A MONTH OF GHIBLI #8: Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko (Pom Poko, 1994)

Shape-shifting tanukis with big balls are on a mission to save their homes in this hilarious folklore-based comedy.

Who made it?: Isao Takahata (Director/Writer), Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki (Producers), Hakuhodo/NTV/Tokuma Shoten.

Who’s in it?: English voice cast – Maurice LaMarche, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, J.K. Simmons, Tress MacNeille, Clancy Brown, Jess Harnell, Kevin Michael Richardson.

Tagline: None.

IMDb rating: 7.4/10.

The tanuki – Japanese racoon dog in English – is one of Japan’s most prominent folklore symbols. In these legends, they are seen as mischievous and happy-go-lucky creatures that can shape-shift into anything they wish. Isao Takahata lightens up from his usual threads of realism and shines a spotlight on a very fascinating fable with Pom Poko, an incredibly strange yet hilarious fantasy film that is heavy on environmental messages.

The story chronicles the struggle of a group of tanukis as they fight to protect their homes from an ongoing suburban project outside of Tokyo. With a limited supply of food and diminishing shelters, the tanukis fight amongst themselves until one of the elders suggest that they use their shape-shifting powers to drive the humans away.

Veteran animation director Takahata has been working with the medium since the 1960s and has a good amount of films under his belt, even before the founding of Studio Ghibli. Under said company, his efforts have always been about real-life through the beauty of animation. Being so familiar with his realistic style, it’s a bit jarring to see him tackle something that is fantasy-based, an area his colleague Hayao Miyazaki excels at.

While you don’t really need to know the folklore its based on to understand and enjoy it, you’re going to have to accept first hand that these tanukis have testicles dangling between their legs. It’s unavoidable because that is part of the legend. With Ghibli’s usually high-quality animation, it really shows off the tanuki’s abilities, and there are a couple of scenes where they use that delicate part as a tool or weapon. It’s very offbeat when you see it the first time but you will eventually get used to it.

While it is a make-believe flick, Takahata doesn’t fully abandon his grounded approach. The director still keeps his trademark neo-realist inspired characteristics intact – being set in an actual area in Tokyo and focusing on a genuine dilemma. The most impressive thing is that Takahata manages to delicately balance the strange and goofy aspects of the film without letting up the looming environmental issue. Its mostly a comedy but it has a good amount of serious moments. Even if the tanukis are usually jovial creatures, they will go so far as killing innocent people to protect their homes. The movie cleverly presents two different viewpoints to contrast the comedy and drama by showing the tanukis with both a cartoony, anthropomorphic appearance, and their actual animal forms, depending on the situation. The ecological message doesn’t feel too preachy for the most part because it is from the viewpoint of animals, but it does slightly stretch itself with a fourth-wall message towards the end.

In terms of characters, there are plenty. Following a large pack of tanukis with their own distinct personalities is a great journey for the audience, but they’re fun to watch because they are much more interesting as a group. The highlights of the film do come from these creatures interacting with each other, and it’s amusing to see how they work together to scare humans away from their habitat. The shape-shifting sequences, where they disguise themselves as humans or objects, is another demonstration of Ghibli’s fantastic animation. Pom Poko is a hilarious film and that is all thanks to how creative and downright weird the tanuki transformations are. They can change any part of their anatomies, and as I’ve mentioned before, they can alter their balls as well. A memorable visual scene is where an army of tanukis use their man parts as a trampoline and parachutes. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on film, but man, it is damn hysterical.

If you want to see something unusual where you laugh at it because of how outlandish it is, Pom Poko is the go-to flick. Its definitely the weirdest and funniest film I’ve seen in Ghibli’s portfolio and one of Isao Takahata’s best efforts. While humorous, it is also a well-meaning and, at times, hard-hitting environmental lecture. It balances the comedy and drama well, the tanukis are a lot of fun to watch, and the animation, of course, is fantastic. You might be put off by how strange it is but I guarantee that you will find yourself laughing because of it.

Ghibli Gold

Attack of the giant testicles.

Useless Trivia

(via IMDB and Wikipedia)
  • As the tanuki fly off in a train of spirits and ghosts, immediately before beginning project “Poltergeist”, characters from other Ghibli works can be seen, including that of Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Porco Roso’s Seaplane from Porco Rosso (1992), Totoro on his top from My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and young Taeko from Only Yesterday (1991) can be seen flying just above the winged skeleton.
  • Prominent testicles are an integral part of tanuki folklore, and they are shown and referred to throughout the film, and also used frequently in their shape-shifting. This remains unchanged in the DVD release, though the English dub (but not the subtitles) refers to them as “pouches.” Also, in the English dub and subtitles, the animals are never referred to as “raccoon dogs”, which is the more accurate English name for the tanuki, instead they are incorrectly referred to as just “raccoons.”

R.G. Villanueva

Contributing game and film writer for SquabbleBox. Occasional DJ and instrumentalist, amateur programmer, all-around lazy guy.

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