth, tanuki are possessed of strange, supernatural abilities. They are master shapeshifters and like to play tricks. Though they’re mischievous, they are not cunning like kitsune (foxes), rather they are gullible, prone to laziness, and not too bright. They represent a kind of early form of comedy, the fools of nature. And “pompoko” is the sound of the animals supposedly drumming on their tummies.
Clearly this all carried over into this film. In Pom Poko, the raccoons are protectors of nature, yes, but conflicted over how to stop the humans and guard their homes. Furthermore, they are too fond of food and fun to be truly threatening. In many ways, they’re exactly like us: knowing what needs to be done but too lazy, too preoccupied by food and entertainment to do much about it. The joke’s on them and the joke’s on us.
Another… enormous contribution to the humorousness of tanuki, apparently, are their over-sized scrota, which are ridiculously exaggerated in art form. Actual, real-life tanuki do have large testicles. This doesn’t seem to be a historical obscenity in Japan but rather something funny to laugh at. Think of all those tanuki statues with witless faces, fat tummies, and huge… er… junk.
Now, with that in mind, calling the tanuki raccoons is not the only change made by Disney Studios, who decided to pass on Takahata Only Yesterday for the sake of avoiding awkward translation about menstruation, presumably. The tanuki are not technically raccoons. Raccoon-dog would’ve been more accurate but harder to lip-sync. Furthermore, Disney just couldn’t bear translating dialogue about the tanuki using their testicles as weapons or transforming them into objects, even though it’s visually obvious throughout the film, opting instead to call them “pouches”. They tried to pull the woolly balls over our eyes.
But, to give credit where it is due, Pom Poko must’ve been a difficult film to translate into English and present to the West. Drawing almost entirely from Japanese folk tales makes for a film as incomprehensible and bizarre to the US as America making a comedy about Paul Bunyan, Uncle Sam, the Jersey Devil, Johnny Appleseed, and Tall Tales and trying to show it to the Japanese. Disney did their best with this film to make it watchable for English-speaking world.
And it is, but prepare for a lot of “Whaaat?” moments, especially if you’re watching it with a group of friends or family. Even so, it’s incredibly endearing and it has a heart beneath some distinct cultural oddities which could put some viewers off. Most everyone is going to miss the parody of Japanese habits and the homages to Japanese art of antiquity, but hopefully you can make a conscious effort to just accept what you’re watching as different than what you’re used to and simply enjoy an enjoyable movie about animals trying to save their forest.
The story of Pom Poko is told via narration and falls into the structure of a history-epic. It spans several years in the pseudohistorical “Pom Poko era”. In Japanese the title is “Heisei-era Raccoon Dog War Pom Poko“.
The film begins idly enough with a family of tanuki living in an abandoned farmhouse in the Tama Hills. However, human development encroaches upon the land, destroying the forest and eliminating not only tanuki homes but also places where they can gather food. As resources become scarce, the tanuki families form up into factions and begin to war against each other for dominance. This is where we first see tanuki shapeshifting abilities.
The red army is led by Gonta, who is quite nearly a warlord, and the blue army is led by Seizaemon, a somewhat more clearheaded but impulsive raccoon. One of the tanuki, a female named Oroku, compels the others to put aside their battling and see the devastation around them. This is Japan in the 1960’s. It is a world with shrinking forests and wilderness. The land is being carved up to pave the way for residential buildings in a development project called New Tama near Tokyo.
A few ideas are put forward but the tanuki eventually settle on a two-fold plan: revive their ancient art of transformation, and begin to research the humans. Under the leadership of Oroku and the elder Osho, the young tanuki are taught how to shapeshift. Shoukichi, one of the youths, shows great promise. However, they’ve all got to train while fighting against their baser instincts for eating, making merriment, and mating.
Some of the younger raccoons are sent out for a test run in the nearby human community, transformed themselves as humans. It’s one of the first in a series of really funny and clever scenes in the film. The youths are accompanied by Oroku and Osho and they conduct their training almost like a driving test. Some of them lose concentration and slip back into their tanuki forms. Getting caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic or smelling some delicious food will do that.
It is also explained that raccoons use up a lot of energy maintaining their disguises and so they rely on fast-acting energy drinks in order to keep up their stamina. You can always tell if someone is a raccoon from the dark circles and bags under their eyes. The popularity of energy drinks is almost due entirely to tanuki purchasing them to pose as humans. Ha!
Other tanuki, Bunta and Tamasaburo, are sent to search out the transformation masters, skilled elders who can help to teach and save the tanuki. While they wait for the masters, the tanuki of Tama Hills begin to wage a secret war against the humans, using their tricks, illusions, and shapeshifting to terrify, sabotage, and even kill the construction workers near their woods.
Yeah there’s a weird dichotomy of tones which doesn’t derail Pom Poko. Somehow it just keeps going, making you uncomfortable now, then sad, giggly, nostalgic. It’s surprisingly engaging when it needs to be, when it soars high above what it seems to be as a mere “funny cartoon”.
This is yet another film which demonstrates Studio Ghibli’s versatility and their skill at adapting almost anything to animation. Pom Poko is at least proof that there’s a bridge that can be built between cultures to convey the kind of message anyone can understand.
That underlies the differences between these two directors, Takahata and Miyazaki. Miyazaki is clearly the more famous with Takahata left with a smaller body of work of more obscure films. However, the other difference is in the way the two directors tell their stories and get their messages across.
In Miyazaki’s films, the themes can be complex and hard to nail down, lying under layers of whimsical characters and settings. Some of his films require multiple viewings to really find out what they’re actually saying. Not all, but some. Takahata on the other hand likes to smack you in the face with his themes, and he hits hard and heavy. He’s straight forward. Take Grave of the Fireflies for example. It doesn’t get much heavier than that and it is a film that Miyazaki wouldn’t seem to make himself.
In Pom Poko, the central theme doesn’t seem to develop or mature, it just goes in hopeless circles, until a final plea is made. There’s even the breaking of the fourth wall. We’re treated to the laziness and celebrations of the raccoons but we don’t smile wholeheartedly with them because we know what’s really at stake and how little they can do or are willing to do about it.
What’s in store for them is inexorable and Takahata never lets you forget it in this bittersweet film.
He chose an adept way to get this message across. This isn’t Fern Gully. By making raccoons the point-of-view characters, Takahata set Pom Poko in the same group as Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs and Watership Down or Disney’s Bambi. We see the harshness of their world as a direct result of careless, selfish human existence. However, because the raccoons go a step further and embody much of that same carelessness and fondness for partying instead of getting things done, they are responsible for the destruction of their forest in a different way. They are depicted as equally selfish, partying after learning of the deaths of humans.
Even Takahata’s endings seem to resonate louder than several of Miyazaki’s. Taking the recently reviewed Porco Rosso into consideration, Miyazaki’s flying comedy seems to just… end. The same is true of his My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. That’s the way life is, yes, and it’s his own unique way of telling stories. But with Takahata, there’s a unique strength and impact to his endings. The most moving scenes in Pom Poko are right at the end.
It may take a little extra effort to appreciate Pom Poko for what it is, but even after watching it for the fifth time or so, the film still resonates as both a warning sign of what may come and an outcry against the dangerous, irresistible cycle our world is caught up in.
The 8-bit Review
We are treated to plenty of soft backgrounds: verdant forests, cherry blossom petals floating on the wind, summer green and fresh, the colors of autumn, and snow falling in the winters. Since several years pass in the film, we get to see each of the seasons brilliantly brought to life by expert animators.
Studio Ghibli does not disappoint with the whimsy in this film. Visually (if you can get past constantly looking at nutsacks), the tanuki are adorable and the variations between their personalities and physical appearances are endearing. Making them all different makes this film work, as without the traits it would be tough to tell any of them apart.
The scenes with the raccoons frolicking in meadows and dashing through underbrush in their natural forms looks like it required some skill to animate. The creatures look lifelike and their behavior and mannerisms seem photo-realistic. As a study of the movement of animals, Pom Poko contains a lot of impressive animation.
But the raccoons do not merely stay in their natural forms. Strangely, there’s a hyper-cartoony form they seem to revert into whenever they get hurt or are acting submissively. As I understand it this is pulled from a popular manga in Japan.
The visual highlight of the film is of course the art of transformation. It’s delightful to see the raccoons as humans, with unique facial features in tact, but the process of their transforming is never uninteresting to the eye. Watching them seamlessly morph from one object or person to another is magical. You get the sense that their weight and center of gravity really do change.
One of the central scenes in the film where all of the tanuki pool their energies together to perform a grand illusion is amazing, though the animation becomes increasingly simplified and even rudimentary. The animation chiefly serves comedy so it is to be expected that this isn’t the most visually impressive Ghibli film, even in spite of the transformations.
Yet another Isao Takahata film without Joe Hisaishi. While Hisaishi’s penchant for sweeping scores is nowhere to be found in Pom Poko, perhaps that’s for the best. Pom Poko simply doesn’t function in the same way that the films Hisaishi has scored do. So while Hisaishi and his sense of “the epic” is missing, what is here in its place is a soundtrack that is smaller, much more ethnic, and extremely energetic.
The raccoons are constantly throwing parties every time they scare the humans. They take pleasure in frightening the humans and even celebrating the deaths of the construction workers. A lot of that causes their celebration to feel hollow, and the music reflects that with its somber pieces and its upbeat rhythms between its tracks.
Where Pom Poko suffers most is when its characters sing, which happens quite often. The dubbers had the challenge of having to sync up the rhythm of the animation with intonations and cadence of the English language. Anyone who has heard English and Japanese knows that they almost couldn’t be more different. Even the rhythm of speaking shows a huge contrast between the two. Thus when Osho or Oroku sing their songs to teach the younger raccoons, there’s a strange uneasiness to the pace of their words. Without being able to edit the animation itself, it’s the best Disney could manage.
If anyone knows the lyrics to the ending song, please share a link with me. I’d be forever indebted. The song is the perfect close out the film. I don’t know the words to this final song but it has enough feeling to convey what it needs to to me across the boundaries of language and culture.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
After putting aside their differences, the raccoons of Tama Hills come up with a 5-year plan to revive the ancient art of transformation and research humans, while sending out their two ambassadors to seek out the masters of transformation on the islands of Sado and Shikoku. The training in transformation goes well for a few but there are many tanuki who cannot transform successfully at all. Those who can are taken into the human communities to try to blend in.
While they wait for the masters to arrive, Gonta, ever brash and furious at the loss of his childhood running grounds, proposes that the raccoons use their illusions and disguises to sabotage the construction on New Tama. During the night, he and Shoukichi (a talented transformer) and others cause accidents, turning trucks and tractors off the road and even causing a few deaths.
Though the elders want to have some moments of silence for those who lost their lives among the humans, the raccoon population is ecstatic at having “saved their forest”. Emblematic of their plight, their celebration is premature when they discover that the humans fully intend to continue on with the development of New Tama. The raccoons did play upon some superstitious people but business is business, after all. In the rush of disappointment, Gonta, who was hailed as a hero, is trampled and injured for a year.
The raccoons do their best to keep haunting their woods and the nearby construction site, but the necessities of life prevail over them: searching for food, having cubs, etc. All of their hard work terrorizing the construction sites is soon forgotten. “The media quickly moved on to the usual celebrity and political scandals.” A little social commentary in here, for sure. To be fair, the raccoons quickly lose sight of their goals of eliminating the humans, too, once they begin to think of what life would be like without human food, like tempura.
It isn’t until the three masters of Shikoku isle return with Tamasaburo that things kick back into gear. The three masters report that on Shikoku the humans treat tanuki with respect and even worship them. They teach the raccoons of Tama Hills how to harness the full potential of their illusions and stage Operation Specter, a massive, complex parade of supernatural monsters, yokai, demons, spirits, gods, spooks, and ghosts. The intent is to horrify the humans into abandoning Tama Hills and the New Tama homes.
However, the intensity of the mental energy demanded by the parade kills one of the elders, Master Gyobu, and the humans seem unfazed by the sudden onset of the supernatural. A case of modern people being desensitized by entertainment, I’d wager. To add insult to injury, the president of an amusement park being built takes credit for the raccoons’ illusions and claims it was a free parade meant to advertise for the new park called Wonderland. The raccoons are obviously heartbroken. Their faith in the remaining masters wanes. The eldest of them, Master Hage, at 999 years old goes senile and starts an isolationist Buddhist dancing cult.
The other, Master Kincho, meets with a fox named Ryutaro who asserts that the only way to save themselves from death is to live among the humans as humans in disguise.
Ryutaro tries to make a business deal with the president of Wonderland and get the raccoons with transformation abilities to work for the amusement park. Master Kincho gives the perfect illustration to present this audacious idea to the raccoons: he asks how you can balance an egg on end, and then shows that it can only be done by breaking a bit of the shell. It’s a picture of the raccoons having to break everything that defines them, their identities, in order to assume human lives like the foxes decided to. The raccoons largely reject the idea and in fact get their own little revenge on the president of Wonderland.
There is a final showdown between the police and pig-headed Gonta and his followers, who stage a final effort to protect the forests by posing as human eco-terrorists and environmentalists. Gonta recites the code of the kamikaze. Appropriate for what he is about to lead his men to do. They eventually face the riot police in battle and use their transformative powers but fail and perish. Not the smartest thing to stand up to armed forces with just your balls for defense, but then again, these are dim-witted tanuki…
Osho and Oroku show themselves to a reporter to lay claim to the parade as their own work, and ask that the humans leave Tama Hills alone.
With the death of Gonta and the failure of the masters, Master Hage turns his “pouch” into a grand ship and sails away over the sea with many raccoons that could not transform. The others watch them float out over the sea, knowing that this is their final voyage. They are sailing into the next world by dooming themselves to starvation.
In Tama Hills, the remaining tanuki decide to have a little fun by using their powers to transform the countryside into their memories of what it used to look like. This is the most moving scene in the whole movie. As they stand there, the rice fields, the forests, the thatched houses, the country folk begin to spring up everywhere. The residents of New Tama stare on in shock. One woman sees her mother (presumably dead) walking down the dirt roads and calls out to her. I get choked up every time. The raccoons see themselves as children and rush out of their hiding places, fooled by their own illusion, only to realize that it is all too late.
With no other choice, the raccoons that can transform abandon the others who cannot and go to try to live as humans, like the foxes. The film ends when Shoukichi, as a human, comes home from work to discover a raccoon nearby. He follows it and comes into a grassy area where many of the raccoons are partying in a small group. He transforms back into his tanuki form and joins them, and it is revealed that they’re standing in a golf course in the middle of a residential area. The final words break the fourth wall as Ponkichi asks those watching the film to be aware of raccoons and other animals who don’t have the ability to transform.
We see that it wasn’t all in vain as some humans in New Tama demanded natural areas be maintained, parks and preserves for the woodland animals that were displaced.
Clearly, the theme of Pom Poko is its environmental message. It comes at it in several different ways. It challenges the flippant media to report on what is important and not just what is popular. By never thematically condoning it, it seems to criticize Gonta’s militaristic approach to wiping out the humans, which is just as insensitive and vile as the humans doing that to the raccoons. It vilifies the foxes who forsook their own kind who couldn’t transform and sacrificed their own identities for personal satisfaction and safety. It accuses laziness and carelessness of being at the very least unhelpful in making any real change in the world, such as in the case of the tanuki themselves who end up totally unable to stop human development.
So what is the moral behavior which Pom Poko lauds for the audience? I came away with a mixture of two ideas: be more aware of the needs of the natural world like some of the humans in Tama Hills came to understand, and also learn to adapt. There has got to be a way to coexist with other lifeforms rather than rape the natural world, but it will require us to transform the way we live our lives uniquely. No, we don’t have magic powers like the tanuki, but we have other means available to us.
Both cute and depressing, pessimistic, with a little bit of black humor now and then, Pom Poko does not end well and even halfway through the film you know that the raccoons’ cause is hopeless. There’s a scene in which three raccoons shapeshift into three construction workers and chase the workers on a circular stair: a visual representation of the futility of the raccoons’ actions. Even with their magical abilities, they can do nothing to stop the march of civilization any more than real-world animals can. Sure there is the glimmer of innocence at the end when some humans become aware of the needs of the animals around them, but the hollow celebration of the tanuki as the credits roll is the equivalent of “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die“.
Family Friendliness: 5/10
I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Pom Poko as a children’s film, if only because it is so bleak and bitter in the end. This is a great lesson to teach children about the value of coexisting with the natural world but the way the film operates, its brand of humor, and how long its runtime is seem contrary to what a child would enjoy. At least to me.
There is at one point a brief glimpse of a nudie magazine. But the big one is the testes. Testicles are depicted but in a non-sexual, matter-of-fact manner. Still, it’s easy to see why not too many people, especially parents, would be pleased with it. I’ve read elsewhere that nudity is perceived slightly differently in Japan, but I’ve never been there so I can’t comment on it. I’ll say only that at first it bothered me a little and it’s not something which can be ignored, but it isn’t hard to accept it as a matter of something from a separate culture. I wouldn’t watch a film like this if these were human testicles, and though anthropomorphism makes it come close, it’s not the same thing. Everyone is going to feel differently about it, but they let it all hang out.
What a cast. This movie has a lot of characters and the voice actors Disney pooled together bring the varied personalities to life. Shokichi, the young raccoon with a knack for transformation is played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Gonta the warlike is played with characteristic gruffness by Clancy Brown. Tress MacNeille voices Oroku, Kevin Michael Richardson voices Bunta, John DiMaggio voices the fox Ryutaro, Andre Stojka voices old Osho, Brian Posehn voices Hayashi, Wally Kurth voices Tamasaburo… whew… Brian George, Jess Harnell, David Oliver Cohen, Jillian Bowen, Russi Taylor, Marc Donato, and (as a particular highlight) Maurice LaMarche as the deadpan narrator (the voice of Brain from Pinky & the Brain). I especially enjoyed him guiding us through the years of the Pom Poko era, providing explanations of the tanuki way of life.
This is not the first nor the last time that Ghibli will craft a story about living in harmony with nature, yet here it is told in a very distinct way. Even comparing it with Miyazaki’s environmental masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, it’s clear that the approach is entirely different. The one is a dark fantasy. This is a comedy. Mononoke relies on horror and the warning that nature is hostile. Pom Poko relies on satire and the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Even though its theme is a popular one, this is clearly a unique movie. And it seems to me to be the most Japanese of all the Ghibli films, with tons of references that are lost on me as an American viewer.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I fully respect that some consider Pom Poko difficult to enjoy. I personally found it to be simultaneously adorable and heartbreaking. Pom Poko, despite appearances, has a heavy hitting message, and an important one. Furthermore, through its anthropomorphic characters, we get a glimpse at our own failures. So even though it is incredibly weird (some have said too weird), it takes a long look at what’s most important to us as a society: entertainment and fun or making sure there’s a world left for our children and their children to enjoy.
It’s not my favorite Studio Ghibli film and not one I return to too often to watch, but I think it deserves to be seen at least once!
Aggregated Score: 7.5
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